Although some may find it hard to believe, veteran special education teacher, Vicki Kurzydlo, remembers being shy and withdrawn as a child.
When she asked a high school counselor about taking the ACT test, he told her not to worry about it, she was never going to do anything with her life.
Kurzydlo was determined to prove him wrong, and decided that teaching was a way she could provide children the support and love she didn’t receive in school.
Called to special education
“My heart just kept on saying, ‘I want to make a difference, to help children feel loved, cared for, and valued,’” she said. “That’s really why I was drawn to special education.”
Now, at Sauganash Elementary, she provides her students with disabilities, in fourth through eighth grade, with the love and respect they need to flourish and grow.
“My favorite part of being a special education teacher is when I see students treating each other with kindness and care, watching them grow over time, accomplish their goals, develop confidence, and enjoy being in school,” she said.
Kurzydlo was born in Melrose Park and spent the first half of her life in and around the South Side of Chicago. After high school, she attended the University of Illinois, Chicago.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1991 and a master’s degree in special education shortly after that. She also earned a master’s in instructional technology from Northern Illinois University, a Type 75 certificate from National Louis University and her ESL endorsement from Dominican University.
Proud career of union service
Kurzydlo began her CPS career at Holden Elementary, as a day-to-day guest (substitute) teacher in the library. She was offered a full-time teaching position in November 1993 and stayed at the school for nine years before moving to Sauganash Elementary in 2002.
A proud CTU member, Kurzydlo has served as the Sauganash delegate for 11 years, as a district organizer, an IFT/AFT delegate and elementary education functional vice-president on the CTU Executive Board. In her 30 years as a teacher and CTU member, she has seen a lot of changes.
“When I began teaching in the early ’90s, CTU felt very closed-door and top-down. Our union felt like an entity that existed separately from our members, very different from the member-driven CTU we know and love today,” she recalled. “But at the time, I just accepted it as the way things were.”
A new vision for CTU
Then, Karen Lewis came to speak at her school and everything changed.
“It was like a light bulb just went off. I remember thinking that we could challenge the status quo—that together, we could take back our power,” she said.
As she learned more about Lewis’ vision, Kurzydlo was moved to take action. Led by her former delegate, Deanna Kelly, Kurzydlo and a group of active CTU members at Sauganash began to organize. “We held frequent meetings, coordinated car-pools for rallies and demonstrations, and united with neighboring schools to widen our community base.” Then, in 2012, faced with then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s unrelenting attacks on teachers, members voted overwhelmingly to strike.
“While the 2012 strike was tough, I had never felt more empowered as a worker. I remember feeling energized and held by my CTU sisters and brothers. I remember feeling more hopeful about the possibilities for our city,” she said.
Optimism for the future
Kurzydlo is even more optimistic about Chicago’s future today, with Mayor Brandon Johnson at the helm. She believes CTU’s next contract offers a chance to transform classrooms and schools into “loving, liberatory spaces that will enhance the daily experiences of students and staff members.”
“In this moment, we have the opportunity to make monumental changes. I believe it is possible to restructure the elementary school day; provide educators with liberty to teach inspired, informed, anti-racist curricula; strengthen special education and cluster supports; ensure additional staffing for our growing population of bilingual students; and provide affordable housing for our homeless students, most of whom are in our Black community. Now is the time we can build upon victories won through our collective, unified actions.”
Outside of school, Kurzydlo’s family—her husband, four children, and many, many pets—keep her pretty busy. But she still finds time for daily yoga and meditation and an occasional horror movie.
After 30 years in CPS, Kurzydlo said she’s not exactly sure what the future holds, but she will never give up the fight for equity and justice.
“One way or another, I know I’ll always be involved in making some good trouble,” she said.
That’s welcome news for her colleagues, students and fellow union siblings.