She first walked into a classroom at Komarek School in January of 1971. She was a 22-year-old student teacher assigned to a second grade class. Richard Nixon was president and the United States was bogged down in the Vietnam War. Most kids went home for lunch and few mothers worked. Classes had 24 or 25 students.
When Jan Greenenwald walks out of Komarek this week, 45 years later, much has changed. No one goes home for lunch, most mothers work, class sizes are smaller, student demographics have changed, and President Barack Obama, visiting Vietnam last week, ended an arms embargo.
But one thing has remained constant throughout more than four decades: Jan Greenenwald has always been willing to go the extra mile for kids, whether that meant nagging parents or hosting her class at a year-end barbecue party at her home.
After nearly half a century of teaching at Komarek, with just a few years off when her two children were very young, Greenenwald, 67, is retiring this year … sort of.
She is believed to have taught at Komarek longer than any other teacher in the school’s history.
“She’s kind of a legend here at Komarek School,” said Principal Tom Criscione, who also is retiring this year.
“Komarek has always been very dear to my heart,” Greenenwald said. “I mean I grew up here.”
As a senior at Northern Illinois University, she was originally scheduled to student teach in Brookfield but because too many student teachers were already assigned there she and 10 other student teachers were sent to Komarek.
Then superintendent Jack Riddle and principal Ray Kadlec were so impressed with Greenenwald, they hired to her to teach third grade that fall. Since then, she has taught kindergarten, first, second, third and fourth grades. Since 2007, when she retired as a full-time classroom teacher, she has worked part-time providing extra help to kids in the primary grades.
“I like the little ones,” she said.
And the little ones love her, despite, or maybe because of, her reputation as the strictest teacher in the school. There is no slouching in a class taught by Mrs. G, as many kids called her.
“She has a high standard of discipline, but her heart is as big as gold,” said Komarek third grade teacher Mary Ann Parolin whom Greenenwald mentored when she came to Komarek 15 years ago. “The kids love her. She demands a lot from students and she gets it. They sit up straight. They fold their hands. They know when she’s ready to work, but they also know that she has a very light side to her as well and they can joke around with her when it’s appropriate.”
Greenenwald has been recognized by the state of Illinois as a master teacher.
“Jan was always an exceptional teacher,” said Neil Pellicci who served first as a principal and then superintendent for 28 years at Komarek before retiring a year ago. “She really put the kids first.”
Greenenwald always had firm control of her classroom.
“I think part of it is my voice quality,” she explained. “I know I’m pretty much the strictest, but I have rapport with children where they know I’m sincere and I really care about them.”
She always set high expectations and didn’t hesitate to reprimand, usually in a nice way, a child for goofing off in the hallway or being late for school even if that child was not in her class.
She wanted things done right. When Parolin showed up to an empty classroom, bereft of supplies, when she was starting at Komarek, Greenenwald marched down to the school office and demanded that the new teacher be given staplers, duct tape, and other supplies.
Former students remember her fondly and many have stayed in touch over the years.
“She’s my, by far, favorite teacher,” said Amy Glowienke who was in Greenenwald’s class nearly 40 years and now lives in Yorkville. “I felt like she had the most impact on my life. She was tough, but she was very kind. I still communicate with her today. She just has a heart for students and kids. That’s her passion and you can just tell.”
And she would do whatever was necessary to help students.
“She’s always looking for a way to help the children succeed no matter what the issue,” said third-grade teacher Jackie Gouty who has taught at Komarek for 30 years. “She takes the time and the energy to become an important part of all these children’s lives, not only in the classroom, but outside of the classroom.”
Greenenwald says one key to successful teaching is getting parents involved. She communicated constantly with parents, calling them on the phone to give them updates, both good and bad. And she expected, demanded really, that parents hold up their end of the bargain.
“She was very clear in her mind as far as what parent responsibilities were and she would make sure parents understood that,” Pellicci said. “If permission slips weren’t coming back or kids weren’t coming in with the homework on a day-to-day basis, she would be very good about contacting parents and, in a nice way, letting them know, ‘C’mon we’ve got to work together on this for your child’s success and if we’re a good team your child is going to benefit.’ There were many times if she felt a parent wasn’t doing the job, she would invite the parent out for lunch or breakfast and just kind of tell her that, hey, you’re not doing your job. Your kid needs this or that.”
If parents didn’t call her back, she would hound them.
“Parent communication is a key to success in teaching,” Greenenwald said. “I was always making phone calls at night. If I didn’t get them at home, I would call them at work. There was nothing stopping me. If it was for the child, I was going to do it. I was always able to get parents to work with me. I was very honest with parents.
And she used the phone.
“If a parent emailed me, I still called because I feel that emotional part can be good or bad in an email, so I always preferred personal contact,” Greenenwald said. “And in today’s world that’s hard because people just don’t answer their phones, but I’m just really persistent. I don’t give up. Maybe I just wear people down.”
North Riverside Village Clerk Kathy Ranieri had Greenenwald for a teacher in third or fourth grade, and Greenenwald has taught, in some capacity, all four of Ranieri’s children. Greenenwald has taught multiple generations of a number of North Riverside families.
“She’s just a phenomenal teacher,” Ranieri said. “I have seen a lot of teachers, both high school and grade school, and she has really made an impact on both myself and my kids.”
Ranieri, who as a hairdresser does Greenenwald’s hair, knows what it is like to have a child in her classroom.
“She was one of the teachers where you dreaded answering the phone because she was always making those phone calls, sometimes good, sometimes bad,” Ranieri said. In class, she made sure her students paid attention.
“I don’t always call on kids with their hand up,” she noted.
She especially enjoys working with kids who are struggling a bit. She understands what that is like. As a grammar school student on the Southwest Side of Chicago following in the footsteps of a very gifted older brother school did not come easy for Greenenwald.
“I was always very insecure in school and I just didn’t feel good about myself,” she recalled. “Some teachers said pretty unkind things.”
Her fourth grade teacher told her she had passed by the skin of her teeth.
“The scars never really go away,” she said. “It is true; a teacher makes a difference in students’ lives. I still don’t think I’m very smart, from grammar school.”
When she was in fifth grade, her grandfather died and she missed a day of school. The next day her fifth grade teacher told her that she couldn’t afford to miss a single day of school.
“It was at that moment that I thought, ‘I’m going to be a teacher and I’m going to change the world.’ I always took the lower kids because I wanted to,” she said. “I could motivate those kids. Maybe because I knew how they felt. I was just able to get them to feel good about themselves and the better they felt about themselves, the more they were able to achieve.”
She sometimes told her students that she, too, struggled in school at first.
“I used to share with them that I had a hard time reading,” she said.
But Greenenwald also made school fun for her students by having a beach day in the middle of winter where kids would bring towels and dress in summer clothes and she would spray water on them.
At the end of every school year, she would lead her entire class on the nearly two-mile walk to her LaGrange Park home where they had a big party.
“You knew how to act when you were at her house,” Ranieri recalled. “You were afraid of her, but you had a great time. We had water balloons and she fed us. She treated us like we were her own kids.”
Next year Greenenwald will supervise student teachers in the Chicago area from Grand Canyon University. And she plans on substitute teaching at Komarek because, well, it’s home and that’s where she longs to be and she still loves working with kids.
Some things have hardly changed in 45 years. Her hair, for one thing.
“Same color, same style,” Ranieri said. “That’s Jan. She has not changed. All the way down to her style of teaching, and she was one of the best. We need more Jan Greenenwalds.”