After teaching for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Walt Gardner had a lot to say about education reform. His current role, writing the Reality Check blog for EdWeek, gives him an ideal platform to express his views, and to engage other educators in conversation about the critical topics of the day. Gardner has weighed in on such diverse issues as unfair limitations on high school journalists, unreasonable standards applied to teachers’ engagement in social media after school hours, and problems with teacher evaluation and compensation. Here, Gardner shares his views on the future of education, based on a long and successful career at the center of the debate.
Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?
My writing for newspapers and magazines over the past 20 years since I retired is based on evidence – not ideology. I hope that it has served to present a realistic picture of the challenges facing public schools today.
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
The Reality Check blog that I’ve written for Education Week for the past two years has connected stakeholders in public schools across the country, creating a healthy debate. I try to be provocative but not outlandishly so.
How can others implement what you’ve learned through your work?
I hope my writing will make teachers feel less isolated and more supported.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
Since I’m no longer in the classroom teaching, the only technology I use now is the Internet.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
In the early 1980s, Los Angeles became the principal port of entry for third-world immigration. The high school where I taught for my entire 28-year career slowly changed as a result of the presence of so many students from abroad. The Los Angeles Unified School District did little to prepare teachers. As a result, lesson plans that were surefire hits in the past had to be scrapped to reflect the cultural backgrounds of these students.
What is your country doing right to support education?
Workshops in the form of staff development are attempting to provide teachers with the tools they need to reach an increasingly heterogeneous student body.
What conditions must change in your country to better support education?
Education has to be recognized as a partnership between school, home and community. Schools are not Lourdes and teachers are not Mother Theresa. Even the best teachers alone cannot overcome the huge deficits that disadvantaged students bring to class through no fault of their own.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
I can’t stress enough the importance of parental involvement. Technology has an important role to play, but unless parents reinforce what schools attempt to achieve, little will change. I also think that vocational education needs to be accorded the status and respect it deserves. College is not for everyone. We do a terrible disservice to students to suggest otherwise.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
Don’t expect any payoff except what inner satisfaction you derive from working with young people. You’ll never get rich, famous or powerful, but if you’re lucky you’ll leave an enduring mark on your students.
Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?
Teaching is different from other forms of human endeavor. That’s a truth reformers will not accept. Therefore, the business model will not work.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
I’d provide each one with a mentor who would guide them. Too many students have never known an adult who understands them.
About Walt Gardner
Birthplace: New York, New York
Current residence: Los Angeles, California
Education: B.A. University of Pennsylvania; M.S. UCLA
Website I check every day: Reality Check at Education Week (edweek.org/go/gardner).
Person who inspires me most: Anne Phillips, my high school Spanish teacher
Favorite childhood memory: Starting the new school year
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Santa Barbara, California
When was the last time you laughed? Why?: Everyday watching my German Shorthaired Pointer’s antics
Favorite book: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Favorite music: Dvorak
Your favorite quote or motto: To thine ownself be true.