Did you ever buy a lottery ticket and wonder what you’d do with the winnings? I haven’t often played, but I’ve had quite a few conversations with people about whether or not we’d return to our jobs if we won. Mostly, the answer was a fairly resounding, “No way!” For most, the idea of a lottery win was a dream to begin again and (this time) follow one’s passion. Fortunately for me, in the early years of my teaching career, I was sure that if I won the lottery, I would keep working with kids. For me, teaching was much more than a job.
My theory was tested in June 2011 when I decided to leave the charter school I helped build, and step away from public education for good. Earlier that year, the charter school was still a dream come true, the culmination of 16 years of practice, success, failures, and research, and I grappled with the decision to leave it. But I learned that the packaging of what I had created was not as important as how that package made people feel, and how it made me feel. There were things happening at the school that I couldn’t support, and there were parents, students and teachers feeling disillusioned with the education system in general. I had talked about my vision for so long, and to so many people, and I took my promise to heart. Mostly, my vision was about education that felt good and felt right. Learning should be inspired, and a classroom should have time for thinking and creating. Additionally, “school” should be the most responsive arena for learning, a place where its leaders could stop doing things we knew weren’t working, without layers of red tape preventing swift change. When I left, even I was surprised by my lack of concern over the loss of my salary, benefits, and stability. My only concern was doing the right thing. Life is short, you know, and I didn’t want to spend another minute thinking, “I should have.”
Suddenly, I was swimming in an ocean that vacillated from darkness to light. The losses I endured (along with many others) were met with an awakening, and a blank canvas on which I could create something new. And, wouldn’t you know… it was my students who showed me the way. One Spark Academy was born just one month later. And, as opposed to over a year of solid 18 hour days (no breaks) creating the charter school, it took just a few days to get One Spark going- coupled with a commitment to the vision, a business license, a devoted support team, common sense, and a desire by so many for a solid educational experience that actually felt good. I’m proud to say that we are not a school. Unfortunately, “school” has too often become synonymous with inflexibility, disconnection, procedural and busy-work overload, overcrowded classrooms, exhausted teachers, and testing to the point of forgetting what the point was of what we were teaching.
One Spark is something new, a model which has yet to be completely defined: a “non-school” home base and alternative to “homeschooling-at-home”. It’s pretty wonderful to have control over our small classroom size, and a schedule with time built in time for teachers to creatively plan and the students to focus on their work. We can adhere to our commitment of modeling health and wellness, and embrace suggestions or concerns quickly and responsively. When a new participant joins us, he or she is welcomed like family, because every member of our community matters- whether on site for one class, one day, or all week. And, as opportunities for exciting new partnerships present themselves (like the Thousand Oaks Teen Center, the California Health and Longevity Institute at the Four Seasons, or NatureBridge), our decisions are based on a shared philosophy and mutual enthusiasm, not required adherence. Most importantly, we practice respect, compassion, and care for all involved, on a daily basis.
I’m not opposed to public education, but after so many years of trying to effect change in the system, I decided it was time to change my response to it. I spent enough years putting my personal life and peace of mind on hold, and lost time for the creativity that drove me to be an educator in the first place. One Spark has allowed me, and all those involved in it, more quality time with those we care about, while creating, learning and teaching in a way we believe. I’m one of those “show me, don’t tell me” type of people. So, to those out there scratching their heads over how to get off the treadmill and engage in meaningful education, here’s your spark.
Well, back to that lottery theory. I may not have built my bank account in the past year, but I was given the chance to build my dream. Because of that, I’d say I won the jackpot.