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Virginia living magazine - 2023 face of independent school, john pennisi

Now in his sixth year at Wakefield School in The Plains, Virginia, and his 18th overall year of teaching, John Pennisi has seen things come full circle. Many of his current senior thesis students know him very well; that’s because he taught a lot of them in the 7th and 8th grades.

“I remember them fondly from Middle School,” he says, “and they’ve grown into such mature and passionate young men and women who challenge me and make me better.”

Wakefield’s students are encouraged to take risks in the classroom, and Pennisi himself is taking a risk this year. For the first time, he is teaching the senior thesis course, a hallmark of a Wakefield education. He’s worked with his friend Mr. Matt Zontine, English department chair and the course’s previous teacher, to do a collective “refresh.” John says, “The ‘bones’ are still there because they work. However, this year, we hope that students think about their finished product in terms of a project versus a conventional research paper. We’re hoping to see some research-based documentaries, a few magazines, and maybe have an art show.”

Last year, Pennisi co-wrote and published a book with college basketball coach and friend Heather Macy, and he’s been able to use that experience to bring the writing process to life for his students. “They think it’s cool I’ve written a book, and it’s helped to engage many of them with the writing process.” In a neat twist, one of his seniors is going to use Pennisi’s book as part of his thesis on the psychology behind different coaching styles. “It’s pretty surreal to have him read my book and potentially work it into his research project,” Pennisi says.

John Pennisi came to Wakefield in the fall of 2018 because of the people. “When I interviewed, the students were polite and incredibly engaged in the classroom. Their sense of belonging was clear.” 

He’s seen the school grow since then with regard to vision and population. “Head of School Ashley Harper has been instrumental in all of it,” he says. “Our strategic plan and updated mission statement are enabling faculty and students to take greater risks in the classroom. We know that failure can often happen when trying new things, so we’re leaning into that space.”

Pennisi attributes much of the success he’s had in the classroom over the years to the connections he’s built with his students: “Whether we connect over our love of Frankenstein or the Los Angeles Lakers, I hope to bond with each of them so they know they are seen and that I care for them deeply.” He also attends games and performances at school to show them support outside of the classroom, too. “So much in life is about showing up, and I try to model that for them,” he says. I want them to ‘show up’ in the classroom, so I show up at their games and performances as much as I can.”

As a member of Wakefield’s talented faculty, John Pennisi embodies the school’s mission to “foster the character, curiosity, and clear voices the world needs.” 

“I used to say to my students, ‘Go out and change the world,’ he says. “But at some point I realized, They’re already doing that. They’re changing it through their involvement in clubs and their community service work. They’re changing it through their kindness to me and to one another. To be a small part of their journey here at Wakefield is a gift.” 

Wakefield School currently serves nearly 400 students in Junior Kindergarten through twelfth grade from Fauquier, Prince William, Loudoun, Fairfax, Rappahannock, and Clarke counties. 

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