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The Lifelong Pursuit of Education

An interview with former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley 


May 2008

Richard W. Riley


Earlier this year, Walden University renamed its College of Education as The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership in honor of former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. Secretary Riley’s career accomplishments are perfectly aligned with Walden’s mission and its 38-year commitment to educating educators. Secretary Riley is a leading advocate in advancing education as a national priority and has been actively involved with Walden and the Laureate International Universities network for many years. As the nation’s top education administrator under President Clinton and a former governor of South Carolina, Secretary Riley was and continues to be widely recognized for raising academic standards, improving instruction for the poor and disadvantaged, and expanding access to grant and loan programs to help more Americans pursue higher education—initiatives that all reflect the pillars of Walden’s mission.


In a recent interview, Secretary Riley shared his perspectives on what makes a great teacher, how administrators can best support teachers, and the importance of education as a lifelong pursuit, through the doctorate and beyond. 


What differentiates a good teacher from a great teacher?


A good teacher is a professional who knows how to teach, who understands teaching and learning, and can handle teaching in a very good way. A great teacher—Walden talks about a scholar-practitioner—takes his or her scholarship and teaching capacity and moves forward to another level to provide mentoring for other teachers and to enhance students’ ability to think creatively. Great teachers help their students develop as strong problem-solvers, becoming teachers themselves. It is most wonderful to watch a great teacher at work. 


On a similar note, what differentiates good administrators from great administrators?


It is absolutely critical for good administrators, principals, and superintendents to have good systems. They must be good managers and understand all of the factors that go into growing a system. Really great administrators understand how to improve the system, always keeping the student at the forefront. Great administrators understand the relationship of the school community with teachers, students, and parents. I talk a lot about schools as centers of community; that is very important.


What are the advantages for teachers and administrators who continue their educations?


Education is a roadway, not a destination. You never finish, and you have to appreciate the excitement of the travel. It is so important for good teachers, and certainly great teachers, to continue their education. Number one, teachers with advanced degrees gain respect from the teaching community—from fellow educators, from parents and students, and from administrators. More than that, an advanced degree enables you to update your teaching techniques and methods so you can use technology and other new methods as teaching tools to interest and involve students. I am a great supporter of continuing education and advanced degrees.


How do students benefit from teachers and administrators who earn advanced degrees?


Students benefit tremendously from a teacher or administrator who has taken the initiative to pursue an advanced degree. Particularly, they benefit from access to the most up-to-date and current teaching techniques.


What are qualities that teachers and administrators should look for in advanced degree programs?


Certainly, the integration of technology is a factor. Research is also important. You always look for the highest quality program; I am a believer in accreditation. You need to be sure that any program you are going to spend your valuable time on is at an accredited university with a grand reputation. It is important to talk with other professionals who have had the advanced education experience and consult with them about the value of certain programs.


How can school administrators help support teachers bringing technology into the classroom?


Principals and administrators must understand technology themselves. You cannot enhance the use of technology in a school or school district if you do not see the power of knowledge and self-development utilizing technology. Technology is such an important tool to enhance teaching and learning. Administrators must support the acquisition of and training to use up-to-date equipment and technology, just as all of us must support the things that improve the profession and the collegial capacity of our schools. The school environment is so important and those things that make the environment better, such as technology, must be supported.


Can you talk about your recent involvement with the National Commission on Teaching in America’s Future (NCTAF)?



Hear more of Richard W. Riley’s perspective on education by viewing his commencement address to Walden’s first Class of 2008.


Read about about Richard W. Riley’s work as the secretary of the U.S. Department of Education (1993–2001) and as the governor of South Carolina (1979–1987).

The commission started some years ago when I was the secretary of education. Former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt was involved in it, along with a number of top educators. Some 28 states are now directly involved, and representatives from those states meet annually to talk about how to improve teaching and make it work better. For a few years, the emphasis was on teacher retention. NCTAF believes there would be no shortage of teachers if we did not have such a high dropout rate. Fifty percent of teachers change professions after five years of teaching. We need wonderful places to teach and must work together to keep teachers in the system. During the last few years, NCTAF has advocated for collaborative teaching—that is, you can’t put a new teacher in the classroom, close the door and say “Go to it.” That simply doesn’t work. Many teachers are concerned about protecting their classroom space, but we must shift that mentality and realize that teachers must work together and help one another—especially quality teachers who must try to raise the quality for other teachers. NCTAF is one of those organizations that really looks at teaching and studies what is working, what is not working, and what can make things better. 


What motivated your alliance with Walden University?


One of the reasons I am so proud to be associated closely with Walden is its mission: To provide a diverse community of career professionals with the opportunity to transform themselves as scholar-practitioners so that they may do their part to transform society.


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