Hello, everyone :o) I apologize that it’s been awhile since you’ve heard from me. You may recall from my last post that I was in the midst of organizing and hosting our annual state gifted conference. It was a huge undertaking, but a very valuable one. Aside from wearing myself out that week (two or three hours of sleep each night, working 18-20 hours a day on conference tasks), I ended up getting sick after it was all over. Go figure ;o) So I am finally working my way back out of the swamp! I will make up for lost time with you in the coming weeks and months.
A few months back, I was interviewed by two different people who each asked me essentially the same question: What makes for a great teacher for gifted children?
The first interview was by Michael Shaughnessy of EdNews. The second was by a college student studying Education, a future teacher who is already asking important questions about the gifted students she will encounter in her classroom. I thought that I would expand upon my answer to their question for all of you here, as many of you are either parents of gifted children trying to find the right placement for your child, or are teachers trying to find the right way to reach these interesting students.
If you are a teacher, chances are extremely slim that you learned any extensive information about or strategies for gifted students when you were in your teacher-prep classes. If you are a parent of a gifted child, you can almost count on your child’s teacher having learned as of yet very little about the unique learning needs of gifted students. The frustrating reality is that most teachers enter the classroom for the first time with almost no background knowledge about the unique academic, social, and emotional needs of gifted students, let alone any strategies for reaching and challenging them in the classroom. It’s not that they don’t want to know. Of our thousands of higher education institutions in America, only eighty-one of them offer coursework in gifted education (such as programs for a minor, a Masters, or a PhD). It seems the standard amount of exposure that most pre-service teachers have to information about gifted students is one single hour in one class. Thankfully, there are exceptions to this less-than-bare-minimum standard, but it still remains the scope of coverage for the vast majority of our pre-service teachers. Yet inevitably, these same teachers will have gifted children in their classrooms, gifted children the teachers are now ill-prepared to adequately understand and challenge.
All teachers have the capacity to become great teachers for gifted kids, and the factors that make for such a teacher begin with understanding and accommodations. This means that the teacher has developed (or is developing) an understanding of gifted learners, their academic needs, and their social and emotional needs. That understanding is then followed by appropriate accommodations. Once the teacher understands where the gifted child is coming from, the teacher then validates that by making targeted, appropriate curricular accommodations for that child. What these kids need most is for us to recognize and acknowledge their learning needs and then DO SOMETHING about it. A very ineffective teacher for a gifted child would be one who said, "You have already mastered this year's multiplication curriculum, but I still want you to do the same worksheets as everyone else because it wouldn't be fair to the other kids if I let you do something different."
It sounds absurd, I know, but sadly it happens in classrooms across our country every day. Who it's really not fair for is the gifted child whose learning is being *stunted* in that sort of situation!
A great teacher for a gifted child is one who is knowledgeable about gifted learners, is able to assess the child's zone of proximal development, and is prepared to take the steps necessary to move the child on from that point. As a nation, we need to make great improvements in preparing our teachers to do this.
It's not that most teachers don't want to do this for the gifted children in their classrooms. They very often do. It's just that we haven't always given them knowledge of or access to the right tools with which do it. Those tools are out there (things like curriculum compacting, acceleration, telescoping, etc.). We need to overcome the barriers that prevent our teachers from using these tools. Those barriers can be things like an inflexible structure or schedule, misunderstandings and misinformation about gifted learners, a focus (rightly so) on raising the floor but forgetting at the same time to lift the ceiling, and the mistaken belief that gifted children will make it just fine on their own (few people know, for example, that up to 20% of drop-outs test in the gifted range). Our gifted children have just as much right as any other child to LEARN in school. A great teacher for a gifted learner is one who understands and acts upon this principle.
I would add that gifted children do seem to appreciate certain traits in their teachers beyond what I have said above. If the teacher is curious, has outside interests, shares his or her talents with the students, and is honest when he or she doesn't know the answer to a question (but is willing to find out), the gifted students will have additional respect for that teacher because they so deeply relate to curiosity, passionate interests, and the humble desire to further one's knowledge.
So, what further advice do I have for all the teachers out there who want to remedy their lack of prior knowledge about gifted students? First, make some effort to understand these kids… continue to learn about them, to learn about what school is like for them, and to consider just how different their learning abilities actually are. Since schools typically don’t offer professional development about gifted students and gifted education or differentiation strategies, any teacher wanting to learn how to better serve these kids is likely going to have to take the initiative to seek out that knowledge and understanding on his or her own. Your state gifted association probably hosts a conference each year aimed at helping teachers (and parents) with precisely this issue… learning more about gifted students and how to better serve them. Other great conferences that have an in-depth focus for learning are EduFest in Boise, ID, and Confratute in Storrs, CT. Second, I would also encourage you to read books, ASK QUESTIONS, and visit some great sites on the web, such as HoagiesGifted, SENG, and A Nation Deceived. And last but most important, talk to the kids. Ask your gifted students about their school experiences. Find out how much of the day they are challenged and how much of the day they are repeating information they already know. Ask them what it’s like to be gifted in school today. Often, hearing it directly from them is all the impetus needed to propel us on to further change.
Welcome to the journey :o)