Dedicated teacher marks 50 years of forming minds at St. Richard School

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Joanne Gaus works with second-grader Baldemar Delgado solving math problems in her classroom at St. Richard School, 5025 S. Kenneth Ave., on Jan. 4. She has taught at the school since 1969. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

When Joanne Gaus arrived at St. Richard School after graduating with a teaching degree in December 1968, the world was a different place.

There was a glut of teachers, for one thing, she said, and it was hard to find a job. Her interview at St. Richard was the third one she had — her mother drove her and waited in the car in a snowstorm — and she was grateful to be offered a position.

“At that time, it was all different,” she said. “If Sister said she needed you to come in on Saturday or stay late for a school program Thursday evening, you did it. No questions asked.”

Gaus still teaches at St. Richard, 5025 S. Kenneth Ave.

Her first class, which was third grade, had 44 students seated in desks that were bolted to the floor. The curriculum, she said, was so straightforward that “you would open the book and it would practically tell you what to say.”

Over the years, she moved to a combined second- and third-grade class, and now has been teaching second grade for years, and she loves it. She especially likes preparing students for their first reconciliation and first Communion.

“I like that age,” she said. “There’s just so much to do in second grade. The sacraments — there’s one in each semester. There’s a real importance when you have religious milestones like that. And then you learn how to write cursive in second grade, you learn how to borrow and carry — well, now we call it regrouping — in second grade. You plan way ahead and you get it in.”

Plenty of things have changed, she said, including the way she runs her classroom. The days of a teacher standing in front of a chalkboard and lecturing are long gone. Now her 18 students have moveable desks that she tries to rearrange once a month or so.

“We don’t teach like that anymore, and the children don’t sit like that anymore,” she said. “You almost have to be an entertainer now to keep their attention.”

That doesn’t mean the students aren’t smart and capable.

“The children are learning so much more than they did in the ’70s and ’80s, and I don’t know how we get it all in,” she said. As an example, she cited two-digit subtraction: It used to be enough for them to know how to borrow and carry. Now they must know why that works.

“It’s much more challenging now,” Gaus said. “The kids rise to the occasion, and sometimes they help me with the technology.”

The children also have more experiences outside of school. The once-Polish parish now has a sizable Mexican population, and many of her students travel to Texas or Mexico on breaks or even long weekends to see relatives.

“The children are more well-informed,” Gaus said. “You can have a conversation with them. I don’t remember being able to do that when I started. I think they’re a little more willing to try things that are new to them, especially with technology. They know things, or they sort of know it, and they’re confident they can figure it out.”

She has also figured out more technology than she ever could have imagined, she said. One thing she especially likes is the classroom communications system the school adopted, making it simple to email notes and pictures to parents during the school day.

“A lot of them must have it set up for an alert on their phones, because if I ask them about something, they’ll get right back to me,” she said.

Gaus said she would like it if more young teachers would stay at St. Richard or other Catholic schools because they bring new ideas and techniques with them. Unfortunately, many of them are graduating from college with student loans to pay off, and Catholic schools generally pay less than their public school counterparts. Young teachers often leave if they are offered a better-paying public school job, Gaus said.

“I wish some of ours would stick around because they’re really good,” Gaus said. “I’m always happy when the third-grade teacher is a young one, so the kids get the best of both worlds. Of course, I think we old-timers have something to offer too.”

Rose Graca was in Gaus’ class in the early 1970s, had a child in Gaus’ class and now is a colleague. She said everyone in the school community knows Gaus.

“Parents always love when their child gets to be a student in her classroom because they know their child will learn a lot and grow so much throughout the school year,” said Graca, who teaches kindergarten but once had another second-grade classroom at St. Richard.

“She is a great mentor,” Graca said. “When I was her partner teaching the other second-grade class, she did not expect me to do things only her way even though she was the senior teacher. Instead she made it clear that we could work together on some things, but I could do the projects I wanted to do and did not need to defer to her.”

Graca said Gaus keeps her classroom interesting by changing up the decorations with seasonal themes and having class pets like hamsters or fish, and each year does a unit on hatching chicks, which the students take care of.

She gives responsibility to students by giving them jobs in the classroom and helps them develop independence with activities that students work on during the school day on their own or with partners, Graca said.

Felician Sister Mary Francine Lagocki, former St. Richard principal, said she was always impressed with Gaus’ enthusiasm.

“Her students learned very well and tried to answer with much confidence when questioned about a lesson being presented,” Sister Mary Francine said. “She has the privilege of preparing her second-grade class for the receptions of first holy Communion and puts much effort into having her students understand that when receiving this sacrament Jesus is coming to each one in a very special way.”

Karen Kenney, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher, said Gaus is often the first teacher at school in the morning and the last to leave at night, and she is always willing to lend a helping hand to other teachers.

That kindness extends to her students and their families, Graca said, and that helps keep her students engaged.

Gaus said she hopes her students know she loves them.

At 71, she’s not sure how much longer she’ll teach, but she doesn’t feel like she’s finished yet.

“I guess God wants me to keep doing this, because I’m here.”



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