Opinion
Education Opinion

This Year’s Kid, not Next Year’s Teacher

By Tamara Fisher — November 11, 2008 12 min read
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There are a lot of reasons why the academic needs of our gifted students aren’t always met, among them lack of teacher training, lack of funding, lack of accurate data on student learning needs (or lack of acting upon the data we do have), lack of awareness about these students and the effects that little challenge can bring about for them, and so on.

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t a lot of great things happening for the advanced learners in our nation’s schools. There are. But there are also many ways the learning needs of these kids AREN’T being met. And while lack of awareness and lack of teacher training (among other things) can account for large portions of the deficit (note my previous post on how few future-teachers are ever taught about gifted learners), misinformed excuses account for some of the rest.

The hundreds and hundreds of teachers I know have great hearts. They are good people with the best of intentions and, to a person, they want to do right by their students. I do not mean to negate that reality by calling our profession on the carpet today. I’m simply aiming with this post to hold up a little mirror to help us see the flaws in the default positions we so easily fall back on.

What are those default positions? I’m willing to bet we have all either said or heard most of the following:

* “Give it a couple years – the other kids will catch up.”
* “Schools don’t need to worry about gifted students because those kids are already where they need to be.”
* “If I let you do that, then I’ll have to let all the other kids do that, too.”
* “It’s elitist to target only certain students for accelerated learning opportunities.”
* “I don’t have time to challenge students who are already meeting the benchmarks. I have too many other kids I need to get up to par.”
* “Identifying some kids as “gifted” only makes all the other kids feel badly about themselves. We should just treat them all the same.”
* “But all children are gifted.”
* “My school has a gifted program. I let the gifted teacher worry about those kids.
* “If only that gifted student would bother doing his assigned work, I might consider giving him something different to do.”
* “But if I move you ahead in the subject this year, then what will next year’s teacher do with you?”

Let’s examine these more closely…

* “Give it a couple years – the other kids will catch up.”
Okay, so if my sister had put her basketball talents on hold for a couple of years, I could’ve magically caught up with her? I suppose the fact that she was six inches taller than me didn’t matter either, nor the fact that I just wasn’t all that good at basketball. Do we say to a 10-year-old version of Dara Torres, “Don’t worry about working so hard at your swimming, hon, the other kids will be swimming as well as you in a couple of years.” This “give it a couple years” excuse implies that an “early bloomer’s” learning curve will stagnate, that there’s essentially “no point” in putting any effort into continued growth because the other kids will get to that level someday, too. But this isn’t about “the other kids.” This is about each kid having the opportunity to grow in his or her learning. You’re ready for a size 6 shoe? Well, give it a couple years and the other kids will be wearing a size 6 shoe, too. In the meantime, little Johnny sprouts up to a size 8. I find a terrifying metaphor of stunted growth in images of the bound feet of Chinese women. We need to quit putting bricks on these kids’ heads and let them grow in their learning! There IS a point to putting effort into continued growth... because learning matters.

* “Schools don’t need to worry about gifted students because those kids are already where they need to be.”
If, by “where they need to be,” you mean the standardized bar set by education wonks of the realistic average expectations of a child of a certain age, then sure, our gifted learners have reached (*cough* surpassed) that bar. But do we say to a 12-year-old, “Oh, you’re 5 feet 8 inches tall already? We need to let the other kids catch up to you in height, so we’re going to stop feeding you for a couple years until they do.” Of course we don’t. That would be negligent. But shouldn’t it be equally negligent to stop feeding a child’s intellectual growth? Where these kids (all kids) need to “be” is learning and growing academically. Where they need to be is moving on from where they are, wherever that happens to be. EVERY child should be able to learn and grow intellectually. But just because our gifted learners have met or exceeded what for them are low expectations doesn’t mean it’s okay for us to not put any effort into them as learners. If the child can already spell the week’s spelling list on Monday, that doesn’t mean, “Whew - one less kid for Teacher to worry about.” That SHOULD MEAN a different spelling list for that child so he can learn how to spell some new words.

* “If I let you do that, then I’ll have to let all the other kids do that, too.”
Well, if all the other kids CAN do that, then why aren’t they?

* “It’s elitist to target only certain students for accelerated learning opportunities.”
Ah, elitism... There’s nothing wrong with being an elite athlete (and taking advantage of the opportunities that come with it), but dare to be an elite learner and the antipathy of society comes raining down upon you, even if you’re only six years old. How about this perspective on elitism... Couldn’t it be viewed as elitist to place egalitarian ideals above a child’s right to learn? Couldn’t it be viewed as elitist to not devote effort to teaching (stretching) children whose learning capacity is ‘inconveniently’ fast for our school systems? Couldn’t it be viewed as elitist to “teach” a child content she has already mastered because we think “it will be good for her” to be there to help the other kids learn it? In my opinion, yes. I know we don’t set out to be “elitist” in these ways, but I do see it as an unintended consequence of our resistance to doing what’s necessary for these learners. It should never be elitist to provide each child what he or she needs to best learn! Doing so should simply be the right thing to do.

* “I don’t have time to challenge students who are already meeting the benchmarks. I have too many other kids I need to get up to par.”
So if you don’t have time to reach every child where he or she is and move them on from there – if you don’t have time to challenge every kid at their learning readiness level – how do you decide which kids will get an education this year? How do you decide which kids will get to learn and which ones will be denied their potential degree of educational growth? Because that’s essentially what this statement boils down to... saying we don’t have time to educate some of the children in our classrooms is in essence saying that we are choosing to educate some students and not others. I don’t deny that teachers are incredibly busy and overworked people. I, myself, haven’t been keeping up here at “Teacher Magazine” because I’ve been swamped with so many other things. As teachers, our to-do lists are never-ending, complex, varied, and ever-changing. But we signed up to be educators. We signed up to educate. If we make no significant efforts to teach the most advanced learners in our classes (along with teaching all the other kids, too, of course), then we aren’t actually teaching these kids. This is one place where administrators can come in and be a great help to their teachers (and thereby their students). Administrators have the power to tweak schedules, provide teacher training opportunities, guide a schoolwide focus, and influence policy. Hopefully teachers have some say in those matters, too, but for all the administrators out there - you can make a big difference for the gifted learners in your schools by taking a leadership stance about educating these kids.

* “Identifying some kids as “gifted” only makes all the other kids feel badly about themselves. We should just treat them all the same.”
Here’s one response to that. Stephanie Tolan, who was one of the three authors of “Guiding the Gifted Child,” (among other books) said recently, “You don’t have the moral right to hold one child back to make another child feel better.” Re-read that and let it sink in for a minute... Do we do that? Do we hold some kids back because we’re worried about the feelings of other children? You bet we do. We say we can’t have leveled math groups because the kids who aren’t in the highest group will feel badly about themselves. We say we can’t have leveled reading groups because the kids who aren’t in the highest reading group will feel badly about themselves. But ya know what really happens? It’s the gifted kid who ends up feeling badly about himself because he’s treading water with no goal in sight, because he’s constantly encountering roadblocks in his learning, because no one recognizes what he can really do, and because he’s not learning to his capacity. (How come we don’t consider his feelings?) It’s easy to pretend that there is no impact on the child because we often don’t see the impact of lack of challenge until further down the road. But there is indeed an impact. And I agree with Stephanie. This is a MORAL issue, and we as teachers don’t have the moral right to hold one child back just to make another child supposedly feel better about himself. We need to support and strengthen all kids’ self-efficacy and self-esteem - and find ways to do so that don’t involve sacrificing another child’s learning potential in the process. It is not okay to sacrifice any child’s learning potential. If we have concerns about the feelings of other children, then we should address that issue by explaining to kids that it’s our job as schools to figure out what’s best for each learner and then to provide it. The language we use in talking with kids about these things can go a long way to prevent any hard feelings. Besides, the kids know who the best reader in the class is, even if we aren’t providing that child challenging reading material, even if we aren’t “pointing it out” by splitting the kids into reading groups. We need to teach each and every child, including the ones who are ‘ahead of the game’ - and that means owning up to not having the moral right to hold some kids back just to make other kids feel better.

* “But all children are gifted.”
I think when people say this, they mean that all kids are special, all kids have something they’re good at, and all kids have something unique and wonderful to offer the world. Of course! But all kids do not learn as gifted children learn. Try this logic on: So “all kids are gifted” because all kids have something they’re good at? Well, we all have something we’re not good at, too. So, therefore, are we all retarded or disabled? It’s absurd, and we easily recognize just how absurd when it’s turned inside-out like that. It should sound just as absurd to say “all kids are gifted” because “gifted” isn’t about specialness or contributing to the world or ‘being good’ at something. It’s a learning difference. And as long as we remain in denial about this learning difference’s existence, we will continue to be denying our gifted students the education they are capable of.

“My school has a gifted program. I let the gifted teacher worry about those kids.”
These children don’t become un-gifted when they enter your classroom. Their learning needs don’t matter solely in the gifted resource classroom. We make accommodations in our classrooms for children whose learning needs are on the other end of the spectrum. We recognize that grade level material is not always the appropriate learning resource for those kids. We make adjustments according to what is best for the child. Most of us have been trained in how to do this and most schools have enough special ed personnel to aid us in the process. But when it comes to making adjustments according to what is best for a gifted learner, we have two strikes already against us. #1 Most teachers have received little or no training on how to do this, and #2 Most schools are severely understaffed of qualified gifted ed personnel. (As one example, there are only about 40 FTE in gifted ed positions in the entire state of Montana... that’s less than a whole person per county!) In order to do what’s best for these learners, we really do need to work together throughout the day to reach (i.e. teach) them where they are.

* “If only that gifted student would bother doing his assigned work, I might consider giving him something different to do.”
Imagine if, in order to begin your job each day (the learning opportunity that stretches you to new levels) you had to first fill out a few worksheets on Bloom’s Taxonomy (or some other concept you’ve mastered) to be able to get in the door. As adults, we wouldn’t stand for it. As adults, when a learning opportunity isn’t reaching us where we are – if we’ve been through it all before – we resent having to sit through it again. Do you like to go to professional development opportunities when the presenter isn’t delving into the topic any deeper than you’ve already mastered it? Nope. We get up and walk out. We can. But the kids are stuck. Assigned work that provides no educational growth for a child is busy work to fill time. In the real world, businesses don’t hire employees to stay busy and fill time. They hire them to FULFILL A PURPOSE. A gifted child isn’t in your classroom to raise your test scores or to be a good role model or to dutifully re-hash material she has already mastered. She’s in your classroom to LEARN. That is her purpose to fulfill there. The steps to take to make that happen could involve recognizing that some of the assigned work isn’t appropriate learning material for that child. Yet still making her do it first as some sort of “entrance fee” before she can do the work that IS appropriate learning material for her is - well - cruel. And yes, I’m deciding to use that word. Ask the gifted kids. When they have to do both the assigned, too-easy, regular work and the challenging extra work, they see one or the other as a “punishment” for being smart.

* “But if I move you ahead in the subject this year, then what will next year’s teacher do with you?”
Our focus in the classroom should be the KIDS, not our colleagues. It is not okay to not teach a child just because some hypothetical teacher in the future might not know how to move the child on from that point. It is not okay to not teach a child just because “next year’s teacher” won’t know what to do with him. Ya know what? Next Year’s Teacher could retire or move away or take maternity leave. You don’t really know for sure who Next Year’s Teacher will be. But you DO know for sure who This Year’s Kid is. Teach This Year’s Kid!

Feel free to add any others you may have heard (or even said) in the comments section. You can find additional examples at the Hoagies site in the “Ridiculous Things I Heard Today” section.

Just some food for thought to challenge our default positions...

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.

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