Sperreng Middle School educator named 2003-2004 Missouri Teacher of the Year

By Robert Chalupny

“Shocking” is how Tara Shaw Sparks described her reaction at learning she had been named Missouri’s Teacher of the Year for 2003-2004.

Sparks, an eighth-grade English teacher at Sperreng Middle School in the Lindbergh School District, was named Missouri Teacher of the Year Friday, the day after a selection committee appointed by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education interviewed six state-level finalists. Sparks automatically becomes Missouri’s candidate for the National Teacher of the Year honor.

“You know truthfully when I found out I was a finalist, I was stunned by that,” Sparks said. “Because I don’t think you can go into a situation like this expecting that you are going to be a finalist or a teacher of the year because there are so many factors that you are unaware of first of all, and, secondly, there are a lot of great teachers out there.”

Sparks, formerly Ms. Shaw to her pu-pils, was married over Labor Day weekend, and told the Call that it has been an exciting time.

“It’s been a crazy month. It’s really been a crazy month,” Sparks said. “It’s really been exciting, though. It’s positive. It’s been a bit of a wild ride, in fact, I don’t know how you can top this.”

Sparks earned national certification in 2001-2002 from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. She is one of 135 Missouri teachers who have achieved this certification.

Sparks, who is beginning her sixth year of teaching at Sperreng Middle School, said that one of the most important factors about teaching middle school children is that they need to be active and she tries her best to accommodate them.

“I have an 87-minute classroom and one of the most important things in an 87- minute classroom is that I get my students up and moving and socializing with one another, because if I expect them to sit in a desk for 87 minutes — these are 13-year-olds — I am going to lose them very quickly,” Sparks said.

“Developmentally their focus in life is social development at this point,” she explained. “That is their priority over academics. So being able to incorporate the social development in with the academic aspects that we need to be teaching them is really an integral part of making them learn without even sometimes knowing that they are learning …”

Sparks uses service learning techniques in her class to further the development of her pupils. Getting them involved in community projects as a part of their learning is a good tool to get them involved and excited about the work they are doing,” she said.

“My students research a social problem, they choose something that interests them, which right away from the beginning that means they’re involved in what they are doing,” Sparks said. “They feel ownership and that’s really important. From there, they do a typical research paper once they have completed that we take it a step further and they then make a multimedia presentation.”

“They basically do a mini-speech with their presentation trying to sell their service projects. So, for instance, if a child did research on cancer they might be saying we should do a service project for Locks of Love to help kids with cancer who lost their hair.”

Each of her three classes does a service project each year, she explained. For example, last year her pupils built a garden at a nearby foster home.

Sparks said she is very happy teaching middle school and does not have any immediate plans to make any changes.

“I really enjoy middle school students a lot. In terms of long term, I would like to work with teachers on instructional practices and stuff like that, that’s down the road a little bit, but that’s where I see myself going in the future, but right now I would really miss my students a lot,” she said.

The middle school level was Sparks’ first choice as far as what grade she was interested in teaching.

“After student teaching, the middle school level was really where my comfort zone was the highest,” she said.

Sparks said she always knew she wanted to be a teacher.

“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher except for that brief stint in sixth grade when I thought I’d be an architect,” Sparks said. “I just always idolized teachers and, to me, it just really seemed the most natural course of action. I never really seriously considered doing anything else. It was just natural.”

Sparks has bachelor’s of science degree the University of Missouri-Columbia and master’s of arts degree from Lindenwood University.

She has been a professional development co-chair for her school for the past three years and serves on the language arts curriculum committee.

Since 1999 Sparks has served on the state’s writing assessment team, which eval-uates writing standards and district writing samples. She was one of 411 Missouri teachers who participated in the Missouri Assessment Program test-grading project in 2002, where she hand-scored 11th-grade communication arts exams.

In a letter of recommendation for the state award, Sperreng Principal Robert Ayres wrote: “Sperreng Middle School was recently named a Missouri Gold Star School and a National Blue Ribbon School of Ex-cellence.

“Not only did Tara contribute greatly to the successes which led to this honor, but she was the final editor of the application. Her effort in rewriting and providing a finished document was the final major factor in the school and community reaching this ultimate educational goal,” the principal’s letter stated.

The Sperreng Middle School teacher will be presented her award during a Nov. 20 ceremony in Jefferson City.