By Bob Skolnik
For the past 35 years Judy Sayre has been presiding over classroom No. 3 at Blythe Park School in Riverside and working her magic teaching first graders.
She taught them to read, to add and subtract, but, most importantly, taught them to enjoy school. She made learning fun. Her infectious enthusiasm and natural rapport with children made students feel safe, secure and loved in her bright classroom.
On June 7, Sayre walked out of classroom No. 3 for the last time as a full-time teacher. Sayre is retiring, ending a 41-year teaching career, the last 38 in Riverside Elementary School District 96.
Come August there will be a new teacher in the classroom for the first time since 1983.
Since that time, Sayre has taught approximately 1,000 children and influenced nearly all their lives. She introduced them to the rigors of school in a kind and gentle way and enveloped her classroom in a warm, nurturing atmosphere.
On the morning of June 4, the entire school assembled in the gym, along with many parents and some former students, for an all school meeting and to show their appreciation and crown her Queen for a Day.
Michael Maciejewski, 40, was a student in one of Sayre's first classes at Blythe Park. His daughter, Mia, is in Sayre's final first-grade class and another daughter, Alexa, was in Sayre's first-grade class two years ago. On June 4, Alexa got to help put the crown on Queen Sayre's head.
"It's kind of neat that my kids were taught by the same teacher [that I had]," Maciejewski said. "Some teachers coast their last couple years, but she's really helped my kids, especially the one up there now, with reading and getting her the extra help that she needed."
Tammy Cavaliere, who was in the same first-grade class as Maciejewski, also has experienced Sayre as both a student and a parent. Sayre has taught Cavaliere's two daughters.
"She's a great teacher, Cavaliere said. "It's going to be hard to take over this position."
Cavaliere, like other former students, remembers gathering around Sayre's rocking chair to listen to her read stories. She said that Sayre always had a firm handle on her classroom.
"She keeps them all in line, but in a very loving way," Cavaliere said. "They all love her."
Sayre read to her students as much as she could. Kids would gather on the carpet around Sayre's rocking chair while Sayre read such classics as "Charlotte's Web," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and Dr. Seuss books.
"Everything was a learning experience without us knowing it," said 36-year-old Joe Dvorak, who was in Sayre's first-grade class 30 years ago.
Three of Karen Magee's children were taught by Sayre. Her two older children, who are now both in college, had Sayre as their first-grade teacher and Magee's youngest, Anne, was in Sayre's class this year.
"She is patient and kind, and gentle," Magee said. "The thing that I love most about Judy Sayre as a teacher is that she gives the kids a passion, like a passion to read and a passion to learn and she makes it interesting for them."
Sayre loves butterflies, so they are part of the first-grade science curriculum. Sayre brought butterfly larvae to her classroom and students would see the larvae develop into caterpillars and then butterflies.
Last month, a butterfly garden was planted outside Classroom 3's window at Blythe Park and dedicated to Sayre, who also took students on a field trip every year to see butterflies at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago.
Sayre and Blythe Park third-grade teacher Helen Hart-Bryan worked together over the years to write proposals that resulted in grants for Blythe Park to plant two gardens. They also wrote the grant that brought the first computers to Blythe Park.
"She's a go getter," Hart-Bryan said. "She gets right in there and gets the job done."
One of Sayre's former students, Kara Krause, is now Sayre's colleague. Krause, a first-year early childhood education teacher at Blythe Park, has fond memories of being a student in Sayre's first-grade class 16 years ago.
"She was one of my favorite teachers," Kruse said. "She's one of the reasons I became a teacher, because I loved Blythe Park and all my teachers here."
Former students recall Sayre handing out Hershey's Kisses if they behaved well.
Blythe Park is a small school and for the last few years has been a one section per grade school so practically every student attending Blythe Park had Sayre as a teacher.
Current first-grader George Ricco says that Sayre is a fun teacher who livens up the classroom.
"She's really funny," Ricco said noting that Sayre deliberately mispronounces scissors as 'skissors.'"
Sayre has taught the two sons of Julie Laube, who is a former teacher and a very involved Blythe parent. Laube described Sayre as "one of the best teachers ever."
"She knows how to talk to the children, communicate with them, gets down to their level," Laube said. "Both of our boys excelled with her."
Blythe Park Principal Casimira Gorman says that Sayre is simply a natural as a teacher
"She naturally knows how to infuse a lot of curriculum into one subject area," Gorman. "It just comes very naturally for her to know how to blend all the skills that they need to learn … over the course of a school year. She knows how to do that very naturally and seamlessly in her classroom."
Sayre has stayed current with educational research and is a valued colleague who is sought out by younger teachers at Blythe Park and throughout the district.
"Most teachers, whether they've been around for several years or they're brand new, will seek Judy out for her advice and her guidance," Gorman said. "She's just a mentor."
Sayre grew up in Huntington, New York on Long Island and attended high school in Oklahoma City. She knew that she wanted to be a teacher since at least third grade, when she adored her teacher, Louise Lawless.
"She had a huge impact on me," Sayre said. "Teaching kind of runs in my family. My grandmother was a teacher, several of my aunts were teachers."
After graduating from Southern Methodist University in 1977, Sayre taught for two years in Dallas. After marrying her college sweetheart, Kimm Sayre, who was from River Forest, the couple decided to move to the Chicago area.
Sayre found a job teaching fifth grade at Roosevelt School in River Forest for one year, filling in for a teacher on a maternity leave.
In 1980 Sayre was hired by District 96 to teach second grade at Hollywood School, where she stayed for three years. But after her third year at Hollywood, enrollment had dropped so much that administrators decided that second-graders would spend half of the school day with the third-graders, resulting in Sayre's job being halved.
So, she applied for openings at Ames and Blythe Park and was assigned to teach first grade at Blythe Park.
At first, she was nervous about teaching first grade because she had never taught anyone to read before. But she said dove right in with the help of mentors such as Judy Tremmel, who taught first grade at Hollywood, and Rose Kaiser, who taught third grade at Hollywood.
Sayre considers herself fortunate ending up at Blythe Park, an architecturally significant school building that is considered a model of mid-century school design. Classrooms are open and airy, many have great views and every classroom has a bathroom.
"I think I have one of the best classrooms in the district," Sayre said. "It's a great size; it's a great location. I think Blythe is a beautiful school."
Sayre says that first grade has become more demanding and academic over the years and there is less time for play. Learning has become more student-driven and inquiry-based with less rote learning than when she began teaching more than four decades ago.
"It's a lot more rigorous," Sayre said "What I'm teaching nowadays is what I used to teach in second grade."
But Sayre believes that kids haven't changed much since she began teaching.
"They're still 6 years old, they're still active and interested in things," Sayre said. "Developmentally they're pretty much the same as they have been."
Sayre admits that it's difficult to leave the classroom where she has spent the last 35 years.
"I've started to teach children of people I have taught, so I'm like, 'It's time,'" Sayre said. "It's bittersweet. Yeah, it's time to go and I'll miss the kids."
In retirement she plans to attend to concentrate on her own garden. She is also taking a trip to Europe in the fall.
"I get to travel in the fall; I've never done that before, ever, so that's kind of exciting," Sayre said.
And when she gets back from Europe she might just do a little substitute teaching in District 96.
"Just to see people," Sayre said.