Education Opinion

Great Expectations

By Tamara Fisher — February 10, 2009 6 min read
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A couple of weeks ago, I had some group discussions with my fourth graders about the “Gifted Children’s Bill of Rights.” We sat around the poster in a semi-circle and I asked them to say which items, if any, struck a chord with them and why. (For anyone who hasn’t previously read the insightful list created by Del Siegle, you can read it and learn more in my previous post on the topic.)

It’s amazing what comes pouring out of these kids when given a safe zone to open up about their myriad of hidden struggles that almost no one ever notices. Although I frequently hold group discussions with the kids about many various topics (perfectionism, how to make friends who matter, self-advocacy, etc.), I never cease to be amazed by the insight, reflection, and level of struggle that they reveal in our discussions. A few of the kids expressed a desire to “put it in writing” for all of you, my readers here, so that a kid’s perspective in a kid’s own words might lend some additional angles of understanding. If/when they get it written, I’ll post it here for you (always with pseudonyms).

In the meantime, though, one segment of our conversations (their response to something I said) surprised even me (and I’ve pretty much heard it all after thirteen years).

Many of the kids said that #6 (“You have a right to make mistakes”) and #10 (“You have a right to not be gifted at everything”) really hit home with them. They talked about how they feel like everyone expects them to be perfect at everything, *all* the time. They gave examples that illustrated the reactions from others (classmates, parents, teachers) when they missed a word or two on their spelling tests. They talked about how it seems to them that everyone else just assumes they’ll know the answer to any question. They commiserated with one another over how frustrating it was to know internally that they weren’t perfect at everything, yet still feel like they had to live up to everyone else’s (perceived?) expectations of their perceived perfection. “I feel like any little thing I get wrong is seen by them as a giant black spot on my soul,” one boy even said.

[A-Rod provides a timely example. He claims he juiced up because he felt he had to be THE best in order to live up to everyone’s high expectations of him. Not that what he did was okay - it wasn’t - but it illustrates the lengths some of these kids will go to if they think they are not up to the task of fulfilling whatever high expectations they perceive others hold of them.]

What also came through in the discussion was a point that, in my experience, has typically held true for gifted kids: They have far higher expectations of themselves than anyone else could ever have of them. Most of these kids are very internally driven. “Dad doesn’t NEED to put this much pressure on me,” one girl said. “I want to do well already, for me. His unreasonable expectations just stress me out and I probably end up doing worse than I would otherwise.”

Not every student expressed a sense that their parents had unnecessarily high expectations of them. Others felt that it came from their teachers, and many said they sensed it from their classmates (“What do you mean you only got a 95% on the test? I got a 100%. Maybe I should be in GT and not you.”)

While it was cathartic for them to let it all out in our discussion, I also sensed that their anxiety level regarding the topic was a bit inflamed. In an effort to ease that for them, I offered them a soothing insight, something I was certain they already knew but that they simply might appreciate being reminded of...

“Ya know, I’d like to just take a moment and say to all of you that I hope you know that while I realize you all have many things you’re good at, I never expect for you to be perfect at anything. You are each simply human - you have strengths and weaknesses like anyone else. Sure, you might have some unusually exceptional abilities in one or more areas, but I don’t think that should ever mean that you have to be ‘perfect’ in that or any other area. My ‘expectations’ of you are rather simple: That you learn how to work hard, that you put forth your reasonable best effort at learning and at challenges, and that you maintain a healthy perspective on what you can and cannot do in life. And I want you to know that I know being a gifted kid isn’t exactly a charmed life all the time. I know there may be some struggles or issues that come with it. It’s okay to mention those things to me. You may feel like you’re the first smart kid ever in the whole world to struggle with making friends or to struggle with being different or to struggle with being sensitive, but I can assure you you’re not. Anything you could bring up, I’ve probably heard before. And there are lots of kids just like you out there experiencing the same things. You’re not alone, and I’m okay with you not being perfect.”

Miley’s response? “THANK YOU... SO... much... You are my hero for saying that. A huge load has just lifted up off my shoulders.” Yes, that’s what she said: “You are my hero for saying that.” And others chimed in with similar sentiments.

I hadn’t realized how much they needed to hear it from ME, even...

Real or not, they perceive others’ great expectations of them. I know all of their teachers and most of their parents, and I know that the adults in their lives (for the most part) don’t have unreasonably high expectations of them (most of the time). And yet the kids still perceive it seemingly all of the time.

In part I was surprised by their response to my statement because I have always told my students that I don’t expect them to get everything right in my classroom, especially not the first or second or tenth or twentieth time they try it. When we do analogies pages, for example, and they cringe or gasp when they get one-fourth of the problems on a page wrong, I tell them, “That’s okay! It’s supposed to be challenging here. It’s a good sign. It means you’re in the process of LEARNING something. If you got everything correct here on the first try, then I wouldn’t be doing my job right. Getting some wrong means you’re being stretched, it means you’re in your Learning Zone, not in your Piece of Cake Zone.” That’s the kind of philosophy that I express to them in all that we do. And yet they still apparently develop a sense that my expectations of them are pretty high.

By telling them this, by utilizing this philosophy in my work with my students, it is not a matter of lowering my expectations of them. I’m simply letting them know that I have REALISTIC expectations of them. There’s a difference, a very healthy difference...

Take a moment this week to tell a gifted child in your life that you don’t expect him to be perfect. Take a moment this week to tell a gifted child in your life that you know being a gifted kid isn’t the cakewalk others seem to think it is. Take a moment this week to tell a gifted child in your life that her intellectual growth and hard work ethic are far more important than perfect marks, even if it means a B in a challenging class. What we assume that others know about our views of them can be out-of-sync with reality. Tell them you know they’re only human. You very well could be someone’s hero for saying it.

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.