May 20th, 2020 8:00 AM
Irving teacher, Linda Balicki, is retiring after 35 years at the southeast Oak Park elementary school. | Courtesy Melissa Elsmo
"I can't believe I've walked these halls for 35 years," said Linda Balicki, as she gazed at Washington Irving Elementary School. "Well 34 2/3 years — I've spent the last third at home," said the retiring teacher.
Balicki was drawn to teaching from an early age, staying late to help her teachers' grade papers and playing school at home, but credits "mentor teachers" for inspiring her to dedicate her life to education. After graduating from Illinois Benedictine College (Benedictine University, today) Balicki interviewed for her first teaching position at Irving in 1985. Hired as a first-grade teacher, she enjoyed stints teaching kindergarten, third and fifth grade over the years, but never moved on from the southeast Oak Park school, 1125 S. Cuyler Ave.
"They blur together, but all the years I was at Irving didn't feel like work," said Balicki. "It was a happy place to go because of the feeling of home there. The staff felt like family and the kids and parents did, too."
Balicki remembers that when she was hired Irving was viewed as a struggling school with a reputation for underperforming compared to other Oak Park elementary schools. Over three decades, however, she witnessed the school transform into a high-achieving environment dedicated to fostering a sense of belonging among students.
The longtime teacher, who has taught second generation students, credits the start of the turnaround to former Irving principal, Tim Hull. In a post on Facebook Hull said of Balicki, "I still refer to you as one of the most exceptional teachers I ever worked with, and as one who understood that teaching didn't happen unless the student learned."
In addition to figurative growth, Balicki witnessed the literal growth of the student body over the years. When she stared teaching, Irving had just 280 students and today boasts an enrollment of nearly 500.
"The support of good principals was key to my happiness over the years." said Balicki. "They trusted what I was doing and gave me the freedom to teach the way I wanted to teach."
According to current principal, John Hodge, Balicki endeavored to build a classroom community each year. He said the veteran teacher remained committed to staying updated on curriculum advancements and implemented best practices in her classroom year-after-year.
"She always had high expectations and students would rise to the challenge," said Hodge. "We'd see tremendous growth in her students as a result of her efforts."
Balicki was known to go the extra mile for her students. She completed 32 years of lunchroom and play-ground duty and made herself available to students both before and after school. She especially enjoyed the outdoor education program, organizing the annual talent shows, and lead the Irving bowling league over the years. Balicki also served as a longtime member of the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) committee and helped cultivate a positive behavioral culture at Irving.
"We could always count on Linda to be consistent and steadfast," said Hodge. "She was an advocate for students and would work with families to help students achieve. She will always have a home at Irving."
Despite the strange end to her career, Balicki is grateful.
"I feel loved, like I shaped the lives of hundreds of kids. It melts my heart that people really feel deeply about what I have done with my life."
COVID-related school closures have impacted Balicki's big finish. Though she is still teaching online, she has already cleared out her classroom and canceled her plans for a retirement bash.
"It is bittersweet and I feel kind of alone," said Balicki. "I never got married. I never had kids. I am not saying I deserved a party, but it would have been nice to have some closure."
Paul Packer, Irving enrichment specialist, taught with Balicki for 27 of her 35 years at Irving. In fact, he was hired as a third-grade teacher on Balicki's team.
"She was a phenomenal mentor to me as a first-time teacher," said Packer "Teaching came from her heart; it came from within her. She's a rock and you can depend on her for anything."
What's next for Balicki?
"I still can't believe I am retiring," she said. "I don't feel like I am done yet. I think I may go sub."
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