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SPARK Schools: A Recipe for Teacher Joy and Excellence

SPARK Schools: A Recipe for Teacher Joy and Excellence

Elizabeth and I left SPARK schools in South Africa with our minds spinning. We had spent the day talking with several groups of teachers and administrators and participating in parts of their day-long professional development meeting. Given our experience with like-minded charter schools in the U.S., we thought we knew what to expect, but the visit far surpassed our expectations. As we waited outside for our taxi to pick us up, Elizabeth turned to me, “That was incredible,” she said. “I know.”

Not surprisingly, SPARK believes that all students can achieve at high levels. Unhappy with the rigor of local standards, they’ve instead adopted the most rigorous international curriculums, like Singapore math. But more interesting is how SPARK supports its teachers as they strive to push students to these levels. Time and time again, teachers lauded the supports SPARK offers as helping them to develop, not just as teachers but, as human beings.

Over the last few years (SPARK was founded in 2013), SPARK seems to have struck on a five-part recipe for teacher development that not only serves students but helps teachers feel joyful in their work as well. And, like any good recipe, when these ingredients are mixed together, they become much more than the sum of their parts.*

Ingredient #1 – Culture of Continuous Growth

“There hasn’t been a time when I’ve been, ‘OK I’m complacent now. Fine. I’m good at my job.’ There’s constant change; there’s constant improvement for yourself and for your students.”

“You’re always moving the goal post. You met this, now what’s next? So it’s an element of surprise continuously. And that’s what I just love about being here.”

“SPARK creates an environment where you feel safe enough to take risks.”

There is a universal assumption at SPARK that, excellence is a never ending pursuit. In most environments, people only feel successful if they get feedback that basically says, ‘you’re great, keep up the good work.’ But at SPARK, people have embraced a more, ‘journey is the destination,’ attitude toward education. Teachers are excited by the idea that there will always be something new in front of them.

Ingredient #2 – Frequent and Relevant Professional Development

“When I came to the training last year, I was completely blown away by how different it was compared to my previous experience. Here they focus on teacher training, 250 hours a year. What other school can offer that? To train us to be the best teachers that we could ever be?”

“The Professional Development is innovative and it’s also very adaptive. We’re self-reflective. We’re looking at what’s worked well and what hasn’t, and we’re changing it.”

The teachers and administrators we spoke with all saw the amount of training they were offered as a sign of the school’s commitment to them. This is a far cry from America where teachers often cringe at the idea of PD. What makes it different? Teachers talked about how the training was relevant to their classrooms and also how it was interactive. Information was not just given rather, teachers were given opportunities to play games, build relationships with each other, and engage with the topics in a more collaborative way.

Ingredient #3 – Sense of Community and Common Purpose

“In South Africa there are big differences between private and public schools, but one thing that’s the same is that you have this massive teaching staff, and there’s no relationship between the staff. There’s no common ground between the staff, except the fact that you’re a teacher. Here, even though we are a big staff, we come together. We have a little family going.”

“We are all mission aligned. Some teachers go into the industry because maybe it’s their last option. But the people here have the passion deep down for children and for education. We collaborate because we understand the mission and we want to be here.”

The main thing SPARK looks for when recruiting teachers is an unyielding belief in the ability of all children. While the staff is diverse in every other way, this unity of purpose has created a solid foundation for community and collaboration. As one teacher put it, the work is, “hard, hard, hard, hard, hard.” But having other people around to lean on, people who are going through the same challenges, helps frame that struggle as invigorating rather than demoralizing.

Ingredient #4 – One-to-One Coaching

“I think at spark you have the support, and you have that comfort of knowing that, if I do a make a mistake, there are people around me to support me and help me grow, to become better. At the start, when someone came into my class for an observation I was like ‘Oh my God, I’m going to do everything wrong,’ but now it’s like, ‘Come and look at my classroom, because I need your feedback.’ And it’s not just for you; it’s for your scholars.”

“At the moment, I’m a coach and work with 12 people. I meet with them every week. They come in with questions and ideas where they want to improve they’ll say, ‘I know I did this and I was wondering about this.’ So it’s no necessarily coming from me. I’m more of a wall to bounce ideas off of.”

Perhaps the most systematic support at SPARK are the weekly coaching meetings. These meetings are for everyone and are deliberately framed as supportive, rather than evaluative. But everyone was also quick to add that the meetings aren’t really about the teachers at all, they’re about the students. The teacher’s growth is not an end in itself.

Ingredient #5 – Emphasis on Personal Well-Being

“The investment into me as an individual, not as an educator but as an individual, was incredible. They formed personal relationships with me from the get go so they knew me, what my strengths and weaknesses were, what made me happy, what made me sad, and from there they developed me into the educator I soon became. As they developed me as an individual, I naturally grew as an educator. And that constant PD and investment into me really drove my passion to stay here and not want to go anywhere.”

“The one-to-one meetings we have with our principals or coaches. They’re not just to touch base on your classroom but to touch base with what’s going on with you personally. How are you outside of school?”

Whenever someone would start to talk about SPARK’s commitment to them as individuals, or their personal development, everyone else in the group would begin to nod. One teacher talked about how during the run up to her wedding, her principal asked if she needed someone to pick anything up for her. SPARK seems to recognize that teachers are people first and that if they’re not stable as people they’re not going to be stable as teachers.

_____

For a long time, I reacted to the term ‘Professional Development’ with a kind of sarcastic skepticism. In my first couple years of teaching, I had seen plenty of ‘Professional Development.’ These were cookie-cutter presentations about random topics, delivered with the contrived optimism of people who would get paid no matter what happened when they left. I had formal observations too, but they were haphazard and disjointed. Sure, I may have gotten a couple ideas from these meetings and conversations, but overall they weren’t worth the effort, and they certainly didn’t make me a better teacher. More than anything, the professional development I received affirmed my belief that my classroom was a world unto itself, a place that couldn’t possibly be understood by an outsider who wanted to help.

At SPARK, things are different. Growth is a community experience. They take the expectations they hold their students to very seriously, and they understand the support teachers need to make those expectations a reality. At SPARK development isn’t just something that’s blocked onto a schedule. It’s an everyday fact of life.

More thoughts from our day at SPARK are on their way,

Will

*These five ingredients aren’t a formalized approach by SPARK itself. They’re simply the themes that seemed to come up repeatedly during conversations with SPARK staff.

Creating a Collaborative School Culture (Part 2)

Creating a Collaborative School Culture (Part 2)

“Lesson study is the way change has been able to come to elementary,” explained Shannon Watt. “We plan our lessons as a team. And we’ve done it, so if it doesn’t work it’s the team’s responsibility, not just one teacher. Lesson Study is what’s enabled us to open our minds, make mind shifts, to leave the traditional.”

As she spoke, Ms. Watt began to pull books on Lesson Study from the shelves in her office and slide them towards me over the desk. Lesson Study is a Japanese methodology where teachers plan and analyze their lessons together.

“And the best thing is that lesson study makes them open their classrooms, so now we have middle school teachers who go to see elementary teachers. Which is great because now they feel empowered. Observers come, and they are impressed and then they adapt what they see for older students. There’s more sharing ideas.”

But Lesson Study is a difficult system to get going in a school. In the West, teachers are famously attached to their autonomy. In a system that makes them feel embattled on all fronts, it’s often all they have to cling to. Even in a more affluent school like Southern Cross, teachers often invest a tremendous amount of personal pride in their particular way of doing things. Getting teachers to plan and evaluate lessons together, to get them innovating, is often a tremendous challenge. The “Team Time” in my first school back in 2006 often devolved into a round robin airing of grievances. Many of the teachers I’ve worked with over the past few years have shared similar experiences.

Lesson Study - International education

When Shannon Watt first introduced Lesson Study, she knew that she had to be delicate. She first started with a team she thought would be more amenable. Only after they shared how much they liked it, did she encourage the more skeptical teachers to try it out. There were problems at first. It’s only now, in the third year, that she feels Lesson Study is working as it truly should. All of the teachers are engaged and invested. They see how Lesson Study helps them. The issues with group work, which resulted in the slow but enthusiastic adoption of Kagan strategies, were originally surfaced in Lesson Study meetings.

Spending a day with Ms. Watt at Southern Cross, and talking with her teachers, was extremely illuminating. She seems to have created the kind of professional culture that many schools in the States aspire to with a kind of wistful idealism, an unstated recognition that the barriers are actually too great.*

More and more, people are beginning to realize that teaching needs to be a more collaborative profession. Just the night before, I was at a talk with a Chilean Education Professor who discussed how teachers’ tendency to view their classrooms as independent fiefdoms was one of the major barriers to reform. More collaborative faculties not only give people more opportunities to collaborate and share ideas. It also helps with morale.

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Ms. Watt’s approach to leadership is much more thoughtful. It’s characterized by a patient perseverance that is far too rare in most schools.[/pullquote]

In the last post, I mentioned that the Harvard Business Review has found that having opportunities for professional growth and feeling trusted by one’s supervisor are two of the most important factors for job satisfaction. A third factor highly important factor is having close collaborative relationships with one’s colleagues.

The importance of collaboration is something many schools in the U.S. seem to know without understanding how to make it a reality. Too often the strategy is to block off time on a calendar without any context or guidance. Ms. Watt’s approach to leadership is much more thoughtful. It’s characterized by a patient perseverance that is far too rare in most schools. And it’s an approach that’s created results.

As an 18 year veteran teacher I met at Southern Cross told me, “I’ve worked at a lot of schools. And what I’ve learned is that the role of the instructional coordinator is really very important.”

– Will

*There is a very real barrier in many U.S. schools though. Mainly the amount of time teachers are expected to be with students. At Southern Cross, the teachers told me they spent 27.5 hours a week with students. In many U.S. elementary schools that number is closer to 34 hours. Those extra 6 hours a week for things like Lesson Study can make a big difference.

Creating a Collaborative School Culture (Part 1)

Creating a Collaborative School Culture (Part 1)

The teachers Shannon Watt works with talk about her in tones of grateful reverence. If you’ve spent much time in teachers’ lounges, you may appreciate how unusual this tone of voice is. Especially when the topic of conversation is school administration.

“She trusts us. She gives us freedom,” began one, 18-year veteran, teacher.

“But its freedom with responsibility,” added another.

“Exactly.”

We got to this point after I asked them why they think the culture at Southern Cross (one of the best private schools in Chile) is so strong. First, they spoke about the strong relationships between students and teachers. They said teachers aren’t seen as a ‘big authority,’ and that it’s important to help students understand that behavior corrections are meant to help them become better people. But they quickly switched to talking about their own development.

“And the teachers here are always studying.”

“It’s tough, but nice. Like Kagan… It was difficult at first but now I love it.”

By ‘Kagan’ the teacher meant a set of cooperative learning strategies that are quickly gaining popularity in the United Sates as well.

“Cooperative learning started because the teachers wanted it,” explained Shannon Watt. “They saw that kids didn’t know how to work in groups. They made group work and it didn’t work. The kids had to learn how to work in groups.” Ms. Watt is also a trainer for Singapore math and, interestingly, it was a teacher from Singapore who recommended Kagan. So Ms. Watt bought the book, travelled to the States for training and then returned to try the strategies out with her own class.

“So, I tried it. The first weeks I thought, ‘this is terrible, this book was phony.’ Everything was ‘Ahhh!’ I didn’t know if it was going to work. And then the third week kids started engaging and it went well. I saw them working. And then I invited other teachers to come see my classes. They liked what they saw and that was the way we put it in.”

Shannon Watt
Shannon Watt

I think there’s a lot to learn about effective administration from this account.

  1. The teachers identified group work as a priority. The reform wasn’t coming down from out of the blue.
  2. Shannon did exhaustive preparation on her own and then piloted the strategies in her own classroom. In this way, she was in a position to truly empathize with the challenges her teachers faced later.
  3. She stuck with it for three weeks before it started to work. For me, this emphasizes the unwavering expectations she holds her students to. I’ve seen many teachers from working-class schools attempt and then abandon Kagan strategies after a few days. They say the initial disaster is proof that these strategies won’t work in ‘their environment’ or for ‘their students.’ It’s worth noting that a veteran teacher at a prestigious school encountered the same difficulties, she just reacted to them differently.
  4. Before pulling teachers into trainings, she invited them to her room and allowed a ‘buzz’ to build around the techniques. When the training finally started it was something they were eager to learn.

It’s not hard to see why her teachers love working with her.

The Harvard Business Review has done a number of studies about why people do or don’t like their jobs. Two of the most powerful factors for job satisfaction they’ve found are:

  1. Feeling trusted by your supervisor.
  2. Opportunities to develop professionally in a meaningful way.

Too often in the United States administrators limit their communications with teachers to discussing evaluations and obligations. This approach fairly quickly chips away at the trust most teachers initially feel toward their administration. And it’s a cliché by now for teachers to be bombarded by new waves of ‘teacher proof’ classroom strategies every few years; strategies devised without their input, and without any concern for the specific dynamics of their classroom. Teachers end up feeling that the school or district doesn’t understand them and doesn’t care to. The idea the district ‘trusts’ them is often almost laughable.

Ms. Watt’s approach to leadership is clearly different. Her teachers love working with her because they feel trusted. And the way their development is set up makes them excited to grow in their craft. It’s amazing the differences happy teachers make.

But before Shannon Watt helped her teachers create a collaborative environment for her students, she first had to work on creating a collaborative culture amongst her teachers. Shannon is quick to point out that the above story never would have happened if it hadn’t been for Lesson Study. For more on that story, check out tomorrow’s post.

  • Will