by Ashley Bouwense
Middle School English teacher, Joseph Pizzo, was awarded the New Jersey Association for Middle Level Education (NJAMLE) Educator of the Year, and he did not even know he was in the running.
Pizzo was announced the winner of the esteemed title, Educator of the Year, while he attended the NJAMLE Conference at Kean University, Fri., March 11.
“I am very honored to even be considered,” Pizzo said. “I work with tremendously talented individuals, and to even be considered for this award is truly an honor.”
Pizzo teaches seventh grade integrated language arts at Black River Middle School, and has taught for a total of 42 years at the institution. Not only does Pizzo teach middle school English full time, he currently serves as a graduate school adjunct professor of leadership and team building at Centenary College, and he is an adjunct professor of freshman English composition at Union County College.
When asked how he balances such a demanding teaching schedule, Pizzo chuckled first, and then replied with an emphatic, “I love it!”
He confessed the work-load can be exhausting; he even admitted that he could retire now, “but I won’t,” he said.
“What gets me out of bed in the morning is coming in to see my students,” Pizzo said. “I keep hanging on because it feels so good to maintain mutual respect with my students and to lead them.”
With every new day of teaching, Pizzo always brings his heart to the classroom. The unwavering support and respect he shows his students creates a strong learning environment.
“My philosophy is to support every kid and to meet them at their level.”
Pizzo explained that he tries to create win-win situations within his classroom. If a student makes a mistake on a homework assignment or a test, he works with them to fix the problem.
“I’m trying to change the mindset and climate in my classroom to one where failure is not negative if it is handled correctly,” he said. “Failure builds character and grit.”
Pizzo compared his teaching style to that of a phoenix rising from the ashes: when the students get caught in the ashes of their mistakes, he helps them rise out of the negative— whether it is through retakes or do-overs— to find success.
Every student has the opportunity to shine in Pizzo’s class. He sees their talents and encourages them.
“I find the good and praise it,” he says. “It’s important to see the best of students. When students feel good in the classroom, they’ll learn the most.”
Pizzo believes in the power of “thank you.” He is a big proponent of appreciating others and he always looks for the opportunity to show people they are valued. Every year, Pizzo and his seventh grade class read Alex Haley’s short story, “Writing Three Thank-You Letters.” In the story, Haley, a member of the U.S. coastguard during WWII, reflects upon the Thanksgiving holiday. Haley realizes that he has seven people whom he wants to thank, but four of those people are already dead. He decides to write three of the living his heartfelt thanks for the positive impact they had on his life. By incorporating this story into his teaching every year, Pizzo hopes the reading will show his students the power of “thank you” and inspire them to become thankful citizens, just as he tries to be.
Over the years, Pizzo’s past students have come back to thank him for the positive impact he had on their lives.
“My door is always open to my students,” he said, and that open door policy has extended far beyond the reaches of the hallways of Black River.
Pizzo told of a former seventh grade student from Taiwan, Nolan, whom he helped tutor over many summers. The now most prominent lawyer in China Town has stayed in touch with Pizzo for more than 30 years. Nolan regularly meets Pizzo for meals and never lets him pay. Nolan’s reasoning? Pizzo gave so much to him when he was a student, so it is only right that he gives back in this way. Nolan told Pizzo, “You are my teacher forever.”
Pizzo remembered another former student, Eric, whom he helped throughout his stay at Black River. Eric was a known trouble-maker throughout the school but, despite Eric’s ability to get “under teachers’ skin,” Pizzo saw the student’s raw talent. He encouraged Eric to stay focused and to use his brilliance. Pizzo received a letter from Eric after his once seventh-grade student finished college.
“I want to thank you,” Eric wrote. “You were the only one who believed in me.”
Karrie Wright, who currently serves on the Chester School District’s Board of Education, was also Pizzo’s former student. When Pizzo was awarded for 40 years of service at Black River, Wright asked if she could, fittingly, present her former teacher with the award.
Pizzo said he remembers exactly where Karrie sat, her handwriting and her conscientiousness. Just as he remembers with Karrie, Pizzo carries stories and memories of each and every one of his students with him.
With all of Pizzo’s success as a teacher, it may come as a shock that he wanted to make a profession out of America’s favorite pastime.
“I wanted to take Mickey Mantle’s place at center field for the Yankees,” he humorously admitted the boyhood memory.
He even had thoughts about being a baseball announcer. When he started his freshman year at Trenton State College—now The College of New Jersey (TCNJ)—Pizzo was uncertain as to what he wanted to do for a profession, that is, until minutes before his freshman college math class one day.
“I overheard some classmates talking about a math problem they couldn’t figure out,” he recalled.
Pizzo went over to his struggling peers and explained the problem and, after Pizzo’s explanation, they understood how to solve it.
“I remembered how good it felt to be able to explain how things worked to others.”
Pizzo carried that feeling with him and declared an education major.
After he received a Bachelor of Arts in English education from Trenton State, Pizzo continued at the same college to earn a master’s of education degree in English.
Pizzo heard about a job opening at the Black River Middle School after he got his graduate degree, and he called for an interview. The school wanted to gauge what Pizzo was like in the classroom, so they gave him the opportunity to substitute teach. This was where he first met his mentor, Dr. Joseph F. Byrnes
Byrnes, now retired, used to teach social studies at Black River. He taught Pizzo how to build up students to succeed.
“He knew how to teach and get kids motivated,” said Pizzo. “He reminded me of my father; I learned as much about teaching from Dr. Byrnes as I did from my dad about life.”
Black River offered Pizzo a teaching position, and the rest is history. Pizzo took the job gratefully.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” he said.
Throughout his 42 years teaching at the school, Pizzo has made a great impact amongst the students and the school community.
Pizzo particularly likes to work with students on projects that extend past their classroom work.
“I know what skills are necessary to have in the real world,” he said. “I try to encourage my students to think outside the box, explore and take chances.”
One of Pizzo’s most memorable projects was when he helped facilitate his students’ planning and creating of the 9/11 Memorial Garden in Chubb Park in 2002.
Including the Black River Middle School community projects, Pizzo regularly conducts education workshops throughout the year. He will run four workshops this year. From June 23 to June 25, Pizzo and his colleague, Dr. Kenneth Piascik, will present, “Change Your Classroom; Change Your Mind,” at the Schools to Watch Conference in Washington D.C. They will teach participants how to use brain research to enhance students’ learning, retention, motivation and more through multi-media materials, prompts and thoughtful discussions and engagements.
Additionally, on June 8, Pizzo was chosen to serve on the New Jersey Department of Education’s (NJDOE) Council of Teaching and Learning. The first Council meeting is set for June 27.
From all he has given to the Black River Middle School, Pizzo is very thankful for the support the community has given him.
“I have gotten as much back from teaching as I have given,” Pizzo acknowledged. “I love this community! The best of the best are at Black River; this is a school to watch.”
“The choice to pursue teaching was absolutely the right one,” he said. “I know God put me here for a reason.”