• Kim Piekos

Full Circle: Retiring Teacher Grateful for Lasting Connections with Local Family

By Kim Piekos

When newly retired Lake Forest reading specialist Traci Riege (now Franksen) began her career at Sheridan School 36 years ago, she never dreamed she would eventually teach the children of her very first students.

“Life has come full circle for me,” says Franksen, who has taught nine children of former students.

Traci Franksen gets together with a student from her first class in Lake Forest, Charlie Cooper, and one from her last, his son Michael.

Franksen was touched on her last day of school in June when a homemade sign was given to her by a student in her first class at Sheridan in 1986, Charlie Cooper, and his son Michael Cooper, a kindergarten reading student at Cherokee whom she worked with during this last year of her career. “Traci has been a part of our family for a long time,” says Charlie Cooper. “My mom treated her like she was a daughter. I think she saw her as a younger version of herself.”

Franksen recalls Janie Cooper, Charlie’s mother who passed away earlier this year, as a fun and welcoming presence in her new life working in Lake Forest schools. “She invited me to dinner with their family, had me babysit Charlie and his triplet sisters, and gave my teaching friends and I a pretty funny care package as we set out for Sanibel one spring break,” Franksen says. “The loving, endearing Cooper family is the family that impacted me the most.”

And that relationship has lasted through decades. Ironically, when Cooper’s wife, Nicole, a speech pathologist at Cherokee, posted online that she needed a babysitter for their three children, Franksen suggested to her daughter that she reply, not knowing it was her former student’s wife that was asking. “Again, a 360!” Franksen says laughing. “I’ve watched my students grow up and return to Lake Forest and watched my children grow up and babysit some of the children of an initial student. It’s amazing.”

This connection means a lot to Cooper. “That’s the benefit of living in this close-knit community,” he says. “You’ve got these teachers that become friends that are also colleagues. We’re all very lucky to live in this small town that has the robustness and resources of a big town, including great schools.”

Franksen moved to Chicago from Waterloo, Wis. as a new graduate of University of Wisconsin-Madison, excited for her burgeoning teaching career. She bonded quickly with fellow new teachers Laura Montgomery (nee Armstrong) and second-year teacher Katie Schiyer, friends she still treasures after all these years. Not only did they start teaching the same year; they all retired this year as well.

“We met at the beach the first week of school this year,” she recalls. “Lake Forest has been home base for us for a long time.”

Franksen hasn’t stood still since she arrived in Lake Forest. She taught third grade, followed by second grade, earned a master’s degree in special education, taught that for 12 years and earned a master’s degree to be a reading specialist, her focus until June. “My advanced degrees have changed the course of what I’ve done in the district, but I never changed districts,” she says proudly.

She recalls her mother saying being a reading teacher was the perfect fit for her. “I love the connections you make with kids and the feeling of unity that you’re together every day as a group and you grow as a group,” she says.

Franksen is grateful she landed in teaching. “I feel very proud that I found my passion because I loved what I did every day,” she says. “I will miss it because it was such a part of me.”

She wants her own adult children to understand the importance of this. “I want them to know they should find what they love doing, even if they have to try a few things to figure it out,” she notes. “That way it doesn’t end up feeling like work.”

When it comes to sharing what she loves about District 67, Franksen can’t say enough. “The district has very professional teachers who work really hard to do what’s right for the students,” she says. “The administration is very supportive of things teachers want to do and resources are abundant.”

Likewise, she’s a fan of the Lake Forest parents. “There’s a really healthy partnership between parents and teachers here,” she explains. “Parents are interested in what and how their children are learning, want to help and are open to advice. I’ve loved living in the district I taught in.”

Franksen is enjoying the flexibility that comes with retirement. “Literally every day, I say to myself, ‘What do I want to do today?’ It’s nice to have the time to figure out what I want to do when I grow up!”

As for first-grader Michael Cooper, he would like to run into Mrs. Franksen at Sweet’s, his favorite place in town. “She’s really nice,” he says, smiling.