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Teacher of the Year Steve Gardiner: Silent Leadership

Name: Steve Gardiner

Award: Montana Teacher of the Year for 2008
Teaches: High school English
Specialty: Reading
Teaching Since: 1978
Studied at Walden: Doctor of Education (EdD)

For Steve Gardiner, a high school English and journalism teacher at Billings Senior High School, a love of reading begins with an appreciation of silence. That’s why Gardiner starts every one of his classes with 15 minutes of silent reading time. He learned about the technique, called Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), during his first year of teaching. In the last three decades, Gardiner has used SSR to change the way thousands of students feel about books.

“People will often say that they don’t read because they don’t have time,” says Gardiner. “So I’m giving these kids a specific period of time each day that’s only for reading. What happens is that they start to see themselves as readers, and that affects how they see themselves as students as a whole.”

Gardiner’s own love affair with books began when he was a high school freshman. It wasn’t his discovery of Old Man and the Sea or The Catcher in the Rye: It was a chance encounter with a dog-eared copy of The Godfather. “Every kid has a ‘homerun’ book,” he says.

Gardiner’s students are responsible for choosing their own books for SSR, and it’s often the first time they’ve had to really think about what they’d like to read for pleasure. “Learning to pick out what you’re going to read is an important skill that many people never develop,” Gardiner notes. “Once you’re out of school, no one is going to tell you what to read. For a lot of people, that means, that left to their own devices, they won’t pick anything. They just won’t read.”

Sometimes, it takes some work to help a student grasp the idea that there are no limits to what books one can choose. “I had one student who just refused to read during SSR. He’d stare at the wall; he’d say ‘This is a good program for other people, it’s just not right for me.’” Gardiner says. “But then one day he came in and announced that over the weekend he’d read 250 pages of a biography about a rapper. That was the book that made everything click for him.” Home run.

Often the sheer size of a book is enough to make students give up on reading, but by forcing them to read in small daily intervals, Gardiner has watched kids conquer books they thought they’d never get through. It’s all about breaking it down into parts, setting goals, and striving to achieve a little more each day. He preaches the importance of perseverance all day every day, whether he’s overseeing SSR or acting as advisor to the seniors when they’re putting together their yearbook. “At the beginning of the year, they think ‘There’s no way we can raise $35,000 and put together 200 pages.’ But little by little, they do it,” he says.

In life outside of school, Gardiner has taken this line of thinking to its extreme: In 1988, after years of practice and preparation, he climbed Mount Everest. He often uses tales of climbing experiences to talk to his students about the importance of perseverance. “If you have aspirations and are willing to push yourself,” Gardiner says, “you’ll be able to accomplish things that once seemed impossible.”