LeMoyne Elementary School teacher takes on new challenges in last year
LeMoyne Elementary School teacher spends last year teaching virtually
Nicolina Pizzuto rarely takes a day off – she’s acquired more than 300 sick days in her 30 years teaching at LeMoyne Elementary School in Syracuse, New York.
In her final year of teaching, Pizzuto’s commitment to her students has not faltered. Pizzuto said she strives to be a dependable, welcoming figure in her students’ lives.
“You realize early on when you work in a city school that a lot of these children don’t have one person in their life that has been consistent. Parents disappear in and out of their lives, whether it’s incarceration, drug use, [or] just because they just left them with the grandparents for the first five or six years of their lives,” Pizzuto said. “Every year, I’ve hated to take sick days. I’ve dragged myself in because I know I’ve got to be there for them – next thing you know, you’ve been in the same building for 30 years.”
Pizzuto could never have anticipated that in her final year she’d be teaching students over a computer screen. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the country, Pizzuto jumped into action rather than slowly transitioning into retirement. She has taken on the challenge of virtual instruction in Syracuse City School District’s new hybrid teaching model on top of teaching a grade level she’s never taught before – kindergarten.
An academic intervention teacher prior to COVID-19, Pizzuto and other intervention teachers were placed elsewhere to help with virtual instruction this year.
“You wouldn’t know that Lena is in her last year,” said Michele Fox, a Montessori teacher at LeMoyne. “Lena just has a very good work ethic and cares about the children- she said, ‘It’s not about me. It’s about the kids, and this is what I am paid to do, and I need to do my best and do everything I can for these children.’”
Pizzuto now teaches two kindergarten groups virtually from her home in Syracuse, New York, and said she feels like a “first-year teacher again.”
In her first year, Pizzuto spent a lot of time outside of class preparing bulletin boards and researching activities for her students. Now, even though the preparation is different, the first-year thrill has returned.
“I spend hours and hours and hours with that same kind of excitement, and I don’t feel resentful that I have to do it. I feel it’s exciting and I want to put in the time like I did when I was a first-year teacher,” Pizzuto said. “I enjoy the work I have to do, and I feel like I’m learning so much.”
Pizzuto works alongside Amy Landes, another virtual kindergarten teacher at LeMoyne, who said Pizzuto has been extremely patient and devoted to helping her students and their families adjust to virtual learning.
“Even through the challenges last year and this year, it’s truly been a godsend to be able to work with her and to have each other to lean on through this because I don’t think that just one of us could have gotten through this alone,” Landes said.
With short, curly brown hair and a friendly smile, Pizzuto has been excited to pull from her “creative side” again to engage her students in virtual instruction.
Pizzuto’s puppet, Katie the Kindergartener, makes many appearances in her virtual classes, along with other props like a big, floppy “thinking cap.” She incorporates music, dancing, singing, videos and even sent mathematics tools and workbooks to her students’ homes so that they can better follow along during class activities.
“She can sense where they are not only academically, but where they are emotionally, especially during this time,” Fox said. “To have those qualities of just being understanding and committed go a long way in helping the children and other colleagues and the parents get through this stressful time.”
Pizzuto’s teaching career has spanned 34 years, and she just celebrated her 30th year teaching at LeMoyne. She taught second grade for 26 years, third grade for one year and reading and math intervention until last year.
Pizzuto remembers herself teaching others even when she was a student herself, teaching her friends algebra and geometry in study hall.
“My friends always said, ‘You know, I wouldn’t be learning this stuff if it wasn’t for you working with me. You should be a teacher someday,’ and I guess it just took,” Pizzuto said. “I really just don’t know any different. It has been my whole life.”
Pizzuto has taught siblings of the same families and even the children of her previous students, making LeMoyne a close-knit community for her throughout her career. The most rewarding aspect of her job, she said, is when her former students return to her classroom or approach her in public and remember her long after their elementary school days.
Previously teaching second grade with Pizzuto, Fox said Pizzuto is a fun, playful teacher — sometimes even standing on the desks singing and dancing — but also devotes her time to support her students. “They could tell that she cared about them, not just in their work, but if they had an issue, they could talk to her,” she said.
This year, Pizzuto said teaching virtually will help her say goodbye to LeMoyne.
“Because I have a little bit of distance between me and my students this year, I think this is going to make my transition easier for me because I won’t have that same connection with the kids,” Pizzuto said. “It’s a different kind of connection and it’s still good — but when you’re with the same kids six, seven hours a day, five days a week, for 40 weeks, that kind of connection is very special.”
Pizzuto said she plans to spend more time with her family during retirement, but LeMoyne will always hold a special place in her heart.
“How will I forget LeMoyne? It was a big, huge part of my life. I’ve been there more than half my life,” Pizzuto said. “It’s been quite a ride, and this is not how I imagined ending it, but it’s wonderful in its own way.”