Sitting at her desk in elementary school, Janis Sparks decided that she wanted to become a teacher. While learning about Albert Schweitzer, she found great inspiration in his words, “The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.” His reverence for life as the foundation of ethics became embedded in her, along with her determination to serve others through teaching. Spending nearly 40 years in the field of education, she accomplished her goal and more. As the former principal of Donaldson Way Elementary School of the Napa Valley Unified School District, Ms. Sparks dedicated her time to developing a professional learning community, where not only the students learned, but the teachers and administrators were pupils as well as they sought out best teaching practices and then implemented these practices schoolwide.
A recent retiree, Ms. Sparks served as both an educator and an administrator during her 38-year career. She always believed that education should address not only academics, but also the development of character and wisdom. To that end, she would educate students on the required subjects, but also teach them how to become caring individuals and good citizens. In fact, she was given the Community Leadership and Service Award by the state of California. Gifted in multitasking, she managed all functions of the Donaldson Way Elementary School, which held 650 students and 60 employees. She was charged with teacher training and evaluation, program design and implementation, and curriculum development. She holds certifications in elementary education, educational administration, and leadership via the California State Leadership Academy, and Reading Recovery for students who struggle with learning how to read. Ms. Sparks viewed every day as a great gift and an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others, and attributes her success to her listening and conflict resolution skills, and ability to judge when to lead or follow.
Ms. Sparks earned a degree from California State University, Fresno, graduating with highest honors. In addition to a Bachelor of Arts in French and English, she holds a master’s degree in early childhood education from California State University, San Francisco. She loves to travel, and during her college years, she studied abroad at the Aix-Marseille University in France and visits the country again now that she is retired. She also aspires to become involved in consulting and professional writing as time progresses.
Conversation with Janis Sparks
WORLDWIDE PUBLISHING: On what topic(s) do you consider yourself to be an expert?
Janis Sparks: Educational administration, teacher training and evaluation, community involvement, curriculum development, grant writing and reading instruction.
What characteristics help to separate you from your competitors?
I am insightful, passionate and empathetic. I am very linear in terms of the ability to organize big projects and get them done efficiently. As a principal, I was able to motivate teachers to engage in collective inquiry as we developed a culture of continuous schoolwide improvement with a focus on improved student learning. I am a standards-based professional.
What motivates you?
When I was in education, I was motivated to make a difference in the lives of children, teachers, parents and the community. The joyous look and excitement on a child’s face when a new skill is mastered is always memorable and thrilling to behold.
What lessons have you learned as a professional in your field?
I have learned the importance of listening and learning to work with others to achieve a goal. I also learned how to create a professional, collaborative learning community, where everyone is a learner and you work together to come up with your goals and how you are going to reach them as a staff. Knowing when to give other people responsibilities in order to make things happen is important. It’s not always just about you — everyone has responsibilities to make it work.
What short-term and long-term career goals are you currently pursuing?
My short-term goal is to do some writing. I have thought about writing children’s books and books for parents. I am also a reading recovery teacher. I would like to share those skills with parents and teachers. My long-term goal is to continue to be a good grandma, mother, mother-in-law and friend.
What is the most difficult obstacle or challenge you have faced in pursuit of your goals?
Time — finding a balance between professional requirements and personal pursuits.
What is the most significant issue facing your profession today?
The issue facing education is figuring out how to teach children who have such diverse backgrounds and languages with the lack of monetary support from the state and federal government. There were 26 different languages at my school.
Did you ever consider pursuing a different career path or another profession?
The other career I contemplated was being a writer, which I am considering pursuing in my retirement. I believe that my year working with children and parents will be invaluable as I pursue my writing career.
What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of your profession?
The day-to-day interactions with the children — watching them master academics and grow into beautiful, caring, respectful and responsible human beings.
What is your favorite or least favorite work-related task to do and why?
My least favorite aspect was dealing with e-mails on a daily basis that were not applicable to me. My favorite part of education was working with the children and training teachers, and seeing teachers make the changes in their teaching style so that they became better educators, and knowing that I had a role in improving their skills.
What advice can you offer fellow members or others aspiring to work in your industry?
Stay in school, get all of your degrees and credentials before you start to teach — trying to take classes while being a beginning teacher is almost impossible for many. We lose most of our beginning teachers in the first five years because the workload is just horrendous if you are still finishing up a degree. My advice to all of the new teachers is to keep the mindset that you need to keep learning throughout your career and take advantage of professional development opportunities when they arise. Go to the workshops and implement what you’ve learned. This will keep you excited throughout your career. You also need to be technology-savvy.
Who have been your mentors or people who have greatly influenced you?
My eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Antoinette Tumbarello. I went to a K-8 school, so I was with her all day long. She knew how to challenge really smart kids and how to work with students who needed extra help. Mrs. Tumbarello did “project-based learning” long before teacher training programs figured it out. She is a brilliant woman with an incredible zest for life!
What changes have you observed in your industry/field since you started?
The birth of technology, diversity in student population, and the difference between children who come to school prepared versus those that come with limited exposure to language development and basic academics. We have also moved from a textbook-driven curriculum to a standards-based learning model.
How do you see these changes affecting the future of your industry?
It has made it very challenging to meet the needs of children with such a diverse range of abilities and training when they enter school. Individualized instruction through technology resources is paramount.
Do you do any public speaking?
I have spoken to college classes mostly about parent involvement in their child’s education. I have done a lot of teacher training as well.