40 years a teacher, Mary Byczek calls her job ‘the joy of my life’

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Mary Byczek walks in between rows of desks at St. Leo the Great School in Fairfax, her voice calm and deliberate and her hands gesturing. She's giving a brief refresher on pronouns, sprinkling it with anecdotes and examples, while her fifth-graders highlight words on worksheets. When Byczek, 62, stops to ask a question, several arms shoot up, some bobbing higher than others with eagerness. After calling on a student, she smiles and nods with encouragement at the answer.

The skill and ease with which the longtime teacher flows through the lesson and engages the class stands out almost as much as the palpable satisfaction she finds in helping students learn.

"It's the joy of my life," said Byczek, who is celebrating 40 years as a teacher this year, including 25 years teaching fifth-graders at St. Leo. "I've known since I was 5 years old that I wanted to teach. I may not be the best teacher in the world, but I love stepping into a classroom and seeing how I get to help children."

A military wife and mother of two, Byczek taught in Alabama, Florida, Michigan and Illinois before coming to St. Leo in 1990. She began her teaching career in a secular private academy, but Catholic schools are where her heart always has been.

"The first time I worked in a Catholic school, it was utopia," said Byczek, a native of Long Island, N.Y. "You could talk about God and things that were important to me."

Her favorite part of the school day is morning prayers, when she gives students the opportunity to offer special intentions.

"I get to hear what's bothering them, what they are afraid of and what is good in their lives," she said. "And I tell them what's going on in my life. It's a chance to talk about current events that are troubling them and remind them they are in God's hands."

St. Leo Principal David DiPippa said that Byczek has an extraordinary dedication to Catholic education, to St. Leo the Great School and to the children she teaches, adding that she's often asked to share her expertise at the diocese's annual new teacher orientation.

"She really tries to bring out the best in each child, both academically and spiritually," said DiPippa, who's worked alongside her for a decade. In many ways she's traditional in her classroom routines and student expectations, he said, yet she's always eager to "bring in new methodologies and new advances in education to enhance what she does."

After nearly a half-century teaching, she could easily "coast in the classroom," said DiPippa. Instead, she's an "active learner as a teacher, always wanting to better herself and taking advantage of every professional development opportunity she can."

Alumni sometimes stop by St. Leo to visit Byczek's classroom to thank her, he said, and she's been invited to the weddings of former students.

Current fifth-grader Bianca Navarro said Byczek makes "any subject more interesting with her stories," adding, "she smiles a lot."

Byczek said she's learned as much from her students as she's taught them. "I've learned everybody has a different story," she said. "I've hopefully learned to be more patient; I've learned, been shocked by the faith people have. It's so strong that it really conquers all. And I've experienced the kindness and the wonderfulness of children."

"Hopefully," she added, "the Lord will give me a few more years doing what I love."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016