KINGSLAND — Jim Sparks was in his late 30s when he decided to leave a corporate job, sell his stocks, liquidate other assets and go back to college full time to become a teacher.
It’s a decision Sparks said he has never regretted.
He has taught U.S. history in the same classroom in Camden County High School since it opened in its current location 26 years ago. It’s one reason Sparks’ decision to retire when the school year ends this week is bittersweet.
“For me it was the perfect decision,” he said of changing careers. “I made decisions for 15 years based on money.”
His college education was interrupted in 1968 when Sparks said he failed to take the required number of classes to avoid the draft during the war in Vietnam.
He served six and a half years in the Army, where he rose to the rank of captain and was a company commander.
After his military service ended, Sparks worked in the transportation industry 12 years until he decided to teach, knowing he would never earn as much money as an educator.
“It was a tremendous pay cut, but I’ve made more than enough to survive,” he said.
His experience in the transportation industry was useful when he and his wife Florence were hired by Camden County schools in the summer of 1994. He helped coordinate the move from the old high school in St. Marys to the new campus in Kingsland.
“We were moving in all summer,” he said.
There was only one room in the school with air conditioning at the time, making it the place for staff to congregate and get out of the heat. It’s the same classroom where Sparks has taught the past 26 years.
Enrollment was about 1,200 when the high school opened, but the school system was undergoing rapid growth with the growth of the Navy base. Still, Sparks said he never expected the sprawling campus of about 2,600 students he sees now.
“I never thought we’d fill this building,” he said. “Since then, we’ve added two wings, a ninth-grade center, lecture hall complex and an engineering academy.”
When he first started teaching, Sparks said he knew the majority of students graduating.
“I’m always amazed at graduation at the number of students I don’t know,” he said. “I used to know 90 percent of the kids.”
Sparks said his career as an Army officer and work in the transportation industry made it easier for him in the classroom. His approach is to have high expectations for his students.
“The absolute key is the matter of respect and being prepared,” he said. “When I respect them, they’re reciprocal to that. I try to push kids and make them see what their potential is.”
He tries to make history interesting by incorporating relevant and engaging information to his students.
“I try to put things in perspective to the kids,” he said. “You don’t teach dates. You teach cause and effect. You teach in chronological order.”
His job is not to teach a particular class, it’s to teach students, he said.
“One of the best things of my job is my love for the students,” he said. “You’ve got to love the kids to be successful.”
Sparks said he may teach part-time if there are any openings next year. If not, he plans to work on his golf game and catch up on reading.
“I don’t want to be one of those teachers who stays too long,” he said. “I think they lose their edge a little bit.”