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Advice for New Gifted Education Specialists

Welcome to the best job on Earth! Whatever route you took to land here, I'm glad you've landed. Some of us aimed to be here. Others were re-routed. Still others have turned a detour into a permanent location. I predict that you will soon discover this to be a delightfully thought-provoking, fascinating, engaging, enlightening, and fulfilling job. I love it dearly. But it does come with many challenges unique to the job. The difficult parts of this job are ones that others won't see and/or won't understand. My aim here is to offer some insights from my many years as a Gifted Education Specialist. Perhaps lessons from my experiences can save you a bit of the heartache! :o)

...in no particular order:

1) Connect with others who do what you do. Being a Gifted Education Specialist is an often lonely, misunderstood undertaking. We are frequently the only one in our school, district, town, or (as in my case) county who do what we do. You will need a support network of others who "get it" and speak the same language, and you may have to look farther than locally to find it. Join your local, state, and national gifted education associations. Attend gifted education conferences where you can meet people who will become a part of your network. Utilize social networking. On the days when you have a question or need to vent or want to share a success, it will be immeasurably helpful to have even a small handful of people to call upon.

2) Start small. Then celebrate your successes, no matter how small. The job of a Gifted Specialist is incredibly complex, with facets that others (yes, even others in Education) don't realize and don't understand. If you start off expecting yourself to be able to "do it all" right away, you will drown. Determine a few goals and focus on those. Evaluate, revise, celebrate, and then decide on the next goal. Step by step the mountain is climbed, but you still have to take it one step at a time.

3) Be flexible when it comes to the location where you work with your students. In my 17 years, I have worked with my students in the teacher's lounge, at a table in the hallway, on a fold-up plastic table in the Music room, on an old (*old*) cafeteria table in the lobby of the gym, in a classroom shared with Title I aides, in other teachers' classrooms, in the Library, in the back of the Library during other classes' Library times, in the computer lab, and in my own classroom (at our middle school) which is also used by three other teachers during the day when I'm at other buildings. I've learned that it's kind of like that Sunday School lesson - the one about "the church" not being the building but rather the people in it, together. Your "classroom" is you and your students - and the locations where you gather may change and will certainly have advantages and disadvantages, but it is your time together with these kids that is most important.

4) Get really good at Plan B... for yourself, and for the kids. A couple times a year, I go to a classroom - either to pick up my students or with a lesson for the whole class prepared - and the room is dark and empty. Whether a field trip or an assembly or some other opportunity, the teacher has forgotten to tell me (or just overlooked) that it conflicted with my time with her students. Roll with it. Like you, they are busy people and if you get bent out of joint every time this happens, you'll be sour a lot and they'll be sour about you being so sour. The silver lining is you were just granted a surprise half hour or so of time to work on something else. Also, when it comes to those well-laid lessons plans, there will be days that you realize what you need is at your other school building, or another teacher borrowed it and left a note that you just now discovered, or the copy machine is broken down. You may only have one minute to decide what Plan B is, but there sure better be a Plan B. These kids have high expectations of you and they're on their way, ready to be challenged and engaged. Quick, what's it going to be?!

5) Be okay with not being popular. You won't be everyone's favorite person, and some will dislike or be cynical about you simply because of your job title and without ever taking a chance to get to know you. People will assume all sorts of things about you simply because of what your job is (some perhaps true, others perhaps not). Some will cringe or roll their eyes (literally or internally) when you speak up at meetings: "There she goes again, asking 'what about the advanced kids'..." For some, you will be a thorn in their sides because what you are advocating for means they will have to change a three decade pattern. When you ask how the newly adopted textbook will be adapted/supplemented/replaced for gifted learners who've already mastered much of what it contains, others will think you are just plain annoying for always asking those questions when there are so many other kids to worry about. Yes, being an advocate for your students will often mean others won't be keen on you. So be it. *shrug* Now you know who your (& your students') allies are - and are not. Now you can commiserate with your students when they talk about how the other kids don't understand why something is so important to them or how the other kids get annoyed when they ask questions in class. Now you know who needs to be the object of further efforts on your part to educate them about the needs of gifted learners. Now you can model for your students how to be okay with doing the right thing even when it means you're not popular for doing it.

6) Balance. A good working relationship with your colleagues (i.e. the regular classroom teachers) will often involve you walking a tightrope, balancing the needs of your gifted students with the patience, talents, willingness, open-mindedness, stubbornness, and needs of their teachers. Maintaining a great working relationship with your fellow teachers is really important because it increases opportunities for them to understand where you're coming from and means they are more likely to implement your suggestions for the gifted and advanced learners in their classrooms. But advocating for these kids while not stepping on a fellow teacher's toes is a delicate balance of trust, timing, temerity, humility, and bridge-building. Burning bridges, though occasionally tempting, doesn't do the kids any good and is definitely best avoided. Take advantage of opportunities to get to know your colleagues. Join a committee. Go to the staff Christmas party. Bring treats for the teacher's lounge. Stop to chat in the hallway. It all works toward building and nurturing those relationships.

7) Allow yourself to shine. Let your students know about your current and past honors, awards, successes, accomplishments, etc. Obviously I don't mean brag about them, but I do mean they are good things to drop from time to time into conversations with your students or to use as examples. Sometimes gifted kids feel like freaks of nature because they realize how much they stand out or stick out compared to others. Sometimes they hide their abilities or successes so they won't feel like such a freak. But if they can see you humbly, casually, honestly, and comfortably acknowledge your own shining moments, it provides them an example of how they can do the same. And it inspires them to be all they can be.

8) Cloak yourself in humility. These are REALLY smart kids. They will best you at every turn. You must be comfortable with high intelligence, not knowing the answers to some (many!) of their questions, conversations about chaos theory and Shakespeare and computer programming languages, and being stumped or beaten. If you have insecurities about your own intelligence and abilities, this is not the job for you. They will amaze and outshine you daily - and you must be able to be comfortable with that. I have been beaten at chess by a Kindergartener. One of my 7th grade students scored better on the SAT than I did as a junior in high school (and I did pretty darn well on it). My students often have conversations about topics I don't understand (the difference between PHP and JavaScript, for example). And that's okay. My particular job is not necessarily to know more than them. My job, primarily, is to open doors for them. "Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master." (Leonardo da Vinci)

9) Embrace your inner geek. Whether it's always been a big part of you or whether you hid it away in high school, now would be a great time to polish up your nerdiness. Bring out that old Star Trek costume. Dust off your reading glasses. Start using big words again. These kids need to know the ways in which you are one of them - because smart, nerdy role models who are comfortable in their own skin are hard to come by for these youngsters (particularly the ones whose demographics or locations mean they are much less likely to cross paths with such individuals). You may be their best or only chance to see what an intelligent, dorky life "looks" like and how to be comfortable embracing it. So embrace it!

10) Be ready to commit to committees. If you're not at the table, you're on the menu. Even if others in your school or district understand the needs of gifted and advanced learners, that doesn't mean they are as prepared and as willing and as mindful to be a voice for these kids as you are. For you, these kids are your first thought and first priority. For someone else, they may be third or tenth on the list. Don't trust that someone else will have the needs of these kids in mind. They might, they might not. The only way to be sure that the needs of the gifted and advanced learners are considered is for you to be at the table and to be a part of the conversation as often as you are able. This year, my district is reviewing (and in many cases revising) all of our district policies. ALL of them. That means I volunteered for the committee and I'm there at every meeting with an eye for how each policy may impact my students and their teachers' opportunities to meet their needs. It's quite a time commitment, but it has already paid off for my students.

11) Nurture and support your students' parents. Just as being a Gifted Specialist is a lonely road, so is parenting these off-the-charts kiddos. You may be the only person outside the family who understands the challenges of raising an intense, quirky, highly sensitive, unendingly curious, exhausting - and yet inspiring - child. Helping the parents, whether it's to better understand their kids or with parenting strategies or with a commiserating ear, indirectly helps the kids.

12) Nurture and support positive working relationships with your administrators and school board members. They are often the final deciders, and whether or not they have some understanding of the needs of gifted learners (and therefore how those needs are impacted by their decisions) may depend on whether or not you've made or taken advantage of opportunities to educate them about those needs. Be positive. Be proactive. Be persistent. Be subtle when necessary and blunt when necessary. But above all, put in the effort - with small and big steps over time - to communicate to them who gifted learners are and what they need in school. Never assume they already understand - because, frankly, they often don't. At least not initially. It will be up to you to help them develop understanding.

13) Sometimes "Doing Right by Your Students" and "Being a Good Employee" will be in conflict. (*sigh* Okay, more times than I care to admit.) I know it doesn't make sense. It's perfectly illogical that doing right by your students might mean having to be an incorrigible employee - or that being a model employee might mean having to sacrifice the needs of your students. It shouldn't be that way. But it sometimes is. I can't profess to have any answers for you on this, either. These are incredibly difficult situations fraught with complexity and emotion. Sometimes I choose one way, sometimes I choose the other (circumstance dependent). Sometimes it turns out I chose wisely, and sometimes not. Either way, it always eats me up inside and I've had to re-build some bridges and apologize - and yet, try again. Being the rope in a tug-of-war (in this and, as you may have noticed here, so many other ways) brings with it a lot of stress. So, while I'm at it, having good stress-coping-strategies (or developing them if you don't already have them) is imperative. The level of stress that comes with this job is much higher than others will notice or understand. (Don't let that scare you away! It's still the best job ever!)

14) Know your stuff. You must become the local expert on these kids. There's a lot of misinformation out there regarding what is and is not best for advanced learners. It will frequently fall to you to clear up the confusion or to set someone straight (politely, of course) or to make the distinction between research-based best practice and long-held mythology. Read as much as you can in the field... books, journals, research articles, blogs, debates, etc. Join local, state, and national gifted education associations. Attend as many gifted education conferences as your district is able to send you to. Take graduate coursework in gifted education. Even though there may always be some who will doubt you or don't believe you, someone locally still needs to be highly knowledgeable about gifted kids. Soak up as much as you can as often as you can because you will be the one they come to.

15) And finally, be proactive. Gifted students are (among) the most misunderstood, overlooked, inadequately taught learners in our classrooms... because others think they are okay on their own or where they are. But okay isn't good enough. ("One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar!" Helen Keller) The needs of gifted students stem from their strengths, and helping others to understand this counterintuitive reality is now part of your aim. It's a never-ending process of two steps forward, one step back. You will have to be comfortable and confident in what you do - and yet never let your guard down. You will need to be an advocate, a warrior, a confidant, a subversive, a leader, a researcher, an expert, an ally, a burr in someone's saddle, a little voice in the back of everyone's minds, a steady presence, a humble inspiration, an invaluable resource, and one who can bounce back time and time again. Yes, it's exhausting. But it's mostly exhilarating. Come... thrive with me!

Now, take a deep breath and go back and read #2 again. :o)


(What advice would you like to pass on for new gifted education specialists?)

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