When Joe Pizzo’s mother was dying after a long illness, two of his former students came to visit her on Mother’s Day in 2018.

That made an impression on Pizzo, a seventh grade language arts teacher at Black River Middle School in Chester, Morris County for nearly 46 years.

Though he has never been married or had children of his own, he cherishes the memories of the hundreds of young people of all ages whose lives he has enlightened.

Pizzo will be named the 2020 National Educator of the Year by the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) in October. Honored by the award, he says he has loved teaching at the difficult middle school level because he has always made a straightforward deal with his students.

“The heart and soul,” he said, “is basically where you need to connect with them. They won’t value someone who doesn’t value them. I’ve always said that the relationship drives the curriculum.”

When he’s teaching writing, he tells students to connect their heads and their hearts, so that they will feel passion for what they’re writing. Poetry begins with the clarity of Carl Sandburg. Literature starts with the stripped-down imagery of Ernest Hemingway.

A co-director of the drama program at the Black River school, he tailors the curriculum to meet the needs and interests of his young charges. That’s why, until COVID-19 canceled the school play earlier this year, the school was set to perform “Shrek, Jr.”

He still feels sorrow over the cancellation of the performance of Shrek. “It was hilarious. The kids were really into it. It was a very well-done play,” Pizzo said.

The hardest part of teaching students virtually is that he can’t be around them, can’t thrive on their energy and exchange fist bumps with them, he said.

Teaching is about a mutual exchange of respect and a willingness to work hard. In all of the years he’s been a teacher, that’s pretty much stayed the same, he said, no matter where he’s teaching, or what age group they are. For example, the two students who visited his mother were Simo and Lili, whom he taught at Union County College when he was working as an adjunct professor there.

Prior to his 46-year career at the Black River Middle School, Pizzo taught eighth-grade English in Middlesex for one year before returning to school to complete his master’s degree. While maintaining a full course load at Black River, he has also taught in four undergraduate departments and one graduate department at Centenary University.

His service extends beyond the classroom and into the community. He is a lector at St. Mary of Czestochowa Church in Bound Brook, where he has lived for many years.

It doesn’t matter what age they are, Pizzo searches for the good in his students, believes in them when they falter, and trusts that they will not violate their mutual pact of respect when he makes a mistake in front of them.

Trust. Faith. Love. Being a good listener—these are the key components Pizzo believes in. But mutual respect is the bedrock of his teaching, he says, throughout all the years, and at any age level.

“We respect each other, and we have to proceed on a foundation of respect. That is not negotiable,” he says, “and is not to be compromised, ever.”

Alan Guenther is the assistant editor at NJSBA.