Gifted Teachers Speak: You are Enough

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I don’t know about you, but I’ve really been enjoying the Interview with a Gifted Kid series. I’ve interviewed gifted kids and grown up gifted kids, and now I’m sharing an interview I did with two fabulous gifted teachers from Louisiana.

These women know their stuff. Here’s their experience:

Cheryl Friberg: 25 years teaching experience, almost 20 of those in gifted education

Patrice Royer: 19 years of experience teaching, 10 in gifted education

Please keep in mind that I was typing my notes, so all errors are my own. I sincerely hope this article conveys the power of their words.

What do you feel is the value proposition of gifted education?

Cheryl: Children with the social and emotional diversity that gifted kids so often have is not always accepted in the regular classroom. We see this over and over – it’s a common thread. All of the intellectual stuff is great – they love being challenged – but the thread that runs through gifted education is the social emotional part. That’s the key.

Patrice: I had a student in 3rd – 5th grades once a week. He just blossomed as far as social skills go. I had the time to work with him. And he’s better now. He’s come a long way.

For our curriculum…we follow state standards and GT standards, we assess, we follow lesson plans, but our supervisors are not breathing down our necks. We have the freedom to teach, and we don’t have to teach this on this day. Scripted lessons are just absurd. [Note: I love that! Scripted lessons are absurd.]

GT ed is more student-driven – we can pay more attention – and  the students love our classrooms. There is more quality and less quantity. We move at a quick pace. We ask the students, “What do you want to do next?” They are never bored.

Why do you think teachers are so resistant to differentiation? Why is it so hard for GT kids to get a good education in a regular class?

Cheryl: Currently, there’s a push towards conceptual thinking in classrooms, so you can fit everything under that big umbrella. Here’s the thing, though: You’re not going to learn anything unless you’ve had that experience or you can connect it to what you know.

In terms of kids not getting what they need, in many classrooms (not all) they’re stagnant learners. All they do is observe. In GT, they’re more active participants. They’re in charge of their own learning. They take ownership. Sometimes we draw the reins in a little bit, of course, but they have more control.

And you’ll get more quality work with choice.

I had a second grader and third grader doing an independent research project. The 2nd grader was working on fossils, and the 3rd grader on human evolution. They would share what they were doing. The 2nd grader stood up in his chair and said, “My research connects to x student’s research on human evolution!”

It’s those aha moments that you want to leave way for in classroom.

Patrice: It’s the curriculum. Gen Ed teachers have so much content that they have to teach per week. It’s just too much information. The quantity of material is just too great. A lot of information is expected to be taught in a very short period of time. So that’s a lot of planning.

In GT classes, they get choice. If regular ed teachers would use more choice that would be awesome for all children. Even learning contracts. It works well in core content areas.

What is something parents get wrong about gifted kids?

Cheryl: The idea of perfection. They tell their children, “You have to make straight As.” They’ll punish them by not letting go to GT class, saying, “You’re not going to gifted for two classes because you have a B.”

Parents will say, “You’re not going to gifted until your report card comes out and you improve the grades.”

The kids say, “But I have to go to gifted. It’s the only the place I fit in.”

Parents use withholding gifted as punishment. Some adults think they can be judge and jury over gifted. Teachers don’t refer because the child is a behavior problem or just wants to draw. The child has to meet a behavior bar.

Patrice: Some parents are too concerned their child will not be able to handle it. Parents will say, “I will remove my child from gifted if he/she becomes overwhelmed and frustrated. I don’t want him to go to gifted class and feel overwhelmed.” This was before school even started!

What is the difference in gt kids from typical learners that makes school hardest for them?

Claire: Absolutism can be problem. Just yesterday a teacher said, “He wants to yell out the answer before I’ve even asked the question!” The child knows where the teacher’s going and can blurt out. Having to learn to hold back as a gifted student and not express what’s going on in your mind is one of the hardest things.

Sometimes they can’t accept that something we’re doing in class will be hard. They don’t understand that the more challenged you are, the more you get to increase your skills.

Yes, before every challenge you’re not going to know. You’re going to feel frustrated and anxious. And then you’ll feel like, “Oh, I think I can do this.” You’ll increase your skills.

Patrice: The first week of school, we talked about what gifted is. We talked about what it looks like to parents/teachers/friends…

There were lots of repetitious answers…classmates always saying, “you’re smart,” getting negative feedback. They’re told, “You must know it all”…”You know this…” And they get it from teachers, too. They always live with, “Oh, he knows this.” Or, “Go, sit with so-and-so; she’ll help you.”

They can have meltdowns because they’re not used to reaching their frustration point. They have a hard time accepting they’re not perfect. [Note: someone should really write a book about that!]

Do you have any advice to other GT teachers?

Cheryl: First, love them for who they are. Once a student knows they’re accepted, they can blossom. That’s an esoteric thing, but I really do think it’s true. You teach to the child’s fearful heart, as Parker Palmer said, and their minds will come along.

In Louisiana, you have to have a masters in GT, which is great, but professional jealousy is a thing. Teachers see you taking six kids and think, “I can do that.”

And maybe you can! Go get your masters. As fun as it is, it can also be hard. Everything you’ve learned about the affective part will show its head.

When you know it’s normal, you can handle it when it rears its head – when the child has a total meltdown because he/she didn’t win at a game of chance – you come face to face with what you learned in your head. Now, you have to develop strategies to deal with the situation.

Remember how bored these students can get. Years ago, Ed Weekly or something, a study that showed that only 3.7 – 4% worth of new information is taught everyday. The GT kids probably already know info from that 4%, but they have to sit through the discipline, taking turns, waiting for everyone else to be done.

If you don’t use their time well, it will be a problem. I remember a student who went from PreK to Kinder and started throwing a fit when given coloring pages. He protested, “I’ve come to school to learn. I did this last year. I’m not going to do it again.” He refused to do something that was redundant. “I already know how. I don’t want to do it again.”

Sometimes, the teacher will not use child’s name. They’ll just say, “Hey you gifted child, what do you think?” Kids don’t want to be referred to by ability. We’d never, ever say, “Hey you, autism” or “Hey you, paraplegic.” But that happens all the time to GT kids, perhaps not as much in the past few years, but it definitely has happened.

Gifted young people have totally incredible designs. That’s what they do. They create. And if it doesn’t interfere with a particular value or a law, let them.

One class I taught made up a rank order for giftedness. A Giftling was a student who came into the school, but didn’t begin the year; “Gifted” was if they’d begun the year; if you can type so many words a minute, you’re a “Giftwizard,” and so on. They’re like that.

One of the life lessons I regularly talk with the students about is how humankind seeks to create a ‘balance’ of sorts. This  is especially clear when the topic of bullying comes up. This need for balance generally shows up in one of two ways, someone will ‘rise up’ to meet you, or try to ‘bring you down’ to their level. As much as possible, take the high road and be the person/friend you would want someone to be to you. I also tell the students that this seeking of ‘balance’ is not only with children; it is within adults as well.

Patrice: Learn about social emotional, creativity. Follow Ian Byrd and look at characters with gifted traits in books and movies.

We’re considered resource centers. We manage between 6-7 schools with 35 – 57 students each. We’re looking at health plans, contacting principals, parents, bus transportation. Yes, we have the teaching part, but there are other parts of job, so learn that, too. Really know the IEP process.

If there were one thing you could tell your GT students that they would really take to heart, what would it be?

Cheryl: My students could probably answer that if you asked them what’s one thing I always say?

One thing my mentor George Betts said. He asked, “Are you who you want your students to become?”

I would say to my students, “Are you an example of what you want someone else to be to you?”

Those gifted kids deal with perfectionism. They are worse on themselves than anyone could ever be on them.

Patrice: You are enough. It’s a beautiful motto in life. Be yourself. Never give up.

You know, these kids, they’re always in your heart. Always. They have so much potential. I hope that when life gets crazy, I hope they don’t give up.

Wrapping Up:

There were so many takeaways for me in this interview. I loved these ideas in particular:

  • The SEN piece is a key value proposition in gifted education. That came up in responses to multiple questions, and it’s so, so important.
  • Adults using GT as a weapon just made me crazy. Parents withholding GT to punish children for grades, etc., is so damaging.
  • The absolutism of gifted kids is such a thing!
  • The student who was so frustrated in Kindergarten, saying, “I came to learn!” Oh, I feel that pain.
  • How lovely to hear the late George Betts quoted with such a lovely idea: “Are you who you want your students to become?” That’s so powerful.
  • You are enough…and they are always in your heart. That just got me.

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