Dr. Joel Tapia was born in San Jose, California to newly immigrated parents from Mexico who were chasing the “American Dream”. At age 9, Joel’s family moved to San Diego, California, where Joel finished his undergraduate studies and teacher preparation program, became a bilingual teacher at age 23, and then began his leadership career at age 29 as a one of the youngest school principals in the largest elementary school district in California. Dr. Joel Tapia is proud of his record of improving student achievement across his diverse schools, breaking many of the school’s previous academic records and earning honors such as the National Blue Ribbon School Award, California Distinguished School Award, California Title 1-Achievement Award, and California Business for Education Excellence Award.
Dr. Joel Tapia is lifelong learner and an expert in the fields of elementary education, teaching pedagogy, school leadership, adult learning, and organizational performance. He has earned a bachelor’s degree, teaching and administrator credential, and two master’s degrees in curriculum and leadership from San Diego State University. He attended Harvard’s prestigious Principals’ Center, earning a certificate in leadership. Furthermore, Joel earned his Doctorate in Education, in Organizational Change and Leadership, from University of Southern California. His Doctoral Thesis, “Developing Readers at a High-Poverty School: A Study of Factors that Influence Teacher Performance” was nominated by faculty for the Doctoral Thesis of the Year Award. He is continuing his studies at Harvard Business School’s innovative Certificate of School Management and Leadership (CSML) program.
Currently, Dr. Joel Tapia serves as the expatriate principal in a top-tier bilingual school in China. He leads a team of 20 expat teachers from USA, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, South Africa, and Australia and a team of Chinese bilingual teachers to prepare bilingual Chinese students for successful global engagement and achievement. He lives happily in Hangzhou, China, with his wife and 4-year-old son, and they are enjoying the adventure of a lifetime as they immerse themselves in the beautiful eastern culture and traditions of Chinese people.
1.What is your current position, and what does a typical day look like for you?
I am currently the Expatriate School Principal of a top-tier, private, primary Bilingual school in Hangzhou, China. The school’s name is Hangzhou Greentown Yuhua Primary School, and we serve about 1,350 students, grades 1-6, from all over Hangzhou and beyond.
I start my day by reviewing my calendar for the day, making notes, followed by checking my email. Before school starts at 8:00am, I like to visit the four grouped teachers’ offices to greet the staff. I make my rounds visiting the classrooms, grade by grade. I observe if the teacher’s lesson reflects what was planned for that day, cross-checking our quarterly curriculum map and weekly lesson plan. I also check for student engagement. I may leave a note for the teacher as feedback or make a note for my own reflection, for teacher evaluation purposes and/or to provide ongoing support. Lastly, in each classroom, I check on students who need extra support per assessment data. I can quickly pull up formative assessment results and access data from our programs for reading like RAZ-Kids and Spelling City.
If I have any formal observations scheduled for teachers or teacher assistants, I spend the whole lesson in the classroom scripting out the lesson in detail, including capturing portions of the lesson in photo and/or video. This information is used to debrief with the teacher in a post-conference session—to clarify the lesson, commend actions, and support/develop professional growth, and agree to next steps. This is how I help create better conditions for quality teaching and learning.
In the afternoon, I take time at my office to prepare for Thursday’s Professional Development (PD), which I lead for the entire bilingual division every week. The topics covered include differentiated teaching, classroom management, using data to drive instruction, how to develop English language acquisition for students using research-based strategies, and more. I also prepare for monthly Parent Workshops that I provide for parents on topics like Growth Mindset, Improving English Reading, or Fostering Child Creativity.
The instructional part of the school day for students ends at 3:10pm. Typically, I meet with teachers as needed, then work in my office on my ongoing projects. At the end of the day, usually our Chinese Headmaster visits my office to chat, to discuss student learning, any upcoming school events, or strategic leadership topics together.
2. How do you inspire your students to achieve their fullest potential?
I inspire my students to achieve their fullest potential in two main ways. First, I use a “personal-touch” approach. I make students feel special by engaging them one-on-one, greeting them intentionally and warmly with high-fives and enthusiasm, praising them specifically for a positive action, demonstrated attitude or good outcome. I believe this personal Student-to-Principal connection helps create a positive orientation for each student, motivating them to go to school every day to do their best. They know the Principal believes in him or her, which builds self-efficacy. Secondly, I strategically work to create an inspired school vision, systems, and a positive school culture that directly and indirectly inspire students. This involves modeling for staff how to treat and teach students at a high-level, providing tangible research-based scaffolds to support diverse learners, using data strategically to provide appropriate solutions, educating parents about how to reinforce school learning at home, and celebrating student success at every opportunity through assemblies, award ceremonies, and in-class incentives. Lastly, I am constantly framing my communication with all stakeholders that achievement is tied to effort. I preach that students don’t need the highest IQ, perfect family background, or wealth to achieve their fullest potential. So, when I hold school wide assembly meetings, this is my message and I make it known loud and clear: achievement is not a special outcome only for a select few. I explain that through active choice, persistence, and effort, and by learning from mistakes, everyone can achieve at a high-level.
3. Where do you get your motivation from?
My motivation comes from three main sources: my faith, my parents’ devotion, and my personal observations of the world. First, my worldview is grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition and in the belief that my life should be purposeful towards helping to improve the lives of all people. And my career in the field of education does just that by giving me the opportunity to prepare children for success beyond school and for providing adult educators with intrinsically meaningful and fulfilling work. This work is global, not nationalistic, children deserve the opportunity for success. My motivating mission is to provide diverse children, youth and adults with knowledge, skills, and experiences that are empowering them in spite of challenging circumstances. Secondly, my parents were immigrants to the United States from Mexico and they raised me to be my best. They believed in me, were loving and supportive, and made many personal, social, and financial sacrifices to invest their life’s energy to give me a better life in the United States. This gratitude I feel for their love and support motivates me to be my best so that I can lead, organize, and inspire others to success. Thirdly, I see a lot of suffering and inequity in the world. The majority of people in the world live in poverty and lack the fundamental resources to be healthy and prosperous. Thus, I feel an ethical and moral responsibility to do my part to make it better. I work towards that end every day as an education leader. All children deserve a high-quality education—the path to prosperity—and I hope my legacy will be that as an educator and leader I helped thousands of children to develop the necessary skills, knowledge and experiences to be ethical, compassionate, smart, competent, and a valuable member of society.
4. What trends in education are you most excited by?
I am excited by the trend of traditional education being disrupted by the Information Revolution. By that I mean that access to comprehensive knowledge is now readily available to people all over the world because of free resources and online learning communities. To me, this means that worldwide institutions that traditionally have been the gatekeepers of knowledge and power—and by extension of social and economic classes—are now losing their strong grip over who can learn what, when, why, and how. For instance, we are now witnessing that many billionaires, like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Steve Jobs of Apple, and Bill Gates of Microsoft, who are some of the most influential people and founders of companies in the world, did not graduate from university because they had access to knowledge from other sources. This trend will become bigger in the future because of the current onset of diverse learning platforms, MOOCs, crowd-sourcing sites and tools, person-to-person information sharing streams like YouTube, blogs, and podcasts. I believe the implication of this for education institutions and educators today is that we must share more power with students, teaching them to learn how to learn and to produce. We must prepare students for the goals of becoming lifelong learners, self-independent yet cooperative learners, competitive in the knowledge economy. I also believe this means that schools today must engage children using the language which they speak fluently as digital natives: technology. Although I believe it is still many years to come before traditional learning environments are irrelevant, I do believe now is the time to integrate a hybrid curriculum where online learning compliments in-person learning environments.
5. What is your teaching style, and how did you determine it to be the most effective?
My teaching style reflects a combination of the approaches known as Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) and Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT). The former pedagogical approach begins with having a clear lesson purpose centered on a learning target—either knowledge or skill—that I want my students to master through (1) exposure to competent modeling and explanation, (2) guided practice with the teacher, (3) collaborative learning and consolidation with peers, (4) and independent metacognitive practice and application. The four phases of instruction within the Gradual Release of Responsibility framework incorporate into a cohesive whole the diverse aspects of theoretical constructs and research findings of behaviorist, socio-cultural, and cognitive fields about how people best learn.
The latter pedagogical approach incorporated into my teaching style, Culturally Responsive Teaching, is more of a conceptual lens with which to design and deliver a responsive, relevant, and rigorous learning experience for students. This approach accomplishes this goal by fundamentally using the students’ own culture, background, experiences, prior knowledge, interests, and ways of knowing to connect to and learn varying content, concepts, skills, and objectives. It is an empowering and strengths-based approach to teaching that gives students agency over their own learning. In my current role as Expat Principal in Hangzhou, China, this means that our school equally values and honors the students’ own Chinese cultural traditions and ways of knowing alongside the presentation of equally important yet different Western-based knowledge, values and curriculum. I believe this teaching style is most effective because (1) the research supports this approach to learning as effective—and (2), our observations and data demonstrate that students are becoming critical and flexible thinkers, globally-minded, and more engaged.