by Keith Gauger, MMFS Upper Division Head English Teacher
Thanks to a generous grant from the Mary McDowell Friends School Parents’ Association, I was able to attend the first of four multi-day retreats hosted by Friends Council on Education last fall. I was honored to be accepted into the 2015-2017 Spirited Practice and Renewed Courage (SPARC) cohort of 32 educators and administrators from Quaker schools throughout the country. SPARC is a leadership development program that uses collaboration, inquiry, and self-reflection to explore the art of teaching. My colleagues in the program came from as far away as San Francisco and Minnesota, as well as from Brooklyn Friends School, located just a few blocks away from my classroom at 23 Sidney Place.
The SPARC cohort meets twice a year during two consecutive school years, and our first meeting took place at the end of September at Pendle Hill, a Quaker center for study, reflection, and discussion. The SPARC program leaders, Deborra Sines Pancoe, Associate Director of the Friends Council on Education, and Shu Shu Costa, Assistant Head/Division Coordinator at Princeton Friends School, struck a great balance between various activities, group discussions, private reflection, and occasional down time. Many of the activities and discussions were adapted from Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. The Pendle Hill campus during autumn was beautiful and, despite being conveniently close to major highways, it somehow felt secluded and shielding enough to allow our cohort to truly retreat for two and a half days. The food and sleeping accommodations were wonderful and kept our focus on getting the most out of the conference, and the local community was beyond welcoming when we joined them for Meeting for Worship after breakfast.
I came away from my first SPARC retreat feeling inspired on too many levels to count. Since then, I’ve already implemented a few simple and practical ideas which I learned there. For example, during the retreat, each of us participated in a “threshing session,” a type of Quaker meeting that allows for discussion of a contentious or controversial issue without the expectation of reaching a decision by the end of the conversation. I appreciated the way that approach encouraged sharing and listening openly, rather than being motivated by a desire to quickly persuade others. When it came time for me to guide my advisees through the tricky process of choosing a service learning project for the year, I decided to use a threshing session as a model.
The connections I’ve made with other educators in my SPARC cohort have already extended beyond the first retreat as well. Elizabeth Kriynovich, an Upper Division English teacher from Delaware Valley Friends School (DVFS), was able to come to Mary McDowell and observe a number of classes during a recent school day. She left feeling very impressed by all that we do, and she reported back that she left with quite a few impressive ideas she was excited to bring back with her to DVFS. She and I are also brainstorming ways that we might be able to have our classes collaborate before the school year ends, but another great element of these SPARC conferences is that we’ll still be working together next year!
My first SPARC conference left me feeling incredibly refreshed and rejuvenated because of how much meaningful time I was able to spend with a group of people who started out as strangers and quickly became something more. It’s hard to express exactly why it’s so powerful, but it feels transformative to meet that many people who are in boats so similar to my own, and who also feel such a passion for educating young people in a way that doesn’t conflict with their deeply held values. I am grateful to the Mary McDowell Friends School Parents’ Association for helping me attend these conferences, and I look forward to growing more during each of the three remaining retreats and then bringing that spirit back with me to Mary McDowell.