“You see that light go on in their eyes,” said long-time special education teacher Jeanne Eichorst, “When kids realize they can learn, they become different kids.” Eichorst is retiring from District 91 after teaching Forest Park students for 31 years. Although she spent the early part of her career teaching in a conventional classroom, Eichorst has been passionately involved in special education at Field-Stevenson for the past 17 years. She has served as Special Education Coordinator the last two years and admits that “retiring is a difficult decision. It’s hard for many reasons but mainly because I’ll miss the kids.”
Eichorst knows firsthand how it feels for a student’s eyes to light up in a Forest Park classroom. When she was a first grader at Betsy Ross, she struggled with arithmetic. “Math wasn’t my forte and I had a tough time with subtraction,” Eichorst recalled, “When I caught on, my teacher, Mrs. Ray, was as happy as I was.” Eichorst would later impart this joy of learning to her own students. “I like the kids in special education, seeing their growth and how far they come,” Eichorst said, “It was a blessing to teach in the town where I grew up.”
Eichorst spent the first 48 years of her life in Forest Park. “I went to Betsy Ross, Middle School and Proviso East,” Eichorst said. After graduating from Illinois State University with a bachelor’s degree in science and education, Eichorst came back to where her education had begun. “I was a teacher’s aide at Betsy Ross for a half-year,” Eichorst recounted, “Before teaching 2nd grade at Grant-White for twelve years. I was very honored to be mentored by the teachers I worked with.” Eichorst also continued her own education. She joked that she had taken “a hundred classes but not enough to get my masters.”
After transferring to Field-Stevenson, Eichorst became one of the district’s first special education teachers. “I wasn’t sure I could teach special-ed.” Eichorst said, “But I felt supported and I surprised myself.” Much of her support came from then-Superintendent Art Jones. “I’m really proud to say that we were doing what other districts weren’t doing. Our special-ed numbers were low but Art Jones did a phenomenal job of establishing special-ed programs.”
This wasn’t the first time Eichorst had been pleased by the quality of District 91 schools. When her four children were growing up in Forest Park, District 91 prepared them well for high school. But it wasn’t just the academics that attracted Eichorst. “We lived in Oak Park for four months but we moved back here for the schools. The teachers were so caring, my kids knew they were very special to their teachers.” Eichorst noted that during that era, “Teachers stayed a long time and there was a continuity to my children’s education. I knew the teachers and I was comfortable with them.”
During those years, Eichorst lived on the 1100 block of Marengo, across the street from her parents. The increasing commotion in the neighborhood finally disenchanted her and they relocated to North Riverside about ten years ago. Not that Eichorst has lost her love for Forest Park. “Forest Park is my home. You love your home even when it changes.”
Eichorst certainly seems adaptable to change and variety. Her office is decorated with some arresting artwork created by her husband, Jim. The sculptures include a metal “Medusa,” with wires for snaky hair and a “Politician,” whose smile conceals a growl. “He had an exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry,” Eichorst said proudly, adding that her husband is also a singer-songwriter. The couple first met in Forest Park, when they lived across the hall from each other in the apartments above Circle Video. “We’re both blessed,” Eichorst said of their 32-year marriage.
Typical of her unassuming personality, Eichorst wasn’t seeking any fanfare for her retirement. “I didn’t want a big retirement dinner, so we had a district retirement get-together at Doc Ryan’s.” But what made her last weeks even more special were the unexpected visits she received. “My former students came with their children,” she said, her eyes tearing up.
So, what will Eichorst do during retirement? “Everything,” she said with a laugh, “My passion is working with computers and photography.” Eichorst admitted that designing web sites “kept her sane” during stressful times in her teaching career. She also plans to travel extensively, to see family members conveniently scattered about the U.S. This includes trips to see her two grandchildren, who live on Madeline Island, surrounded by the frigid waters of Lake Superior.
It won’t all be relaxation for Eichorst, who plans to work part-time. Still nothing will replace the special satisfaction she got from teaching. “You get it back in the hugs you get from the kids,” she said fondly, “It’s been very rewarding.”