Star Wars — the fantastical, legendary science fiction epoch of space, war, love and betrayal, and mythical creatures and worlds — inspired a young John Pienkowski ’17 (School of Education) to pursue a career in science.
Fast forward to the present day, and you’ll find Pienkowski teaching 7th grade Biology at Brandon Middle in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Although it’s only his second year working in the field of education, he’s already been recognized by the National Association for Alternative Certification (NAAC) as a joint winner for their 2018 Outstanding New Educator award. It’s the first time an alternative licensure teacher from Virginia has won the national award.
“I don’t know if it has all sunk in yet,” he said. “I think I’m still amazed … Now I can share my experiences with others and just get the word out about how great it is to be in education.”
However, as skilled as he is in teaching, the classroom is a relatively new environment for the retired U.S. Navy Commander who served for 20 years.
After graduating from the United States Naval Academy with a Bachelor’s of Science in Ocean Engineering in 1995, he received special training in Space Systems Operations. He earned his master’s degree in the subject from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School based out of Monterey, California.
Pienkowski later served on the USS Ronald Reagan, and was eventually given command of the USS Mesa Verde. In 2015, he retired with the rank of commander.
So what made the commander of a naval warship switch from commanding sailors on deck, to teaching science in middle school?
According to Pienkowski, it was a combination of things. He was inspired by friends and family members who taught. His father, upon retiring from a career in chemical engineering, began teaching at a community college.
He also wanted to use his experiences in instructing and mentoring and leading that he had developed while stationed over young enlisted men and women and officers in the Navy. And because he has two sons involved in the Boy Scouts, Pienkowski not only understands the needs young people have in regard to leadership, but has the desire to “give back to a younger generation in education.”
“I wanted to have that impact on young adults,” he added.
Pienkowski praised Regent’s Military Resource Center (MRC) for how they helped him transition into civilian life, which he said can be a “very scary” process.
The MRC not only assisted him in sorting through his GI benefits and other logistical information, but they helped him connect with other retired servicemen and servicewomen studying at Regent. Pienkowski appreciated this small community of fellow veterans because he said they “understood where I was coming from.”
Although a warship and a classroom share few similarities, if any, Pienkowski maintains many of the same leadership principles apply to leading both.
In the Navy, Pienkowski said he learned that, “on a ship, you have to be aware of your surroundings, not only in the ship, but when you’re out at sea and sailing and there’s other ships in the vicinity.”
That same principle of retaining awareness, something people in the field of education refer to as “with-it-ness” he said, constantly applies to working with students in a classroom.
Another quality he holds in high regard, whether on a warship or teaching biology, is mutual respect. In his words, it’s the idea that, “I don’t demand respect, but I think I should earn the respect.”
However, to Pienkowski, the “most rewarding part of education,” comes when students “master the content” of the course.
“When they do, you can see their whole demeanor change,” he said. “Their face lights up or they get a smile on their face … especially if they make a connection with something they’ve either personally dealt with, or something in the real world that might be going on in the classroom.”