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,
*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.