You don’t always get it right the first time around, and that is okay. That is the lesson former janitor turned eighth grade social studies teacher Keith Reardon wants to teach his students at Percy Julian Middle School.
“My first go around for college was a failure and that is okay,” Reardon said. “It is important to tell my students that it is okay to fail but it is never okay to give up. You can fail but it teaches you a lesson. Life is all about failures. It is the journey, the obstacles, that is what makes everything great.”
Reardon, 35, grew up in Oak Park and attended Brooks Middle School and Oak Park and River Forest High School. He set foot into the halls of Julian Middle School, on Ridgeland Avenue, for the 2023-24 school year as a first-year teacher upon completion of his degree from Dominican University in River Forest.
While Reardon comes from a family of educators, with both of his grandparents being teachers in the community along with one of his sisters being a special education teacher in Hinsdale, the road to the classroom wasn’t a smooth path.
Reardon attended Illinois State University after graduating from high school to pursue a degree in history but did not graduate, leaving after three years.
“I wasn’t doing badly in school but I had no direction. I wasn’t taking it seriously. It was a big university and it was easy to get lost there,” Reardon said. “I wasn’t ready for college or that kind of career at that point.”
After dropping out of college, Reardon returned home in 2011 and began working for Oak Park Elementary School District 97, where his dad worked in the Custodian Building and Parks department as an electrician for over 30 years before his retirement two years ago.
“District 97 is a great place,” Reardon said, adding he went through the district as a child. “It is a great community. The buildings and grounds department was excellent and they supported my dream of going back to school.”
Reardon attended Triton, taking advantage of the district’s education stipend of $1,000 a year, before transferring to Dominican University.
“I think it is important that the district cares about its employees and wants them to do better in life,” Reardon said.
During his time as a janitor with the district, Reardon worked in multiple buildings and cultivated relationships with teachers and students, recalling he was particularly inspired by a special education student at William Beye Elementary School who would point out areas in the building that needed janitorial attention. It was through that relationship that Reardon experienced firsthand the difference he could make in the lives of students. With encouragement from his family and co-workers, Reardon, who at the time was pursuing a career as a Chicago Police officer, decided to go back to school to become a teacher.
The road to earn his degree took eight years, said Reardon.
Juggling a full-time job to support his wife and his two children while taking classes at night was hard, said Reardon, adding that his wife’s support helped him pull through the tough moments.
“She saw something in me and knew I could achieve more,” Reardon said.
Reardon graduated in May 2023 from Dominican with a degree in elementary education with an endorsement in middle school social science. The second time around, Reardon graduated Summa Cum Laude, graduating with a 4.0 GPA, and was awarded the ‘Distinguished Senior in Education’ award.
“Because I am a 35-year-old man, I took it very seriously the second time around,” laughed Reardon. “I’m serious about this now. Let’s get it done.”
While he was working towards his degree, Reardon student taught at Julian Middle School during the day before switching uniforms and working his night shift as a janitor.
“It was amazing that I was able to do it, work and provide for my family,” Reardon said, adding that the five months of night shift was difficult because he didn’t get to spend much time with his family.
Upon graduation, Reardon was hired by D97, adding that he believes his reputation has spoken for itself.
“I have a great relationship with all the teachers, I have worked here for a very long time,” Reardon said. “I have been given this amazing chance and I am not taking it for granted at all.”
“Whether he was serving as a custodian or classroom teacher, Keith’s work ethic, dedication, and positivity have been an example to our students and staff,” said William Lee, interim principal of Julian. “He understands the vital role that every staff member at Julian plays in creating positive relationships and learning environments. Over the past seven years working together, it’s been a pleasure to see his journey.”
As Reardon settles into his first-year teaching, he said the school year has kicked off to a great start and he has had the full support of other teachers and staff in Julian.
“The community has been great, everybody wants me to succeed,” Reardon said, adding he is enjoying teaching children he had previously taught during student teaching.
For Reardon, sharing his non-traditional path to a career in teaching goes hand in hand with his role as a social studies teacher. It is by reading or listening to someone else’s stories that others are able to connect to each other, said Reardon. His story, the one that isn’t always told, is the one he is the most passionate about sharing, hoping it helps students and others to continue pursuing their dreams and be okay with taking the nontraditional paths that make the journey more special.
“Everyone thinks you graduate high school and then you go through all four years of college and then you start a job and that is not the case for most people,” Reardon said. “Most people have a non-straight path, the path is not straight, and that is important to tell kids.”