May 21st, 2019 1:25 PM
Mark Gouwens and Kimberly Hayes are retiring from Riverside-Brookfield High School after teaching there for 21 and 33 years, respectively. | Alexa Rogals/Staff Photographer
By Bob Skolnik
For the past 33 years Riverside Brookfield High School English teacher Kimberly Hayes has been a gentle presence in her classroom, promoting a love of reading and writing in her students and working to foster creativity.
Hayes, who is the longest serving teacher at RBHS, is retiring this year.
"Oh my God, she was amazing," said RBHS senior Joey Vitek who was in Hayes' honors English class his freshman year. "She was enthusiastic about teaching and had an extreme enthusiasm about reading books. She was one of the first teachers to make reading fun in school, which is rare nowadays."
Also, leaving the school when the final bell rings is history teacher Mark Gouwens, who is retiring after 21 years at RBHS. Unlike Hayes, who knew she was destined to be a teacher, Gouwens found his calling accidentally.
"I really kind of backed into the profession," Gouwens said. "It was never a life goal."
Passion for teaching
Hayes works to draw out students and encourages them to express themselves in writing and in art.
"I love having the kids think metaphorically," Hayes said. "I work hard to try and build a community within the classroom."
Vitek's mother, Cindy, entered RBHS as a freshman in 1986 when Hayes began her career and worked closely with Hayes when she became an editor of the school newspaper, the Clarion, which Hayes sponsored in her first few years. They have kept in touch ever since.
"We knew that she was invested in every single one of us," Cindy Vitek said. "What she does for kids goes beyond just teaching the material. She's a wonderful role model."
Cindy Vitek became a teacher in part because of Hayes' influence.
Hayes has taught seven current RBHS staff members when they were students, including counselors Mike Reingruber and Renee Thomas, Spanish teacher Jill McGrath, Assistant Director of Technology David Fischer, security staff member Jeff Quintana, library and lab aide Jon Logli and academic support staffer John Hansa.
"She was one of most kind and caring and patient teachers I definitely had in my four years here," Reingruber said. "Students always came first, and you could tell she was really passionate about what she did, which rubbed off on her classes."
Hayes grew up in Hinsdale and graduated from Lyons Township High School and Elmhurst College. She couldn't land a teaching job when she graduated from college in 1985, so she spent a year working in a clothing store. In the summer of 1986 Hayes was hired to teach English at RBHS.
"I definitely knew I had a passion for writing, for journalism, for literature," she said. "I knew I belonged in a classroom."
Hayes has lived much of her adult life in Brookfield raising two sons, who both graduated from RBHS, as a single parent.
She was perhaps best known in Brookfield as the owner of "the purple house" a Victorian on Grand Boulevard. She painted her fence and foundation purple, her favorite color. Not everyone liked her choice and once, she said, the village offered her money to repaint her fence. She moved out of the house a few years ago.
During the 2014-15 school year, Hayes served as the acting interim assistant principal for curriculum and instruction. She enjoyed mentoring teachers and working with Principal Kristin Smetana but chose not to apply for the permanent job because she wanted to return to the classroom.
"I just missed the kids and I knew that I was at the tail end of my career," Hayes said.
For the last three years Hayes has served as the assistant director of the spring musical.
In her final year, Hayes has taught two sections freshman honors English and two sections of honors Shakespeare, which is primarily taken by seniors, while also serving as an academic intervention coordinator.
"My favorite is having freshmen and seniors," Hayes said. "I love that especially if you have seniors who you had as freshmen. I love seeing their growth."
Hayes is tired of Chicago winters, but not tired of teaching. She is moving to the Florida Keys to teach junior high English.
"It's kind of an adventure," Hayes said. "After 33 years I still have more in me, I'm not done."
Growing up, Gouwens never planned on becoming a teacher. And he didn't know anything about Riverside-Brookfield High School until he was hired to teach there. One of the most respected teachers at RBHS, the 57-year-old Gouwens' teaching career stretches more than 30 years.
When he graduated from Purdue University with a history degree in 1984, Gouwens planned on going to law school but decided to take a year off. He began substitute teaching at coaching at his alma mater, Thornwood High School in South Holland. He like it so much that he decided to become a teacher.
After eight years of teaching at Thornton High School and drained by the violence he experienced there, Gouwens thought he might be done with teaching.
"We were burying about one kid a year," he recalled in a recent interview in his classroom.
In the fall of 1997 he decided to take some time off and care for his two young boys while he figured out what to do next. That December he saw an ad in the Sunday Tribune for a part-time social studies teacher at Riverside-Brookfield High School.
"I thought, 'What the heck,'" Gouwens said. "I put in an application. I interviewed on Monday and started that Wednesday."
The next year he was hired full time. Although he taught western civilization that first semester, he has mostly taught United States history at RBHS.
Gouwens has been a quiet leader at RBHS. Twice he has served as the president of the teachers' union and he has served as a mentor for many teachers in the social studies department.
"I don't know what kind of teacher I would have been without his ment orship," said fellow history teacher John Fields. "The school is really going to be different without him here. He really has been kind of the go to guy here at school."
Gouwens is known as an old-school teacher. He always wears a tie and students know that late assignments won't be accepted.
"Due dates are due dates in here," Gouwens said. "It's their responsibility to get it done and if they don't, well there's a result. It's not something that's negotiable."
Gouwens is known as a great story teller and superb teacher. With students today being barraged by social media Gouwens knows he has to compete for his students' attention.
"I'm a big believer in making history a story," Gouwens said. "I have always considered teaching a bit of a performance art. I think that you have to be aware that not all the kids in your class have the passion for history that you might have."
Gouwens, who played volleyball at Purdue, coached girls volleyball for eight years at RBHS and was the varsity head coach for four of those years. He has coached girls golf for the last five years.
An excellent golfer himself, Gouwens will play plenty of golf in retirement. The Purdue alumnus and a longtime Purdue football season ticket holder is moving with his wife to the university's home in West Lafayette, Indiana. One of his sons is a high school history teacher in neighboring Lafayette, and Gouwens has always wanted to retire to a college town.
But right now he can't quite believe that his time at RBHS in coming to an end.
"I have loved every moment of this, but it's very hard for me to say goodbye to RB," Gouwens said. "I have been truly blessed to work with a phenomenal group of teachers. Not many guys can hit this point in their life and can say that they have loved coming to work every day of their lives and still love coming to work."
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