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Patti Eckert spent 34 years teaching at the same Cicero school — in the same room

Following her retirement next month after 34 years teaching Patti Eckert says she will focus her family. | Al Podgorski~Chicago

Following her retirement next month after 34 years of teaching, Patti Eckert says she will focus on her family. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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What Room 313 has seen in 34 years:

1,020 10- and 11-year-olds

1 oak wooden teacher’s desk

2 sets of brand new student desks

3 sets of window replacements

4 sets of new window shades

2 floors ripped up and replaced

4 sets of new lighting fixtures

3 coats of paint from three different paint jobs

1 closet wall removed and replaced with lockers

2 chairs, one on wheels replaced a wooden one

2 clocks, all sorts of new technology, including a SMART board and an intercom system that replaced a hanging wooded box you had to tilt your head to speak into while turning a knob

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Updated: June 29, 2013 6:07AM

Patti Eckert is retiring after 34 years as a teacher in west suburban Cicero.

The 55-year-old spent all of those years at one school. Not so unusual.

But she also spent all of those years in one room. That’s unusual.

“It’s very rare for someone to even teach in the same building that long, much less the same room,” says Principal Linda Giovingo, who’s worked with Eckert at Burnham Elementary, 1630 S. 59th, for the last seven years.

She’s the seventh principal Eckert, a fifth-grade teacher in Room 313, has worked for.

“I have no idea how it happened. But I wish I could have a whole building full of Ms. Eckerts,” her principal says.

Room 313 is lived in — from the well-worn, old-fashioned oak wooden desk Eckert’s had since she moved in, to the room’s organization and color schemes, the potted seedlings, silk flowers, and children’s work lovingly displayed on every available wall.

“She’s extremely organized. She’s always been so proud of the fact that she can use the same holiday displays year after year because she takes such good care of them,” says retired Burnham teacher Kathy Schultz, a friend of 25 years.

“I think Room 313 is like her house. She doesn’t think she’s going to miss it as much as I know she will.”

Hired straight out of teacher’s college at the age of 21, Eckert — who with a year’s worth of accumulated time off will leave June 7 with 35 years of service — was feted with other retiring teachers at a ceremony held by Cicero Public School District 99 on May 15 where educators acknowledged her rare status.

For 30 years, she’s taught fifth grade in her room at the kindergarten-through-sixth-grade school.

She taught sixth grade in the same room for four years in the ’90s.

“People ask, ‘How could you be at the same school for 35 years?’ When you have seven different principals, it’s like being in seven different buildings. Same with my classroom,” laughs Eckert. “It may be the same four walls, but it’s different every year with a new group of kids.”

Eckert has decided to lock the door of Room 313 for the last time, to focus on raising her two adopted children, ages 13 and 11, and to spend more time with husband Steve, a physical education teacher who swept her off her feet when he showed up at Burnham in 1989. They married in 1994.

“She’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever known, definitely old school, reading, writing and ’rithmetic,” says Steve, two years from his own retirement from Morton East High School.

“She was pretty disciplined. It was her way or the highway. But the kids love her. She was talking about how she’d like to have her desk when she leaves, but I told her don’t bring that or anything from that room home. We don’t have the space.”

Eckert’s memories from her vantage point on the south end of the third floor of Burnham offer a kaleidoscope of the changes in education in this small slice of suburbia.

Blonde- and brown-haired Anglo kids that filled her classroom and district in the late ’70s and early ’80s gave way to dark-haired kids with accents from Mexico and Central America, as white flight played out in Cicero in the ’80s and ’90s.

Herself a lifelong Cicero resident who attended its schools, she’s seen economic downturns bring to Room 313 and the now 90 percent low-income district the challenges of poverty to urban education.

“I always told my students, ‘What I will, I can,’ ” she says. “And they get it.”

She’s also seen firsthand the returns of teaching.

“When the shift first started, the kids who came, their parents didn’t have much of an education themselves. We’re in second and third generations now. Their parents are educated,” she says.

She’s taught through the security transitions wrought by school shootings.

“It used to be our school and class doors were wide open. We could walk out into the halls and talk to other teachers and students. Now, everybody’s locked in their rooms with a safety plan,” she says.

But her greatest lament, she says, is that data-driven curriculum and assessment have in recent years created what she calls a constrained and punitive education environment for teachers.

“It takes away from the human element in teaching,” says Eckert.

“It takes twice the time to prepare, and you’ve gotta give something up, but we just keep adding. I often tell younger teachers who are increasingly frustrated, ‘Just go to your classroom, close the door, remember why you became a teacher, and continue to do what you do best.’ ”

Still, when she closes the door of Room 313 for the last time, she’ll miss teaching, she says.

“And I know I’m going to miss this classroom. It’s been the only constant in my life. Someone said I should etch somewhere, ‘Ms. Eckert taught here for 34 years,’ ” she says.


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