Leap of Faith

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We tell our students to follow their passions in life, but do we walk the talk as parents and educators? I’ve done a great deal of reflection on this and with the support of my family, last week I formally submitted my letter of resignation to my superintendent, effective June 30, 2014 —  this will be my seventh and final year as the lead learner at @KnappElementary School outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Westdale E.S. Asst. Principal Joe Mazza skydives after his students read 2,000 books. June 2006.

The next morning I met with staff before letters went out to our families articulating my rationale, the timing and the process under which future events would unfold. In the letter I detailed much of what I had learned from the students, teachers, parents in my school and learning organization that has helped me to better both myself and our learning community. When I began the principalship as a 29 year-old rookie principal in 2007, I had little experience in leading a large school, and I certainly had no idea what a “lead learner” was. I’m forever thankful for those in our Knapp learning community for their hard work, outside the box thinking and persistence in the best interests of kids.

So I begin this “leap of faith.” Come the end of the school year, I have no official contract or position moving forward. I’m counting on the relationships I’ve built, the experiences I’ve been involved in, the research I’m doing around social media and education and a global network of connected educators, leaders and parents to point me in the direction of where I’ll spend the second half of my educational career. 

Over the past 14 years, I’ve served a variety of learning organizations to prepare me for a future in which I can contribute while honing my own skills and passions:

  • 3rd grade teacher at a progressive little school (Hubbard Woods) within an affluent neighborhood outside of Chicago, my first teaching role working for a masterful principal who shaped my leadership style.

  • Bilingual elementary assistant principal in a school in western Chicago (Westdale Elementary), my first administrative role where 80% of my job was done in Spanish. I learned so much about the word culture here.

  • Middle school assistant principal in a Chicago suburb (Northbrook Junior High). Middle-level students are constantly growing in so many ways. We as adults must be there for them in a variety of ways. They need our support.

  • Principal/Lead Learner at Knapp Elementary School outside of Philadelphia, a challenging yet extremely rewarding experience working with families of 22 languages, many cultures and a high poverty rate. Despite these obstacles, our school team embedded high and low tech ways of building relationships while knocking down the traditional brick and mortar walls to create a transparent, connected learning environment for all.

In each of the schools I was lucky enough to work, the most impactful role I served was building relationships with all stakeholders. In each school, I worked with students, teachers and parents to harness the use of technology to build community within the learning organization, meet families where they were and “teach others how to fish” using today’s widely used social media tools. We founded and created television studios for the students and by the students in each of these settings. Each served as a “community-builder” bringing the learning community together in the best interests of teaching and learning.

My recent dissertation study at the University of Pennsylvania led me down a path of connected teaching, learning and leadership and has activated my inner passion and abilities in connecting, sharing and learning with others near and far. Experiencing “learning as social” firsthand using social media tools has kindled a fire within me to do more to improve the educational system in my country. In sharing my learning, I have been privileged to travel across the country speaking on innovative ways to offer professional development, connect home and school using high and low tech strategies, as well as provide support in connecting learning organizations based on related research – all of this while learning from passionate educators doing the same work many time zones away. A March trip to Finland was a life-changing event for me as our #PennFinn13 team uncovered how we might infuse more professional uses of social media into higher education and K-12 organizations. Growing up as a Commodore 64 kid, I feel I’ve finally found my small place in the edu-sphere.

Recently, I began taking on smaller roles such as Innovation Coach at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education supporting the work of graduate students in their digital leadership skills while serving on a dissertation committee investigating the increased use of social media in education and how it relates to professional development for teachers and leaders. With the help of a talented moderating team, I continue to organize the Wednesday night #ptchat (Parent-Teacher Chat) on Twitter, which is now partnered with the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) in Washington, DC. I’ve spoken during graduate courses at three local universities in the area of connected teaching, learning and leadership, Home & School 2.0 and how school districts can leverage social media in ways that are both safe, educational and sustainable without blocking half the Internet for students and staff. These experiences are tied to educational reform efforts happening here in the United States and give me hope that my children might see a better educational system than we have today.

Over the last week as my staff and parents learned of my plans, I have received a humbling amount of support from our Knapp community. I’ve also been asked why I shared my decision so early in the year. I’ve heard comments like, “Is your wife OK with this? What if you don’t find something? Isn’t it smarter to play it close to the vest until the end? and my favorite, Are you nuts, Joe?”

Submitting my written notice far in advance is aimed to provide my district and our Knapp community sufficient time to select a new leader with our students’ best interests in mind. Research details the value for stakeholders to have the opportunity to build buy-in for the incoming school leader, and that relationship starts with the interview process, and finding the best fit for the culture of our building and needs of the children, their families and our dedicated staff.  Many principals leave at the end of the school year or over the summer leaving limited time for a thorough interview process, closure or leader to leader articulation. With the utmost respect to my Knapp learning community, I want to leave them in the greatest position possible for the future of all who make it such a special and unique place.

The truth is, this decision is a risk. I am willing to take it based upon what I can learn and share within a new organization, the efforts I’ve put into education and the relationships I’ve built near and far. It is the right time in my career to take this “leap of faith” in the best interests of my family, my strengths and abilities and the current state of our American education system. It is the right time to follow my career passions:

  • Working with current and pre-service educators and leaders to identify how connectivity enhances teaching, learning and leadership.

  • Facilitating research in the area of high and low tech family engagement, social media and relationship-based leadership styles.

  • Teaching leadership and family engagement courses at the University level.

  • Connecting University and school-based efforts to teach, learn and lead.

  • Infusing social media into the higher education landscape.

  • Creation and implementation of a television channel that dovetails social media hashtag conversations, research and exemplars in the field with LIVE and archived programming, available 24/7 free to students, teachers, parents and community members. See #EdTV.

Someday I’d like my children to look back and say, “My father went out and did what he felt was the right thing to do based on what he learned from others and from his experiences in life and at work. He wasn’t afraid to follow his passions.”

Thanks so much for reading this post and for supporting my leap of faith. For further details on my professional experiences, please follow this link.

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