How I Got to Where I'm Going
I just spent a little time looking back over my old posts and it occurred to me that I never got around telling all of you more about myself (beyond the tiny bio above) and how I came to be in the position of writing books and blogs about Gifted Education. So, for anyone who may be curious about the path that led me to all of you, this is the story of how I came to be where I am.
My initial involvement in Gifted Education goes back to when I was a kid and participated in a gifted program at my elementary school. Then in high school I took a lot of Honors, advanced, and AP courses, graduating valedictorian in 1990-something. More notably, though, is my involvement from “the other side of the desk,” which began when I was in college. I was a member of my university’s Honors Program and was, at the time, the only UHP member who was an Education major. (SAD.) The Director of our Honors Program had children who were a part of the local school district’s gifted program, but funding for that gifted program had been almost entirely eliminated during what was my freshman year. Letters were sent home to parents of the district’s gifted kids, explaining to them how services would be changing or disappearing.
I can still clearly remember the UHP Director approaching me in the foyer, holding in his hands the letter he had received as a parent. He passed it on to me and said, “Tamara, here’s a problem. See what you can do about it.” He was such a believer in empowering us as students and although I didn’t realize it at the time, I think he saw it as an opportunity for me do something significant beyond the scope of my current education. It has turned out to be a powerful moment in my life, not only because it propelled me into Gifted Education, but also because it helped to shape some of the philosophy I follow with my own students now.
I took the letter and contacted the local district’s Gifted Coordinator (who now had seventeen schools and no budget), and together she and I created a mentor program that matched up university Honors students with gifted children in the local schools. For example, a college gifted student who was a Math major would be matched with a local 3rd grader who was doing Math on a 6th grade level. The volunteer mentors had to meet with their little charges at least once a week for at least one semester. That first semester of the program we had eleven volunteers, including me, and it only grew from there. (Interestingly, three of the other ten first volunteers later changed their majors to Education, due directly to their experiences volunteering in the schools through this program.) I was a volunteer for “Mentor GATE” for three years and, while still in college, presented about the program at the National Collegiate Honors Council conference as well as at our state gifted association’s annual spring conference. (Little did I know then that in just over a decade I would be organizing and running that conference! Such interesting turns our lives take…)
I ended up writing a university course proposal so that the volunteers could earn credit for their service. The number and variety of volunteers expanded, and now, fifteen years later, the program is still in existence, averaging thirty or forty volunteers a semester. (The local district has also since re-established a gifted program, of which Mentor GATE is one piece.) A few years ago, one of my students who had just graduated from high school headed off to college at that same university, joined the Honors Program, and became a volunteer for Mentor GATE. He emailed me, saying, “Hey, Ms. Fish, I thought you’d be interested in knowing about this cool mentor program I’m volunteering for where I get to work with gifted kids in the local schools…” It was a fun full-circle moment for me :o)
When it came time for me to look for a teaching job, I found myself most attracted to opportunities like the job I currently have as a K-12 Gifted Education Specialist. I’m in a relatively small district and in rural locations like this one we tend to wear a lot of hats, so I am both the GT teacher and program coordinator for all four of our district’s schools (PK-1, 2-4, 5-8, and 9-12). In most locations those roles (gifted teacher and gifted coordinator) are split between two or more people, but I enjoy the challenge of taking on both roles as well as the powerful consistency that comes from working with the same students for multiple consecutive years. In a way, it’s the ultimate form of looping. (My first GT group of Kindergartners graduates from high school next year. That will be my first complete loop. I guess I am getting older after all…)
Four years ago I earned a Masters degree in Gifted Education from the University of Connecticut, a process which has helped me connect with hundreds of people around the country who also work with gifted students. I attended UConn’s Three Summers Program, and although an online version of the program now exists (among other changes), I’m so happy that “back then” my only option was the summer-on-site version – because there’s nothing like learning face-to-face from the likes of Joe Renzulli, Sally Reis, Del Siegle, Jann Leppien, Susan Baum, and Sally Dobyns. It’s not required by the state of Montana that I have any sort of special endorsement or degree to be a Gifted Education Specialist here, but I quickly discovered after beginning my job just how much more I needed to know. My undergrad teacher-preparation program did a decent job of preparing me for a regular classroom job, but – like most of you – I had been given all of fifteen minutes of class time devoted to information about gifted students. It was my experiences in the University Honors Program, not the Education Department, that initially prepared me for my job. Doing things like creating and volunteering for Mentor GATE proved to be a big help. Hanging out with gifted college kids whose idea of a fun weekend was playing with liquid nitrogen (purchased from the Physics Department, $5 for a cooler full) helped to give me a broader understanding of these quirky individuals. But it was the Three Summers Program that gave me what I most needed: a marathon of information, insight, in-depth access, and individualized preparation for teaching, understanding, and challenging gifted kids.
Lastly, I have been on the Executive Board (currently President-Elect) of Montana’s gifted association (AGATE) for about the past seven years. Through AGATE, I do a lot of state-level work and consulting for Gifted Education, as well as help with conferences, lobbying, and advocacy. It’s a great group! I highly recommend getting involved with your own state’s gifted organization. It’s one of the best ways to stay informed and to connect with others who are in the same boat as you.
I haven’t quite worked up the guts to post what I was originally going to put up here for all of you today. I’ll keep polishing that one… In the meantime, I’m curious to learn how each of you became interested in or involved in Gifted Education. What is the story of how you came to be here?