Joe Rizzo started teaching in Wrangell, Alaska in 1994. He says he's always been passionate about education and fostering growth in young people.

“I learned very, very quickly that the enthusiasm that you bring to a classroom is contagious," he said.

After 25 years, Rizzo is still bringing that enthusiasm to his classroom at Nikiski High School. He covers a wide range of subjects including math, English, government and debate.

“You can teach people how to teach different subjects, what you can’t teach people is how to care about kids,” he said.

According to Rizzo, that's the most important topic. He says once a student knows that a teacher understands, trust is built. He wants his students to be able to approach him with issues they face in school and beyond the classroom.

“We are our own best friend. We know what we need and kids know what they need," he said. "We just need to listen and find out what it is that we can do to help.”

Rizzo empowers his students by freeing them from the phone screen, encouraging engagement through the arts or discussion.

“I’m seeing more degree of anxiety with kids, more depression with kids and this is not necessarily all caused by technology, but I think we’d be foolish not to think that it has some kind of effect on them,” he said.

Rizzo would like to see more counselors and resources for students to be able to work through their problems. In the meantime, Rizzo does his part.

“We want to teach kids how to be respectful, how to like make your point, and how to like listen," he said of his debate and government classes. "All those things that we’re not modeling at a national level, or even at a state level sometimes. So it becomes the teacher’s job to teach that and model that and say well, that’s not the way the real world is working, but you guys can save this. You guys can be the generation to turn things around."

Rizzo wants his students to feel loved and confident in themselves. When they leave Nikiski, he wants them to know they matter.

“A lot of who we become, we decide when we’re 15 years old. And if you can have a career where you get to be a part of that, a part of shaping somebody and helping them make their lives better, you can’t beat a career like that," he said.

Rizzo is set to retire at the end of this school year. He says he plans on spending more time working with the theater he founded in 1998.

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