by Joseph S. Pizzo
NJCTE Early-Career Teaching Mentorship (ECTM) Director
When I first began teaching, I was filled with wonderful ideas. I would work for hours to generate new ideas for teaching a lesson, design materials that directly addressed my students’ needs, create assignments that were far more practical than those deadly and lengthy practice sheets, and fashion evaluations that would be both practical and comprehensive. The time I spent in preparation for my lessons was quite extensive, as well as exhausting. Often I wondered how I would ever have the strength to grade my students’ writing and project work efficiently. Personally, I am so grateful that I had a mentor who supported my efforts and served to inspire me to remain energetic while learning how to be more efficient in the use of my time and efforts.
My mentor in my early years as a 7th-grade language arts teacher for the Chester, NJ public schools is Dr. Joseph Byrnes, a gentleman who had a tremendous impact on me as a teacher. As an early-career teacher, I was eager and somewhat inexperienced. I needed someone whom I could trust when I needed advice. Dr. Byrnes (my personal Yoda) was always ready to listen to my frustrations while doling out encouragement rather than polite disappointment in my inexperience. The support he provided was priceless. He understood the process of writing in a way that supported the best of the research findings of the time. He knew how to motivate even those students who seemed to be disaffected. He was able to meet every student at their particular level of skills and interest, and he would almost magically be able to include every student in the entire learning process.
What is most important to me is the fact that my mentor Dr. Byrnes gave me suggestions to enhance my instruction by using Alex Haley’s concept: he would “Find the good, and praise it.” He also encouraged me daily to “Design activities for our students so they can learn in a meaningful and engaging way.” Consistently, his final piece of advice to me was: “If you and your students become overwhelmed, frustrated, and confused, then no learning is taking place. Students need to feel that their opinions and feelings matter.” This advice has been invaluable throughout my entire career.
As I prepare to begin my 46th year in my integrated language arts classroom, I am grateful to my mentor for his guidance, his encouragement, and his willingness to offer his advice in the form of encouragement rather than criticism. This type of supportive mentoring has provided me with the opportunity to inspire my students to discover the brilliance that each of them possesses. It is only through the wisdom and support of others that we as teachers are able to discover and develop the talents that lie within each of us. As Steven Spielberg observed, “The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.”
Thank you, Dr. Joseph Byrnes. I remain forever in your debt.