A national survey by the Thomas B. Fordham organization found that some teachers don’t feel qualified to teach the gifted or driven to spend additional classroom time with them, probably because there are so many other students that need remediation rather than enhanced lessons. In addition, the demands of NCLB are clearly putting the emphasis on the lower performing students in an effort to raise school test scores especially if the pupil is in a deficient subset. This despite research that has indicated that the high achiever needs just as much help as any other student, but there isn’t a subset for gifted students on NCLB.
The Fordham organization’s study is especially noteworthy as it casts a pall over the concept that anyone can teach the gifted. The study found that well over half of all teachers have no training in how to teach the gifted and 60 percent never had a staff development in this area.
Traits of the Best Teachers
Of course, this raises the question: which traits do the best teachers of the gifted have in common? Research has shown such educators have a diverse university education with special classes in dealing with the gifted. Secondly, they offer a challenging program. This does not have to require more work from the students, but more depth. A simple assignment such as an essay on the Revolutionary War must be altered to provide them an opportunity to use logic and problem solving at a higher level. To make this a critical thinking assignment the instructor simply has to ask the students to write an essay on the Revolutionary War as the Russian or English or French would have viewed it. Such assignments require more resources and a grading system that takes into account the effort as well as the clarity of support for the student’s position.
Joan Freeman’s work, Teaching Gifted Pupils, in the Journal of Biological Education, notes that gifted students need extra help in the form of more challenging work. The best teachers are those that have a dynamic style and are motivating.
Here are some additional characteristics of the best teachers that could be helpful to parents, school districts, and universities looking to hire instructors in those areas.
The most effective teachers of the gifted have a vast mastery of the subject matter and a personal love of learning. They take university courses even though they may not need them for salary credit. In their classrooms there is word play, a variety of teaching strategies, and the ability to utilize knowledge in a variety of ways to stimulate thinking. They may not have the neatest classroom, but the student’s work reflects individuality and a vast array of interests. Next, a sense of humor and the ability to move through material rapidly is highly rated. The textbook is not the centerpiece of learning and the teacher is not the centerpiece of the classroom. Add to that emotional stability, up to date on research, and patience.
The best teachers also encourage students to be independent thinkers and excel at getting students to be responsible for their own learning. They provide pupils with opportunities to learn and expand their range of interests and abilities. Good teachers have a vast range of interests and have above average intelligence themselves. The classroom is a base for learning, but the community and society as a whole, are the research laboratories for teaching the gifted. Being creative is an absolute must as well as the ability of be enthusiastic and business like in their dealing with students. These educators need to have a preference for teaching gifted students and not use such assignments as ways to avoid teaching other classes, but as a chance to facilitate learning using the latest in research and methods.
None of these traits is necessary to be a teacher of the gifted in most schools nor is there the requirement that they are up to date on technology and current research.
Good teachers challenge their students every day and in a variety of ways. They are consistent and flexible. A parent can identify the best teacher of the gifted just by listening to their child talk about him or her. The teacher should provide the youth with a great deal of fodder for the parent, from complaints about too much work, to the excitement of new learnings.
Last year I was one of the featured speakers at a conference with Howard Gardner who developed the concept of Multiple Intelligences. In his talk he reinforced that most children are gifted in some aspect of human endeavor whether that be athletics, music, or simply coordination. What is important is they are offered a comprehensive education where they can be encouraged to develop in all areas. Too often the parents of young children stress reading and vocabulary building and point out to those who wonder into their realm that their child is reading many grade levels above their age level. But what are they reading? And, after reading the book what are they doing with that knowledge?
Studies by Linda Kreger Silverman and Dr. Fernidad Eide, have found that a significant number of gifted children have learning disabilities. Thus they may rely on what they do best, such as music, reading, or math, to avoid working in areas of weakness. This may work well for them in some schools, but later in life this avoidance could result in them not learning how do problem solve or deal with others.
If scoring in the top ten percent of an I.Q. test means a child is gifted, then seven million students under the age of 18 are in that same category. There are three million teachers in America and that statistically means that every teacher could have three or more in his or her class. In other words, every teacher should be trained on how to deal with gifted students because even if the school offers enrichment with qualified teachers, they will still be attending other classes.
All too frequently students who are gifted are bored in classes and become disruptive or passive aggressive. This can result in negative feelings for all concerned and it leaves a parent in the position of not knowing whom to trust. This is especially troubling as funding for gifted programs dries up in the quest for meeting NCLB criteria. There are categories for a lot of special subgroups, but the gifted is not one of them. So money and resources are spent elsewhere.
Too bad. According to research by William Sanders, gifted students need more help to learn. A majority of those in the Tennessee study failed to achieve at their potential. In other words, they need the same type of assistance and resources as special education students as a greater percentage of low achieving students made satisfactory gains than high achieving students. Sanders found that only one in five effective teachers work well with high achieving students.
No doubt NCLB has hurt the gifted more than any other group as that ill advised program takes needed resources from them under the assumption that the gifted can learn regardless, as district seek to meet minimum goals.
The Impossible Range
Studies have shown that some teachers are not making modifications to the curriculum of gifted students and are simply adding on more work. Creating a differentiated curriculum takes time and must be constantly updated. With class sizes in many larger states well over 30 students this is not easy to do. It also makes a clear case for streaming in some regards so as resources can be pooled. However, the problem with streaming, outside of the possible social problems it can create, is the wide ranging interests of gifted students and the wide range of gifted classification. No other group has such a huge variation with those classified as gifted on standardized tests having a possible IQ range of over 60 points. No other group comes close. So although the numbers of students is less in the gifted range, the degree of differences in abilities is immense. No wonder one of the traits of an exceptional teacher of the gifted is to have a wide variety of interests and a passion for learning. He or she needs it to be able to tempt a tremendous range of gifted students with new ideas and promote new explorations.
The most at risk students in the nation are the gifted. The No Child Left Behind legislation almost assures that this shall continue as schools spend scarce resources on those with the lower IQ scores in an effort to be on the good side of the government’s academic ledger.
Secondly, there is a need to have teachers to have the best professional development given by those teachers who have been successful. Professional development works best when a teacher can make a connection to his or her own classroom.
Next, funding for teaching of the gifted should be at the same level as any other group.
Finally, the parents of gifted students must continue to take the time to supplement their child’s education. Studies have shown that IQ scores change over time and that the home environment can make a large difference in this. Thus it is both genetics and the home environment that can help create a young citizen ready for society and the ability to leave the shelter and safety of what is known for the changing demands of civilization.
The end of programs to help these special student and the mandates of NCLB could well spend the death knell of gifted programs. It is up to each parent and teacher impacted to let their school districts and legislators know what they are in danger of losing.
Alan Haskvitz teaches at Suzanne Middle School in Walnut, Calif., and makes staff development presentations nationwide. In addition, he serves as an audio-visual evaluator and design consultant for his county department of education; a tutor to multi-cultural students in English and art; and an Internet consultant.
Haskvitz's career spans more than 20 years. He has taught every grade level and core subject, has been recognized repeatedly for innovative teaching and has received the following honors, among many:
USA Today All Star Teacher
100 Most Influential Educators
Reader's Digest Hero in Education
Learning Magazine's Professional Best
National Middle Level Teacher of the Year
National Exemplary Teacher
Christa McAuliffe National Award
Robert Cherry International Award for Great Teachers
In addition, Haskvitz publishes articles on successful educational practices and speaks at conferences. He has served on seven national committees and boards.
Haskvitz maintains credentials and training in special and gifted education, history, administration, bilingual education, journalism, English, social studies, art, business, computers, museumology and Asian studies. He holds these credentials for Canada, New York and California. His experience also includes staff development, gifted curriculum design, administration, community relations and motivation. His background includes 10 years of university education.
As a teacher, Haskvitz's curriculum increased CAP/CLAS test scores from the 22nd percentile to the 94th percentile, the largest gain in California history. In addition, Haskvitz and his students work continuously to improve their school and community. His students' work is often selected for awards in competitions in several subject areas. For more details about Alan and his students' work, visit his page on the Educational Cyber Playground.