Bill Zisk admits that he’s an old school teacher. He treats his students at Vinal Technical High School in Middletown, where he also serves as the head of the school’s electrical department, like the adults he expects them to be when they go to job sites.
Be respectful, get respect. No cussing. Work hard, don’t whine. Do the job you’re hired to do; be relentless about meeting standards. Go above and beyond.
That’s the philosophy Zisk, sometimes known as “The Warden” but mostly known as “Mr. Z,” used to make his own way out of an inner-city upbringing that included living in public housing and not being able to “rub two nickels together,” he said.
Zisk said his background mirrors that of the students he’s been teaching for nearly 40 years. He sees his background and his job as a constant reminder to them of what is possible if they stay the course.
“Growing up as my students say ‘in the hood,’ nobody gave me nothing,” he said. “I tell them if you want to excel, you gotta work.”
Zisk knows a lot about that work. He came to teaching while simultaneously working as an electrician.
“I got a call from my old department head at Hartford’s Prince Tech and he said, ‘Would you like to teach?’” Zisk recalled. “I said, ‘Me teach? Of all people?’”
His old department head was serious indeed. Zisk was to teach nights, working his trade during the day. In fact, he was expected to start teaching the same night that he got the call.
“At one time, I had a lot of hair,” Zisk said with a chuckle. He said it started falling out with the crew of 47 students he started teaching that night but he has no regrets.
“They said if you can make it one year in an inner-city, you can go anywhere,” he said of that first teaching job. Anywhere ultimately ended up being in Middletown.
Zisk prides himself in never having to send students to the principal’s office.
I don't have discipline problems. It’s based on respect and trust. I respect you. I want the same respect.
After a year of earning his stripes and the respect of his students at Prince Tech, he was offered a permanent teaching position at Vinal, where he’s been ever since.
“A lot of opportunities came my way,” he said. “I have compassion for teaching and it just mushroomed from there. I worked my way up to being a permanent instructor and then to being department head. I’ve sat on licensing boards for the state of Connecticut.”
Zisk said vocational education is one of the best-kept secrets in Connecticut. He said the students that come to him have “a golden opportunity” to learn “real-world, problem-solving skills” that can lead them to careers that pay six figures without amassing crippling student loan debt.
He said he lets his students know that it’s not glamorous work, but it is honest. Zisk said some of his best days are when former students come back and tell him that they’ve worked their way up through a particular job and are doing well.
It's nice when a student comes back and says, ‘You were the warden, you were like the drill sergeant, but I just bought a house, I just bought a car. You know, real-world, problem-solving skills.
Zisk said he’s been keeping it real with students for nearly forty years but he’s still pleasantly surprised when they come back to thank him.
As he looks ahead to retirement, he said he’ll likely never truly leave technical education and would want to stay involved in some way including as a substitute teacher. He said if he had any advice for new teachers, it would be not to emulate his teaching style.
He suggests new technical teachers find out what works for them and use that authenticity to build trust with students. He also advises them to push back against any stereotype that might suggest that vocational education is only for the kids who don’t have the aptitude for college. Zisk pointed out that good math and English instruction is necessary for obtaining an electrician’s license in the state.
“I’m just that avenue,” he said. “That’s all I am. You like to hear those stories where they succeed, where they come back and say ‘Mr. Z, I’m off Mommy and Daddy’s purse strings. I’m on my own,’ and they’re 18 years old. I know that makes me feel good.”