Retired Cossitt School principal’s stories inspire new teachers

Mary Tavegia didn’t reach up to her top bookshelf for a literary genius or educational expert to inspire new west suburban teachers at a breakfast.

Instead, the retired principal looked to her heart. She drew on everyday stories from her family and those who shaped her journey of more than 33 years as an educator at Cossitt School in La Grange.

Tavegia spoke to more than 100 new teachers and administrators from eight school districts and two cooperatives in La Grange, Western Springs, LaGrange Park, Burr Ridge and LaGrange Highlands. The breakfast at Brookfield Zoo was sponsored by the West Suburban Chamber of Commerce and Industry and area business leaders.

Tavegia recalled waiting a very long time with her mother, Angie, for an appointment at an assisted living facility. They heard staff members talking and laughing, and her mother grew irritated waiting for an interview.

“With great clarity, my mother said, ‘Oh, sure, to them it’s just another day at work, but to me, this is my life,’” Tavegia remembered.

“Whether we’re meeting with students, parents or colleagues planning lessons, we have to remember it’s never just a job, it’s people’s lives we are impacting,” she said.

It’s no surprise Tavegia sought to remind educators of the emotional ups and downs of their mission. She helped pilot a social emotional learning curriculum at Cossitt, beginning in 1996. She now serves as a consultant on such programs in various cities.

Tavegia also talked about Don Miller, her favorite high school English teacher who treated students as adults, facilitated literary discussion and made it OK to argue with the teacher about “Beowulf” and John Keats.

Teachers and students at Cossitt have also made an impact, as well as lessons learned through her husband, Tom, and their daughter, Ellen, now an editor at a publishing company. But unexpected learning came with the adoption of a new Welsh terrier puppy, Juniper, since Tavegia’s retirement.

“Junie is an adorable bundle of energy and willfulness that has made me question all of my teaching ability,” the educational expert readily admitted as she smiled broadly.

A negative report of Junie’s behavior at a doggie day-care center left Tavegia and her husband puzzled and hurt, taking them some time to return and work with the staff.

“That gave me a new perspective on being on the other side of the table and working with parents,” the former principal said. “We do have to be honest with parents, but we can’t blurt out our frustrations. We must choose our words carefully and let parents know we do like their children.”

Teachers said they valued the wisdom in Tavegia’s stories. The newcomers said they especially liked hearing about a teacher who started the year with the desks in the middle, nothing on the walls and left it up to students to cooperatively design the classroom layout.

“Mary was awesome, and her stories were excellent,” said Jessica Johnson, a new sixth-grade teacher at Spring Avenue School in La Grange. “It’s been exciting to be at the zoo with educators from the area.”

Dimitra Georganas, who will teach seventh-grade math at Pleasantdale Middle School in Burr Ridge, said she found Tavegia’s words inspiring.

“It gives us a great jump-start to begin the year on a positive note,” Georganas said.

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