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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.

Poverty is Not the Problem with Education (Part 1)

Poverty is Not the Problem with Education (Part 1)

When we’re young, we tend to think that all schools are like the ones we attend. Even as adults, people who went to well-functioning schools tend to think that all schools offer a quality education. If students who attend some schools lack basic math skills, act out in class, or have trouble decoding a text written for their grade-level, then the problem must be the student or their environment. The problem must be poverty.

But the way students are treated and what’s expected of them, varies dramatically from one school to another. Even a school’s attitude towards itself, how seriously it takes its obligation to educate, can vary drastically.

I recently visited a school in Santiago in a relatively low-income area. We arrived during a break and students mulled about in the large courtyard. When the bell rang, I assumed that we would head to a classroom but nothing happened. Students continued to loiter. Ten, then fifteen, minutes went by. My host explained that the teachers were in a meeting that was running late.

Poverty and Education Students Loitering

Students loitering after the bell has rung

Class eventually started. The teacher had all the students stand and greet him and then spent about 10 minutes hooking up a projector. The lesson’s objective was on sorting information with charts. Students ‘accomplished’ this objective by watching two commercials and sorting the problems and solutions described by the commercials into columns in a table. The teacher then spoke over a chattering room to instruct them to apply this skill to interviews they had conducted. I circulated to three groups during this part of the lesson, but none of the students could show me the interviews. The class was essentially free to socialize. When I asked if all their classes were like this they laughed and said ‘yes.’

In the late 1970s Jean Anyon conducted intensive research to see how schools that served different economic groups in the U.S. treated students. What she found was troubling but, sadly, not surprising.

Anyon observed that working-class schools mostly prioritized order and discipline. Instruction was organized around copying and memorization, while larger concepts were ignored altogether. ‘Good teachers’ were those with quiet classrooms and discipline was often enforced with sarcastic or derisive language. Students resisted this treatment by rejecting the legitimacy of the school and the relevance of the work in front of them. When students were asked if they could ‘create knowledge’ the answer was almost uniformly ‘no.’

In Affluent-Professional schools (think accountants, lawyers, engineers, small-business owners) things looked different. Students wrote essays and engaged in projects. Creativity was valued and it was emphasized that each students’ work should be unique. Consequently, students showed immense pride in the products of their work. Discipline was maintained more by influence than outright control. The teacher would regularly initiate conversations with the class about the type of behavior she should see and why. When students were asked if they could create knowledge nearly all of them said ‘yes.’*

Poverty and Education talking with students

Talking with students at the working-class school

People often say that students in low-income communities have trouble focusing or act out in class because they are mimicking the unstable environments they live in. They come from ‘broken homes’ where they can’t be expected to have learned values like respect and responsibility. But in my ten years of working with low-income communities, I’ve seen that values of responsibility and especially respect, are emphasized more, not less, in low-income communities.

I have experience teaching in both working-class and affluent-professional contexts, and I know that if I treated my affluent students the way working-class students are treated, they would rebel. They would reject my legitimacy as a teacher and, at best, put forth some minimal effort to complete the work I gave them. Later, they would then talk with their parents, who would quickly express their concerns to the principal. The principal would listen to these concerns with a great deal of respect, and I would very quickly find myself in a serious talk about my teaching strategies.

“Teachers with other ideas, systems they bring from somewhere else, they generally don’t last,” said Shannon Watt. We were talking about how the affluent Southern Cross school was able to maintain such a strong culture. I asked what she meant. “For instance, we’ve had teachers who want their class to stand up and formally greet them at the beginning of class. No. Here the teacher comes in and they may say ‘Hi,’ but there’s no formal greeting. That’s not going to work here. If a teacher tries to be overly strict it’s not going to work for the students.”

When Shannon showed me around some classrooms, I saw 4th graders solving problems with multiple different strategies. I asked a student how he completed a math problem and he jumped right into an explanation, including the reason he used a certain the method.** Later the class was asked if there’s a relationship between multiplication and division. There was a thoughtful silence. The first student response was that, ‘they both involve numbers.’ This caused a laugh, but the teacher let them think about it some more. A few other students offered answers, and soon they were explaining how knowing your times tables makes division easier. When I asked this class why they like school, almost all of them said, “Because I like learning.”

Poverty and Education southern cross

Ms. Javier, the 4th grade teacher at Southern Cross

It’s true that many students from working-class communities put forth less effort in class and act out more often than their more privileged peers. But when they do this, they are not normally ‘bringing their home life into the school.’ They are simply having normal human reactions to the way they are being treated. If anything, students with unstable home lives are those who yearn the most for school to be a sanctuary of caring and support. When schools fail in this responsibility, these young people often feel it as a kind of betrayal.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that poverty is a non-factor. The effects of poverty on young people are real and can be very deep. Nor do I want to suggest that teachers in working-class schools should go into work tomorrow and pretend that they can reverse their students’ relationship to school with a new management plan. Questions about where to go from here are tricky, and I’ll explore them later in this series. For now, I’ll just say that poverty, in itself, is not the primary problem holding schools back. The way schools react to poverty, how they choose to treat students from low-income backgrounds and the stunted expectations they communicate; those are the principal problems facing education.

  • Will

*Anyon also profiled middle-class and executive elite schools. For a full description you should check out her paper. But a general overview is that middle-class teachers give students some more choice but the focus of most work is finding the ‘right answer.’ Students are more engaged but don’t feel that the content is relevant. Executive elite schools actually offer less opportunities for creativity than the affluent schools but the workload is generally much higher. There is an emphasis on ‘excellence’ and students behavior is corrected by reminding them of the ‘responsibility to succeed.’

** I also visited a 1st grade classroom where the teacher talked about how challenging it was to get students to explain their work. But she also talked about why it was incredibly important. This was interesting. The 4th graders were obviously used to explaining their work and they were quite good at it. Some people may attribute this skill to their more affluent home lives, but doesn’t it make more sense to credit this skill to the perseverance of their earlier teachers?