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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.

The Obvious Need for Structured Social Spaces

The Obvious Need for Structured Social Spaces

We sat down with Hillary and Jody over lunch to talk about the Social Club they organize for students at the middle school in their community. We left quite impressed. Hillary is an alum of the program but neither of them have any kind of formal education training. They haven’t read a lot of youth development literature. They didn’t use the phrase ‘social-emotional learning.’ But they grew up in this community and they know that the children here need more than the content knowledge they get in school. They need a place, “to talk about their lives and the issues in their community.” What’s the goal of Social Club? Hillary hesitates and then raises her hands from the table, “I want them to change their idea about what is possible in the world.”

To arrive at the school, we had to drive through nearly the entire community. The streets are unmarked and the road is crumbling at the edges. There are many wooden shacks, but nearly as many larger brick homes, and an occasional two story house. Children walk and play in the street and adults cluster at the corners. In America we would describe the people here as black, but most of them identify as ‘colored’ – what Americans would call ‘light-skinned’ or ‘mixed.’ This was a distinction codified by apartheid and is still very real in South Africa. The first language in Kurland is afrikaans.

kurland south africa

Hillary asked us if we’d like to run Social Club for a day, and we happily agreed. The room the Social Club meets in has a number of posters that were clearly created by their previous activities.

We showed up to find a dozen children already circled up, about to play a round of ‘two truths and a lie.’ They laughed as we went around and Elizabeth and I were again reminded that children are pretty much the same wherever you go.

social-emotional learning

social-emotional learning

We planned a theater based activity inspired from my time with The Possibility Project. We would ask the students to identify some challenges/issues effecting their community and then talk about what was good in their community. After we had the lists the children would form groups and create ‘mini-plays’ inspired from their lives to perform for each other. I was nervous about the activity for several reasons. These kids were younger than the teens I normally did this with. Also, they didn’t know us and I was afraid they’d be too shy. How much experience did they have with acting? Creating, casting, and rehearsing a narrative arc in 30 minutes is a lot. What if they weren’t able to pull it off?

It turns out these fears were entirely unfounded. The all had experience with acting at some point and they were not shy about listing the issues effecting their community: drugs, violence, robbery, HIV. On the positive side they put: church, school, Social Club, friends and family. We got silly with some wiggle warm-ups and then they jumped into the scene creation with unbridled enthusiasm. We had stressed that these mini-plays were entirely theirs to create and they took this license very seriously. Several times, I approached a group to offer support and was shooed away because they were in the midst of a focused discussion or rehearsal. They got very creative very fast.

social-emotional learning

The first scene was about a boy who turned his younger brother on to drugs. They were visited by a friend who talked about how much they could achieve in life and that doing drugs would get them nowhere. They ended up at church giving their hearts to Jesus. Afterward, Hillary said that this exact thing had happened to someone at her church.

The next group performed a scene where a child was sent by her father to buy beer. On the way, she ran into a friend who said her father shouldn’t be drinking, he should be visiting his mother who was dying of TB. The seen ended with her father asking his mother’s forgiveness for forgetting her and wasting his life with beer. Hillary was especially struck by this scene because sick people in the community are often ignored. Apparently the children have noticed this and don’t think it’s OK.

The final scene was the most dramatic. A sister poisoned her brother out of jealousy, realized the error of her ways, and then prayed for forgiveness. Forgiveness appeared to be a theme throughout.

social-emotional learning

In our last education post I wrote about how poverty is not the fundamental issue with education, like many make it out to be. But I also mentioned that the effects of poverty are real and can’t be ignored. Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to experience trauma than their more privileged peers. Too often these traumas are responded to with a sense of pity and lowered expectations, ‘He can’t be expected to do this, do you know what he’s been through?’ But Social Club takes a different route. Social Club gives the children a place to share and process these traumas peer-to-peer while holding steadfast to the idea that they can achieve great things in the world. Hillary and Jody don’t think of it like this though. They just know it’s what their children need.

  • Will

For more on the importance and power of social-emotional programs check out our piece on The Possibility Project here. Or peruse our in-depth interview with that program’s founder, Paul Griffin. He’s really sharp.