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Happy retirement: Judy Kubas, a teacher who brought passion for art to D161 students for 38 years

Editor’s note: This is the third story in a series featuring 2021 school retirees.

Art has always been important to Judy Kubas. At a young age, she started drawing and has never really stopped. She looked up to Georgia O’Keeffe as a trailblazer for women in art. But a career teaching it, her way, came with a push from teacher Gerard Vanderschoot at Lemont High School.

“We all have that one teacher in our life that touched us in some way and showed us what our abilities are,” Kubas said.

Kubas, a K-5 art teacher at Western Avenue Elementary School, is to retire at the end of this school year after roughly 38 years of working to be that source of encouragement for others. She has done so since 1987 in Flossmoor School District 161 and served as president of the Flossmoor Education Association for the past decade.

“It’s been absolutely fabulous,” Kubas said of the experience.

But the road to teaching art at Western Avenue was not drawn in a straight line. Before Kubas joined District 161, she taught special education for four years in Joliet. When she initially joined District 161, she taught students with emotional/behavioral disabilities. 

Then, she took a maternity leave position she thought was going to last just one year, but that teacher never returned. Kubas ended up teaching art in all of the district’s elementary buildings.

She talked administrators into letting her teach fine arts, including some art history and exposure to classic works, rather than just doing crafts. She continued to focus on elementary art but also picked up the duties of a first-grade physical education teacher, too.

Despite the winding road, Kubas said she stuck with District 161 over the years because she recognized that it values art, music and physical education. Not all schools do these days.

“They’ve always been supportive,” Kubas said. “It’s really important. Art makes a whole, rounded child.”

Kubas, of Tinley Park, said she enjoys working under the current administration led by Superintendent Dana Smith, but things were not always that way with the district. Kubas never had any intention to become union president, but she had been taught that when something is wrong she should step up to fix it. So she took on the leadership role.

“I had absolutely no idea what I was doing,” she said. “I grew and learned a lot.”

During her time as a representative for the union, she bargained five contracts. But she tried to approach everything she did asking what would make things better for the children. She believes the philosophy that people do better with sugar and spice than vinegar, and she took that approach to her role with FEA.

“I feel the union has become really positive,” Kubas said.

That positivity also found a place in her classroom, which she took pride in making a “happy place with no wrong answers.” She said that is important because many youths do not truly know their talents until someone draws them out.

“When a child has a talent, you have to embrace it,” she said.

Kubas had the displeasure of being discouraged by an art teacher at a young age until her mother marched her back in there and gave the instructor a piece of her mind — a rare thing in those days. Her father also had a knack for art, painting women on the sides of airplanes during his service in World War II. And Kubas said her parents only encouraged her passion for art.

“They knew I loved it,” Kubas said. “They just embraced it. They knew it was me.”

Kubas said at 61 years old it is time to retire, but as “one door closes, another opens.” She is looking forward to dedicating more time to creating art for its own pleasure.

It is just unfortunate it had to come during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she called one of her most challenging years in education. In her final year, she had to develop new skills, such as teaching children how to cut paper via Zoom. And the new dynamic got in the way of the fanfare she likes to create for her students’ work.

“It’s hard,” she said. “I wanted to go out with a bang. I’m one of those art teachers that hang the hallways with art.”

But retiring was never going to be easy for Kubas, under any circumstances.

“I love what I do,” she said. “It’s going to be very hard to leave the kids. I loved going to work and seeing kids’ smiles every day.”

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