Top teacher: After a long career, former P.E. teacher finds joy in special education
In the adaptive physical education class at Woodland Intermediate school in Gurnee, equipment and activities are modified to give students the best chance to succeed.
Out of all the PE classes Joe Rejczyk taught during his long tenure at Woodland, there was something different about these sessions, which comprised a small but substantive part of his workload.
Rejczyk -- pronounced "ray-check" -- appreciated the heartfelt impact small successes and achievements had on the class -- and himself.
"To see the smiles on the faces, to see the joy in the whole class," Rejczyk explained of the satisfying feeling that prompted him to change focus after decades in the gym and become certified as a special-education teacher.
He's been good at it. Rejczyk was recognized by the village as one of Gurnee's teachers of the year for 2022 representing Woodland Elementary School District 50.
Each year, district staff, students, families and community members are asked to submit nominations for teachers and certified staff that go above and beyond in each of the district's five schools. More than 500 nominations were received in weeks.
Krista Wolfer, whose son Dominic Alloy was one of Rejczyk's students, submitted one and attended the village board meeting in May when the award was presented.
"He will answer emails day/night to put our minds at ease if any issues arise," she wrote. "He is one of my son's biggest fans and goes above and beyond to help him." Those compliments barely scratch the surface, she added.
"Woodland Intermediate is beyond lucky to have such a hard working, kind and caring man to work with this special group of kids," she wrote.
Communication with parents is a key, as a variety of factors can come into play on a given day, Rejczyk said.
"We have to be on the same page with everything," he said, adding parents can text him, email him, call his cell or call the school -- whatever is necessary.
"Whatever they need, I'm there for them," he said of his students.
Rejczyk began working at the school in 1997, and was a physical education teacher for most of his career. He said he saw a need for special education students to have a more fulfilling PE experience and started a buddy program, in which general education students assist and interact with the adaptive PE classes.
"When I saw what a difference this made, I sought out more opportunities to work with the special education students," he said.
He began subbing for special ed teachers and applied to be a paraprofessional for several summers during the Extended School Year program.
"The successes are so much more amplified," he said.
He worked in Janet Spencer's special ed classroom, and knowing the 30-plus year teacher was planning to retire, began taking courses to earn the certification to transition to her spot when the time came.
"Joe is a natural with the special-needs population," said Spencer, who has returned to Rejczyk's classroom as a paraprofessional. A humble and down to earth problem solver with a good sense of humor, Rejczyk was a great support in class, Spencer added.
"Just his presence in the classroom put smiles on their faces," she said.
This is Rejczyk's second regular school year as a special-education teacher.
"There are people in the world who take the heart out of you and there are people who put it back. Joe Rejczyk is most definitely in the latter category," said Superintendent Robert Machak.
Machak said Rejczyk finds many ways to connect with students.
"Joe makes each child feel like the most important person in the world to him, because they are," Machak added. "Every student deserves a teacher as positive, as caring, as dedicated, and as supportive as Joe Rejczyk is."
Last week, Rejczyk took the class on a mini-field trip about a half-mile away from school, the first time off campus for this class.
Pulling wagons to carry their pumpkins, enjoying the outdoors and looking for interesting things along the way, they walked to and from Honey Works Farm, where bees are harvested and pumpkins and produce grown.
"We're trying to give them the same experience every other student in the school has," Rejczyk said.