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In Appreciation

Although a smidge late for Teacher Appreciation Week, through this post I want to acknowledge and honor the many amazing teachers and schools out there who understand and reach gifted learners. I work with them. They work with you. Some go unnoticed but do the right thing anyway. Some are well-known in their circles for going the extra mile to challenge and stretch the most advanced learners in their classrooms. For all that they do, Thank You.

As is the case for most gifted learners, my students spend most of their school days in the "regular" classroom. As we all know, and as I've mentioned here before, classroom teachers typically get very little, if any, training regarding the needs of gifted learners. So it's a mixed bag pretty much everywhere as to whether or not they have any tools in their toolbox for stretching, reaching, and challenging the most advanced students in their classrooms. In spite of this lack of training, though, there are wonderful teachers out there who - whether by instinct or initiative - are doing amazing things for the gifted learners in their classrooms. And while I know that's (sadly) not every teacher, I want to acknowledge and thank the ones who deserve it.

A few weeks ago, I asked my 6th grade students to think of a current or former teacher that they felt had gone above and beyond to challenge them in the classroom, and to write that teacher a letter of gratitude. I then delivered or mailed the letters during Teacher Appreciation Week.

One boy began: "Dear Mr. B - You may not know this, but you changed my life in 5th grade. I was 'done' with school and had lost my desire and enthusiasm for learning. But you found it again in me and today I am doing well again thanks to you."

I crossed paths with another teacher who had been given a letter and he said, "Oh, that just made my day. The timing was perfect. I was having a rough time with some unmotivated students, so hearing from one who still remembers and appreciates his time in my classroom was just what I needed."

They thanked them for the little things, and they thanked them for the big things. What I noticed overall was that these teachers had had a "big picture" impact on the kids. It wasn't just providing them a challenge in any given subject area, it was that and more, including their powers of inspiration, humor, motivation, understanding, assessment (to determine what the kids really needed), and follow through.

Here, from me, is a sampling of the many reasons I appreciate what some of my stellar colleagues do for my students:

* Your enthusiasm for attending and participating in our state gifted conference is always endearing. Each year, more of you want to attend than I have budget to send, a high level of interest that warms my heart and has me counting pennies so I can take as many of you as possible. I overheard one of my fellow teachers at the conference this year say, "I started planning my attendance this year the day after I left last year's conference." For a conference in April, you start asking me in May to "put you on the list."

* You see gifted kids for who they are as people, not for what they can do. They are more than a great test score to you. They are not their talents, not their numbers, not their amazingness. Rather, you see them as you see all kids: Little human beings with potential and with challenges, whose strengths you nurture and whose holes you help to fill.

* You set the bar high. When a student of advanced ability is in your classroom, you don't rest on your laurels and think of that student as one less kid to worry about. You raise the bar and, if necessary, you raise it again (and again). You seek ideas for differentiation. You make adjustments. You consistently use language with your advanced learners that both encourages and challenges them to stretch themselves.

* You provide alternative spelling words, advanced projects, opportunities to accelerate, social and emotional support, inspiration, challenging problems, creativity boosts, and safe spaces where they can be who they are.

* You are just as passionate as I am about the needs of our advanced learners. You advocate for keeping and expanding advanced classes. You speak up in meetings and ask, "But what about the gifted kids?" You secretly or openly still do right by these kids, in spite of any national, state, or local mandates otherwise. You don't treat these learners as an afterthought. They are just as much a part of your planning and efforts as each of your students is. You take the initiative to learn what you need to learn to better reach and teach them. You stretch yourself in order to stretch them.

* You appreciate their quirks. In your classrooms, these unusual learners are not treated as an outcast or oddball. They are embraced. You accept some of their quirky rough edges rather than forcing them to become "well-rounded." You recognize that the "weird" in them is precious.

* You dream big about what can happen in the classroom. This takes the form of interdisciplinary projects, integration of technology, differentiation of small and huge degrees, and so much more. You are willing to try new things in order to reach and inspire each of your leaners, including the ones who have already surpassed you.

I want to end with a story of something a teacher in my district said to the students in her advanced 5th grade math class recently. Their task for the day was to figure an algebraic expression (e.g. 5x + 2x = T) using a model, a table, an equation, and a graph. Partway through the table, the kids hit a wall. Their first attempt at understanding what to do next didn't work. Their second attempt failed, too. And then the whining began. They loved within-reach challenges, but this just-out-of-reach challenge threw them for a loop. And they balked. Her first attempt at encouragement didn't work. Her second attempt fell on deaf ears. And then she got feisty and said to them, "This is a test of your character! I know you can do this! Are you going to become the kind of people who whine and give up, or are you going to become the kind of people who dig in and overcome?" They dug in and overcame. Is it any wonder they love her class? Is it any wonder they are "growing" mathematically by leaps and bounds? Test of character passed.

Thank you to these and the many other teachers out there who recognize the needs of the gifted learners in their classrooms - and do something about it.

In the comments section, please feel free to share something about a teacher you know who has mastered the art of challenging the gifted learner!

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