The Brighter Side of Education

Shaping Resonant Educational Leaders Who Lead With Their Hearts and Minds with Professor Dr. Carla Sparks

October 24, 2022 Dr. Lisa R. Hassler Season 1 Episode 3
The Brighter Side of Education
Shaping Resonant Educational Leaders Who Lead With Their Hearts and Minds with Professor Dr. Carla Sparks
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Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, I focus on the professor as a variable. How can a professor create great educational leaders for school communities?

Dr. Carla Sparks is on today’s show to discuss how her positive leadership approach is helping shape environments across school communities. She is the Educational Leadership Program Director at the Florida Regional Center Educational Leadership Studies Department National College of Education at National Louis University. In class, she teaches future educational leaders about the heart of leadership. 

In her free time, she chairs the dissertation committee and is an author. Most recently, she co-authored  the book, Be the Manatee, where she discusses the mind of leadership through the use animal metaphors. It is a help guide educational leaders with associative and reflective practices. 

So here is the call to action for educational leaders: You have the power to create a positive climate in your school that can directly impact the success of your teachers and students. Consider choosing to lead with your heart and mind using resonant leadership practices. 


It is my hope that educational leaders will use a resonate leadership style to help create positive climates in schools across the country and increase the success of our students.

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The music in this podcast was written and performed by Brandon Picciolini of the Lonesome Family Band. Visit and follow him on Instagram.

Books I've Authored:
America's Embarrassing Reading Crisis: What we learned from COVID, A guide to help educational leaders, teachers, and parents change the game, is available on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible, and iTunes.
My Weekly Writing Journal: 15 Week...

Shaping Educational Leaders with Professor Dr. Carla Sparks


·       Carla Sparks

·       Lisa Hassler

LH: Welcome to the brighter side of Ed podcast. I am your host. Dr. Lisa Richardson hasler here to enlighten and brighten in the classrooms in America through focused conversation on important topics in education. In each episode, I discuss problems we as teachers and parents are facing and what people are doing in their communities to fix it. What are the variables and how can we duplicate it to maximize student outcomes? In this episode, I focus on the professor as a variable. How can a professor create great educational leaders for school communities? Dr. Carla Sparks is on today's show to discuss how her positive leadership approach is helping shape environments across school communities. She is the Educational Leadership Program Director at the Florida Regional Center educational Leadership Studies Department, national College of Education at National Lewis University. In her free time, she chairs the dissertation committee, which is how we met. And she is an author! Most recently, she coauthored the book Be the Manatee with Dr. Sarah Lucas. Welcome to the show, Carla.

CS: Thank you, Lisa. I'm very glad to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

LH: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself before we begin?

CS: Sure. I think the first thing that's relevant is that I'm really a lifelong learner, and I know a lot of people use that term freely, but in my case, it really is true. I remember learning from my mother in my earliest memories. One fun thing I can remember, when I was five years old, she taught me how to play gin rummy on a footstool. And she said, now you have to beat me, and I will not let you win. And she didn't. And so I think she instilled in me from an early age the importance of following the rules, playing hard, playing to win, being competitive.

LH: That's perseverance, right? It's what we want to instill in all our students.

CS: Exactly, exactly. And I think I have a lot of perseverance thanks to my mom and her early teaching of me. But I'm still learning new things. And, um, I'm learning how to do this podcast today. It's my first time, so thank you for teaching me today. And I just continue to learn new practices in education, even though I've been in the field for more than 40 years. I just really feel like it's important to stay open to what the best practices are, how things are changing in society, and just really trying to be the best educator I can be. And I have been a career educator, and I use that term a little bit loosely because I really would say that education is my calling more than it is a career. But I guess for the rest of the world, it is really a career, because I've been doing this for decades. I've taught or tutored all grades K through twelve and adult learners, then graduate students and now doctoral candidates. While all of this is really important to me, on a professional level. My family is really the center of my life, and they keep me grounded.

LH: Absolutely, yeah. Your experience, the breadth and depth of your knowledge and experience is very impressive. As a matter of fact, at one point, you studied the neuroscience behind single gender education and then became the supervisor of single gender programs for Hillsborough County Public Schools in 2011. Can you tell us more about this study and then the schools that resulted from your research?

CS: Yes, I would say the study of neuroscience related to the differences between the brains of boys and girls structurally, chemically, and in information processing has been probably the most exciting research I've done. And I got to do the traditional empirical research on the topic, and then I got to do some action research as well. And some of my own doctoral work was based on that research. So I was tasked as an administrator in Hillsborough County Public Schools in 2011 to oversee the opening of something really unique. We opened an all boys public middle school, grades six through eight, and an all girls public middle school, grade six through eight. They were about 3 miles apart geographically in the city of Tampa, Florida. And so when you separate boys and girls in a public setting for an academic reason, you have to really follow the Title Nine regulations. And so one of my responsibilities was to make sure that everybody involved was educated on Title Nine, and that I had to monitor the fact that Title Nine was being observed and adhered to the letter of the law.

LH: Okay.

CS: In addition, it was really important from an educational standpoint to make sure that the schools were successful, because the idea of the school was to separate the boys and girls to create a learning environment that would increase academic achievement, character development, attendance in school, and improve behavior. And I conducted formal studies year after year, all the years that I was involved in that initiative. And they demonstrated through a gold standard of measurement that those schools were outperforming. All the middle schools in the district at that time was 45. And we eliminated all the other variables. Many people naysayers will say, oh, well, it's because you did this or because you did that, or they were one of the first schools to have one to one iPads or technology. And when we did the gold standard measurement, we eliminated all the variables except the environment of single gender. And therefore, that was the factor behind all of the success that the schools were having, and they continue to thrive today.

LH: So you're still involved in that project in those schools, right? Because with being the supervisor, are you able to go back in there, and then in any way do you help with the development or anything that happens with your staff, and are you still?

CS: I'm involved with them only as a guest at this point in time, because I retired from that school district.

LH: That is true.

CS: I still have connections there because my daughter is at this point a teacher in one of those schools and the principals are still working and I had a very close relationship with them. And so from time to time they will call me to be a guest speaker or to attend a special event. And one of the schools just got a new principal because the former one was promoted to a higher level of overseeing middle schools at the district. And so I offered to her my services in training or whatever else.

LH: That your expertise is in that field for sure. And that brings me to then your unique leadership style, which you definitely do have, and that really does influence positively the educational leaders that you help create in the doctoral program. But not only, they're also like with the school system, the schools at Hillsborough County, and I liked how you call it "growing educational leaders" instead of creating, you grow them. So how would you describe the process of growing educational leaders and why do you use that approach?

CS: In my role, I try to validate the leadership qualities that the students bring to their program at the doctoral level. I share with the students at the beginning of their program that they are all leaders at one level or another because they are there in the program. And sometimes people are what we call informal leaders. That's somebody that other people want to follow and want to emulate, but they don't have a formal leadership title like principal or executive director. They may be a classroom teacher, they may be paraprofessional, but they are the person that other people look up to and ask questions and want to be like. So I start there with validating the experiences that my students bring to the program, to the classroom. I think that's really important in order to grow leaders. They have already had the beginning of their experience. Some of the students that I receive at the doctoral level are already wearing those formal titles and they are looking to do more. And so I think that it's really important, just like we do when children enter kindergarten, they don't all come in at the same learning level. So doctoral students are not different. Adult learners at any level are not really different than kindergarten students. And I try to always keep that in mind. The same strategies that you use, starting with meet the students where they are and grow them to the next level, and the next level, as far as you can grow them in the time that you have with them is really important. That's exactly what we do with kindergarten students. So I teach my educators who are in my classroom to think like that and to realize that it's all just like kindergarten. You just have to change the vocabulary. Instead of saying line leader, maybe you say school leader or district leader. I think it's really important, too, to understand the difference between teaching and shepherding. I think if you want to grow leaders, you have to be a shepherd. They're really fabulous teachers who are great classroom instructors. They do care about their students, but they're not going to become lifelong friends. They are going to teach for that season of time. And then there are shepherds, and those are people who are teachers, but they make a commitment to students that they're going to stay with them over a pretty long period of time, like in a doctoral program, which is multiple years. And so if you take on like a dissertation committee chair role, you're making a commitment to stay as long as that student is still studying and work with that person. That's a shepherding role. And not all teachers are shepherds. And so I think it's really important to recognize the difference. And one of the things that I've done in leading the Educational Leadership Program at National Lewis University in Florida is to identify among my faculty that I lead, who are those who are teachers and who are those who are shepherds? Some people are both, but I make sure now that everybody who is chairing a dissertation is a shepherd. And the result has been our most recent data show that 100% of our doctoral students graduated last year who were who were supposed to graduate last year.

LH: And that's amazing.

CS: That is that's a statistic. That's pretty remarkable.

LH: It is. I mean, you you can't beat 100%. I mean, that's that's you you hit the ceiling. And so that's why I'm talking to you about what is it you do that makes being able to lead leaders all the way to that finish line through that length of period like you were talking about, it's not just for a season. It's for a long length of time that involves years of study and perseverance and commitment that you place on your shoulders and you see them through to the finish line. And so I have a couple of things, actually. So one is, when you were talking about growing educational leaders and bringing them up to the level, it brings me to that word disequilibrium, which you used a lot within the program, that stretching of a learner to you come in at one level, like in kindergarten, and you're being stretched out to grow. And so that just reminds me that was a word that was used often. And you definitely do feel the disequilibrium within the program, that stretching and that growing, which you definitely do provide. But then also, when you talk about being a shepherd, it reminds me of these characteristics that you possess as a shepherd that I would call a mentor. So being a mentor, being that shepherd, is one of your strengths, and not everybody wants to have that on their shoulders. Not everyone wants that commitment, but you take it with grace and with stride, anyone that really wants to be in that position with you, you welcome them, which is unique. And so that's one of those practices that I think you're very strong for. Your success, is embracing the role of a mentor, but then also some other things that you did that were very unique were weekly check ins. You were very consistent and dependable with those weekly check ins where you were listening with empathy to your students needs, you address their successes, their challenges. And one of my favorites was the removal of barriers. You are someone that said, "okay, well, this is a challenge, this is a barrier. How do we remove that barrier?" And then you would set those goals, those small goals, many small goals along those years of being able to work with the student all the way to the finish line. But I feel like one of the strengths was setting up those small goals and then celebrating the small wins, which, I loved with your upbeat song and your pink boa, which was one of your signatures. Right?! You would come in with your boa and that just made it very exciting. You really felt like you were celebrating. And also you would send out inspirational quotes of the day, which I felt like just really kept that positive inspirational environment that even though through the distance. You were reaching out every day to inspire and to promote positivity. And so in your book, you kind of take that to the next level. And you describe resonant leadership practices, which I think you are the embodiment of. Can you talk about what it means to be a resident leader?

CS: Sure. I learned about resonant leaders by reading a book by authors Boy, Abscess and McKee. So to give credit, I didn't create that term. I learned it from them. And what it means is to be in tune with the people who are around you and to manage your own emotions so that you can manage other emotions. It's really important to understand that change is inevitable. And sometimes we cause change intentionally, but sometimes change happens to us. It's manufactured by other people who have more authority than we do, or it happens naturally by Mother Nature or whatever the case may be. Change will come and it brings a sense of loss. And that is that word that you mentioned, Lisa Disequilibrium. I really love that word because it's important to know that that is how people feel when they are going through a period of change. And it could be even good change. I was reflecting on this and thinking about when we bought our new house that we currently live in. It was definitely an upgrade. But when we went to the closing of that sale and I handed over the keys to the house where I raised my children, it brought a tear to my eye and I became a little emotional about that moment because there was a sense of loss. That place where we had lived for so long and built memories was now being given to someone else, and we were going to live in a whole new situation. And so to be able to understand that people in a good change, a bad change, a neutral change, they're all going to feel a sense of loss and feel that disequilibrium. And so we have to be ready as leaders to manage our emotions, to maintain an even keel so that we can help people through that sense of loss. That's a really, really important part of leading change. And that's the focus of my work, really, is teaching educators how to lead change. Not just lead, period, but lead change because we're always trying to improve education.

LH: It brings me to in class, you taught about future educational leaders need to lead change through the heart of leadership. You talked about the heart of leadership. And then in your book, you talk a lot about the mind of leadership. Can you tell us the story behind your book be the Manatee and how the Use of Animal Metaphors Can Help Guide educational Leaders?

CS: Yes. So be the manatee. It has been a labor of love, and it was born in a dissertation conversation with one of my weekly meetings with a student. Now, Dr. Sarah Lucas was sharing with me some story about her work, her daytime job as an educational leader, and how it related to her dissertation. And she was going through a very difficult time at work and was very discouraged. And she said to me one day, I guess I just have to be the manatee. Well, the Florida manatee is one of Sarah's favorite animals, and I didn't know what she meant when she said that. I asked her, what does that mean? And she said, well, the manatee has no natural predators, and because the manatees are herbivores, they don't prey. So be the manatee is another way of saying, well, sometimes you just have to go with it. Don't let anybody hurt you and don't hurt anyone else, and just make your way through the process. And that's true. There are times when we have to just bear up, and as you used the word persevere earlier. And another thing about manatees is that they sometimes swim to warmer waters. And so sometimes, professionally and personally, we just have to move on to warmer waters. So that was how we came up with the idea of be the manatee. And we started talking more about other animals and metaphorically, how they exemplify leadership qualities in people. Some animals have negative qualities, some animals have positive qualities. And we decided that when she finished her dissertation, we would start writing a book together. And we became friends through that relationship, even though in age we are 30 years apart, but we call each other our friend. We wrote about the manateini and eleven other animals that represent examples and nonexamples of good leadership.

LH: Excellent, and there's going to be a sequel, maybe?

CS: Talking about a sequel, I've already identified several animals that I'd like to write about, including the woodpecker and the dolphin, the rat, because they exemplify some qualities that we didn't discuss about in B, the manatee.

LH: And so for the listeners at home, I actually am wearing butterfly earrings right now. And this is because when reading the book, I was able to identify with the butterfly, and it actually guided me through the mental process of an experience that I had been going through in the last couple of years. And it just kind of helped me realize maybe a different perspective of how I'm flapping my wings or how I have in the past. And it kind of embraced that, and it gave me the mindset to really look at it differently, face it, and then kind of carry through. So I thought that was really important. I saw these earrings, grabbed them, I wore them. And so it kind of is a nice little inspirational visual to help me guide through. And so I recommend that when reading this book, it's kind of nice to be able to see yourself in these different educational leadership and not even just education, but leadership roles and how we're going through those in that. Mindset to really kind of help us consider different perspectives and then placing them in your mind and then being able to kind of persevere. So I really found some inspiration to that. So I'm wearing them today, and I want to reflect back on those leadership practices that you discuss while in your book and the qualities that leaders possess, and then also considering your unique traditions, and how all those things contribute to your student's success. Do you think that the qualities and the things that you do as a shepherd, as a mentor, as you're guiding your future educational leaders to the finish line with 100% success? Right?! That's very impressive. Do you think it's carried on those, qualities, practices and traditions? Do you think that your future educational leaders carry on some of those characteristics and they replicate them when they become principals and district leaders in their own school environments?

CS: I do, Lisa. I really do think that they carry forward the lessons, and there are a couple of reasons why I think that. One, I carried forward the lessons that I learned from my professors, and I'm practicing those things, and they've been effective with my students, with me, with loved ones. So you can transcend just your work environment with these practices. And I also hear back from students who have graduated quite often, like you,

LH: like me, I don't let you go. I keep pulling you back.Carla!

CS: and as a shepherd, I love to be able to carry on the relationship, even though it changes after people graduate and we become friends and colleagues and things of that nature. But I get reports back from students about the things that they are trying and the experiences that they are having. And I've had a few people contact me since we released Be the Manatee in August and identifying with a certain animal, as you did about the butterfly. Had another colleague who said he is currently the Bower bird. He's a new principal at a new school, and he is building that nest and making it shiny. And that's the Bower Bird protector. And so it's been really fun to hear from students who have been through the program, from colleagues who have read the book. I think that, yes, to your question, people really do carry forward those things. I do want to mention one of the primary focuses, or folk eye, as they say, that I concentrate on is removing barriers for those I lead. That is a really important facet, and I'm planning to use that in the sequel because it's a really important facet of my own leadership. The most important one of all. I think that people come to work or come to school to do the best job they can. I really do. But sometimes barriers are in the way that they didn't cause, and that impacts negatively the forward momentum. And I make it my business to remove barriers, to find a way to get around the barriers, to get over the barriers, through the barriers, under the barriers, kick the barriers out of the street, whatever it takes to make, to clear the path so that people can move forward in doing the good work that they intend to do. That's that's really primary.

LH: Yeah, and I would say that that's something that I carried with me through our relationship or from our relationship moving forward. It was something that always was in my mind, dealing with my students and even my children and in relationships to say, "What's the barrier here?How can I help remove that for you or with you?" And so you can progress to that forward motion that you were talking about. So I think that really instilled in me something that I carried from our relationship and with you being a mentor to me. So, before we wrap up, I have one last question, and that is, what advice would you give educational leaders looking to create a positive climate to increase teacher and student success in their schools?

CS: Well, I think there are four things that I would say. One, do your homework on leading. Make sure that you read the great authors on leading and make sure that you understand what that requires of you. The second one is to reflecting back on an earlier part of our conversation. Consider whether you are a teacher or a shepherd or both, and then make the most of whatever you are. There are definitely reasons we need teachers who are leaders to teach others. And there are reasons we need shepherds, and some people have both sets of skills. And I think if you understand who you are and what your skill strengths are, you can be a greater leader and you can surround yourself with people who have other skills that complement yours. The third thing I would say is remove barriers. That's the first thing for me. But I think that when people are becoming leaders and growing as leaders, that they have to do their homework first, understand who they are first, and then start working on removing barriers for others. And then finally, you mentioned at Lisa Celebrate the Small wins. It's so important to do that because people need to be able to celebrate to build momentum. Sometimes when you're working on a big project right now I'm working on one, it seems overwhelming. So I've decided that I'm going to spend an hour a day on that project and then take a break and be happy about what I got done, even though it's not finished. Right, right. And I do the same thing with students. And when you're working on a dissertation, it's like the metaphor of eating an elephant sandwich. You have to kind of take it one bite at a time. And then each time somebody that I'm leading reaches a milestone, I want to bring their attention to it in whatever way I can. And for me, you mentioned earlier that I sometimes wear a silly feather boa that stems back to when I was a high school teacher and I was leading a program of students who wanted to become journalists. And when they would publish something, I would wear a boa to school, and everybody knew that if Sparks had on a boa, something important was happening in her classroom that day by the student.

LH: All right, so here is the call of action today, and this one is for educational leaders. You have the power to create a positive climate in your school that can directly impact the success of your teachers and students. Consider choosing to lead with your heart and mind using resonant leadership practices. It is my hope that educational leaders will use a resonant leadership style to help create positive climates in schools across the country and increase the success of our students. Thank you, Dr. Carla Sparks, for taking the time to join me today to discuss the importance of how we train our future educational leaders. In our next episode, Dr. Livia Paler Dueller will be joining me to discuss the topic of Dyslexia and how her organization is helping children and families across the world. If you have a story about what's working in your school that you'd like to share, you can email me at Dr. Lisa or visit my website at and send me a message. It is the mission of this podcast to shine light on the good in education so that it spreads affecting positive change in schools. So let's keep working together to find solutions that focus on our students success.