Joanne Collins, longtime teacher

In the fall of 1969, a flashy 21 year old fresh out of college, Joanne Sigalos, drove up to S.E. Gross School in her brand new, forest green Corvette Stingray convertible as a new third-grade teacher. 

Last month a 66-year-old grandmother, Joanne Collins, walked out of Brook Park School for the last time after a 45-year career teaching in Brookfield-LaGrange Park Elementary School District 95.

Collins is believed to be the second-longest serving teacher in District 95 history, trailing only her friend Lorraine Housa, who retired in 2011 after teaching for 51 years in the district.

“I am so thankful to God for giving me good health to be able to do the job for that long and for my family that was so supportive and putting me in a district where I met the most wonderful people, teachers, parents and kids,” said Collins in an interview last week. “I was so fortunate to be where I was.”

That Corvette convertible made a big impression on the kids in Collins’ first class.

“We definitely remember that Corvette Stingray for sure,” said Russ Kesman, a dentist who was in Collins’ first class at Gross. “She definitely made an impression that has lasted all these years. She was a very tough teacher.  I don’t know if she mellowed in her later time there, but she definitely was a disciplinarian when I had her.”

How tough was she? Well, when Kesman and two other students misbehaved one too many times, she took away gym from them for the last three months of the school year.

“I don’t know what I could have possibly done, but she took away gym for the rest of the year in about March,” Kesman recalled recently. “I can still remember her saying that: ‘No gym for the rest of the year.'”

But there was no hard feelings from Kesman, who was happy that years later Collins taught both his son and daughter. Collins loved teaching the children of former students of hers.

“She expected a lot from us, but we learned a lot from her,” Kesman said. 

After she had a child of her own Collins became a little less strict.

“As soon as I had a family and grandkids, suddenly there was no more black and white, there was that gray,” Collins said. “There was a different appreciation of the child when I had a family.”

Discipline, she says, was her least favorite part of the job.

Collins spent 35 years teaching at Gross School before moving over to Brook Park to teach fourth grade for the last 10 years. At Gross she taught third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades and played a major role in transforming Gross from a K-8 school into a middle school. She also taught aerobic dance for 10 years a couple evenings a week in Riverside and a couple days a week at lunchtime at Gross, back when teachers had an hour for lunch.

Collins, who grew up in Beloit, Wisconsin, and the north side of Chicago, came to District 95 almost by accident. She had planned to teach in the Chicago Public Schools and upon graduating from Loyola University in 1969 was hired to teach at a school about two blocks from the old Chicago Stadium on the West Side of Chicago.

But her father didn’t want her to teach where riots had occurred the previous year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. She was working her usual summer job in the shoe department at the State Street Marshall Field’s store when a coworker suggested she apply for a job in District 95, which had a vacancy.

“I said, ‘Brookfield, where’s that?” Collins recalled.

But she went out for an interview and got the job. Her salary that first year was $6,500.

But Collins always wanted to be teacher.

“It was just something inside of me” Collins said. “I always wanted to do it. Always talked about it. Of course my mother encouraged it. Right from the start it just felt very comfortable.”

After 45 years, however, Collins decided to call it quits. In part, she said she retired because teaching wasn’t as fun. High-stakes testing and Common Core added to the stress level.

“All the government regulations that they have put on teachers today, all the testing, it has taken the joy, in some respects, and the freedom away from the teacher,” Collins said. “It seems like all year long that’s all we’re doing: testing, testing, testing. It’s very different than it used to be. You can’t even take a breath anymore.”

A retirement incentive offered by the district helped cement her decision to call it quits, and there was one more factor — the early morning commute from Naperville to Brookfield was getting harder and harder.

“I could not get up at five o’clock anymore,” Collins said. 

Kids know more but are less mature than they were when she started teaching, Collins says. She thinks that it’s tougher to be a kid today. Both parents typically work, and there are more single parent families, says Collins. Teachers, she says, end up taking the blame for student failures.

The structure is not there. I don’t know how these kids manage today, I really don’t,” said Collins. “Many parents do it beautifully and many do not, and I think it’s unfair to blame the staff and teachers for poor performance.”

Collins loved her students and her colleagues, several of whom she’s maintained friendships with since the beginning. Her colleagues at Brook Park are exceptional, she said.

“I’ve never seen a group of teachers who are more loving and caring toward those kids,” Collins said. “It’s really a family at Brook Park.”

One day during the last week of school all the teachers and staff wore T-shirts with “1969” written across the chest to honor Collins.

In retirement Collins hopes to travel with her husband, babysit her grandsons and eventually find some other activity to challenge her mentally.

But she will miss teaching.

“To me, I never felt like I was going to work,” Collins said. “Everybody would say ‘Oh, are you going to work today?’ I would always say, ‘I’ve got to go to school.’ It was never work.”