The first thing you notice about Joanna Rizzotto is her smile. You can’t help but be drawn in. She is shrouded in an aura of positive energy.
It’s been five years since the last interview, but her hug and cheery greeting are familiar—it’s like meeting up with an old friend. “Your hair! You changed it,” I say. “Always!” she laughs. “I change it up often. My hair is naturally very dark, so it’s a process to get to the lighter color. But once I get to bleach blond, I can easily hop to the fun colors. The kids sometimes make suggestions.”
I discover she isn’t joking about her hair as I look through a brochure she gave me about the REAL Academy—the program that she operates and teaches at in the South Milwaukee High School. In a photo, she is in a circle with her teenage students. She’s the one with purple hair.
And so, our “catching up” begins. The conversation reflects her passion for teaching, love for her students, concerns about her profession, and hope for the future. It’s the perfect prelude to the school year as well as the last in the “where are they now” member-story series we started in January as part of WEA Member Benefits’ 50th anniversary celebration.
How long have you been with the REAL Academy? What is it?
I have been a public school teacher for 27 years and operating the REAL Academy for 11 years. I love it. It’s an alternative program with a holistic approach to learning—we focus on personal well-being and learning and cultivate a safe space where students know they belong and practice healthy communication.
In our last interview, you had such an eloquent way of describing the students (teens) you teach and how you feel about what you do. You said…
“As a high school teacher, I feel honored to work with students during this transitional time in their lives. Teens are largely mischaracterized. I find them to be compassionate, creative, generous, and very curious about the world. I get energy from their thoughts and ideas. Teaching is a very human profession and I’m fortunate to be surrounded by great people.”
…But that was five years ago, and we’ve since had the experience with COVID. Can you speak to its impact? Would your statement be different now?
COVID, of course, had an impact on everything. It provided me and my students the opportunity to really put our skills into practice. As a program that focuses on the integration of well-being and learning—not one or the other—we were able to stay connected as a community, take care of ourselves, and continue growing during the closures. The transition back to school was difficult. We had to regain our stamina—physical and social habits needed tending to.
I still stand by what I said about the students in 2017. I find it fascinating to observe and study how they see the world and respond to it. I can tell you this—they are seeking harmony and connection, and they remind me that “schooling” must be dynamic and relevant.
In 2017, you were very active in the union. Are you today?
Yes. In fact, I ran for Vice President of WEAC this past spring. I did not win, but I came close! Locally and regionally, I am part of my executive boards. I am still focused on membership. I love being a part of my union because we define issues facing public education and develop solutions together.
COVID certainly altered education in the classroom, adding stress for educators and increased financial pressures. What do you see as the greatest financial challenges for educators today?
The greatest financial challenges today are that salaries generally are not keeping up with inflation. Last year the Consumer Price Index was 4.7%. Some districts adjusted salaries to reflect that, but others could not. In my district, my inflationary salary increase was .03%. It’s been 1% or below for the past ten years.
It’s also a concern that teachers are not incentivized to continue their education. Most of my early-career education friends are not pursuing master’s degrees because the cost of a degree outweighs any financial gains they might receive. And sadly, many do not see themselves retiring from education. The financial challenges contribute to the teacher recruitment and retention problem.
Personally, what’s the greatest financial challenge you’ve had in the last five years?
I’ve had three!
- My husband was unemployed for five months during the pandemic. He works as a camera operator for professional sports, and when all the leagues were shut down, so was his source of income.
- Financing our son’s college education.
- My mom developed dementia and I am her primary caretaker. I also provide financial support for her needs which total about $500 a month.
Have you made any financial changes you didn’t expect or plan to make?
Yes. In May of 2020, we refinanced our mortgage to a much lower rate and reduced the term of our loan to generate savings. I also put off buying a new vehicle. I’m still driving my ‘05 minivan with over 200,000 miles on it!
Before COVID, you were instrumental in bringing financial education to your district. You spoke about how important having access to trusted information and programs is for public school employees. You said…
“Time and again, staff had a good experience with Member Benefits, trusted it and had faith in the fact that it was specifically designed to support public school employees. When people come to the Member Benefits presentations, they always walk away feeling hopeful—really feeling good. People who are educators want to be educators. So having this support from an organization dedicated to our profession makes that job easier.”
…But in-person presentations came to a halt for the last two years. Do you expect to bring them back this year? What do you think would be topics of interest?
I can remember the last in-person financial session we had in December of 2019. It was packed! COVID put an end to that. I continued to pass on information within the union and through our district newsletter to colleagues, but we lost a lot of ground in our efforts to help staff feel financially secure.
I’d be open to in-person presentations, although I think most people now prefer anything after school to be virtual. I don’t have a pulse yet on what would be interesting to people. Hopefully, we can find a way to do it.
I always find connecting with Member Benefits helpful and worthwhile. It has this built-in credibility of being for public employees school employees. I still contribute to my 403(b) and am sure to encourage educators to set them up for themselves.
Any new insights or advice for educators today? How about for young people who are thinking about going into education?
We need to reinvest in the human side of education.
Educators today need to support each other and stay connected. When looking for power, don’t necessarily look up the chain of command—look around. Your colleagues understand and will help you.
I still encourage young people to join the profession. We need good people. Our students deserve more great school experiences.
How old are your children now? How have you shared your financial experiences and knowledge with them?
My “kids” are now 21, a senior in college, and 16, a junior in high school.
We share information about saving, budgeting, loans, and saving for retirement. More so with our son because he is close to graduating from college and is more interested. He is responsible for a portion of his educational costs, so he works full-time every summer to meet his obligation.
My daughter will be getting a job this school year and we’re starting to talk about future schooling and careers.
Our kids know that their parents both appreciate the living we have been able to make based on our skill set and education, and that we do not live beyond our means.
What does the future hold for Joanna?
The future looks good. I am grateful to have a happy, healthy family. I plan to continue my career in education and work for improvements that will draw young, talented people into the profession. Things can and will change, if we come together and put in the work.