Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Working with Your Gifted Child’s Teacher

I have a dear friend in Ireland whom I met through Twitter because we were both mothers of gifted children and shared a sense that we could make the world a better place by sharing our experiences about what we have learned throughout their lifetimes. Recently, she wrote a blog post concerning how her relationships with her children’s teachers affected their time in school. It made me begin to think of similar experiences I have had with my children's teachers.

I am not a teacher. My background  in sociology and experience as a parent have taught me that parent-teacher relationships are critical to the quality of education your child receives in school. It’s like a symbiotic relationship cubed. I am a firm believer in the “it takes a village to raise a child” approach to parenting.

Teachers can be difficult when dealing with gifted children. I have witnessed it in the classroom and have experienced it as a parent. However, parents can also be insensitive in the manner in which they approach teachers. It doesn't have to be this way.

I’d like to offer a few suggestions to parents to help you improve your relationship with your child’s teachers. First, remember that teachers are human, too; they have feelings that can be bruised and can react just like anyone else. Second, when it comes to gifted education, very few teachers have had any exposure to it while in college or subsequently through professional development. This is a worldwide problem in gifted education.

When you first meet a teacher, don’t assume that they are experts in every facet of education. Your first experience probably involved an elementary teacher soon after your child was identified as gifted. Your initial reaction was to learn everything you could about what it meant for your child to be gifted. Do not assume that this is the teacher's top priority.

Unless your child is fortunate enough to enroll in a program specifically designed for gifted children, his or her regular education teacher will be under many demands that you do not even realize. In today's world, the pressure to get all students to proficient on standardized tests can overwhelm a teacher. Budget cuts to education only make matters worse. Increased class sizes, supply shortages that often fall on the teacher's shoulders and student behavior which has been on a downward spiral for over a generation can take their toll on a teacher.

Enter the new gifted parent. I want my child accelerated. My child’s needs aren't being met. Why can’t you provide differentiated instruction? My child is bored in your class. Get the picture? Right away, the teacher is put on the defensive. They may agree with you, but certainly don’t feel like facing demands before they get to know your child.

Share your child’s educational and developmental history, and provide the teacher with information you have found concerning gifted education. Their response to your efforts will be a good indicator as to their willingness to work with you. If they respond negatively, it may be time to look for other alternatives.

Is this your job? No, but a little bit of understanding can go along way in building a positive relationship with the teacher. Will every teacher respond to this approach? Absolutely not. But making the effort could make all the difference for your child and that is what is most important.

I have found it invaluable to get involved with gifted advocacy. Organize parents and meet with each other not only to advocate for gifted education, but to also support one another. Bring teachers and gifted administrators into your group. Express your desire to work together. Join state and national advocacy groups and educate yourself. Become a resource for the teacher rather than an adversary. Learn about what other school districts in your area offer in regard to gifted opportunities. By networking, parents can often enlighten educators as to what is available.

It is possible for you and your child’s teacher to work together. Developing a relationship based on mutual respect can go a long way. If that relationship does not develop, consider other educational options for your child. At the end of the day, your child's well-being must be the main consideration.

9 comments:

  1. What an insightful, and pleasant Blogpost, and it is in total agreement with my point of view.. and by the way, thankyou so much for the Mention, it means more than you know!! Am a firm believer in that both parents and students can offer alot to each other.. Thanks for putting it so beautifully..

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  2. Thanks for reaching out to my on MY blog, I will certainly read through your other posts here and take your advice about getting educated about gifted ed.

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  3. Excellent post... I'm going to link it on my blog, too...

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  4. I did all those things at the beginning. I waited patiently for teachers to notice that a 5 yo was working at 6th grade level or more in multiple subjects. They didn't. I gently and respectfully pointed out that although they were the professionals and I didn't pretend to know what to do, we needed some solution other than learning the alphabet for a kid who had been reading for four years. They told me I was nuts. I had to ask for testing, so they would stop telling me I was nuts. When the kid tested past 6th grade level at 5, they told me they could differentiate. They couldn't or wouldn't. I found a highly gifted school and assumed, at least there, the teachers would be different. They could understand that not all kids were the same, that although many kids need two years to drill multiplication tables, some kids figure that out on their own by 3 or 4. Nope -- more of the same. Despite testing past 12th grade at 7, he should do multiplication for two years to make sure he knows it because we follow the rules here and those are the rules. The teachers claim GT credentials and that they have GT kids themselves, but none of them seem to have a tiny clue about kids who learn who need to be led towards what they don't know, not drilled repetitively on what they knew years ago. But remember, we are nuts (uncooperative, pushy, demanding) because we cannot understand why the kid should repeat what he self-taught at 3 again at 5, 6, 7, and 8. As the kid puts it, "I got it the first time." No amount of evidence, testing, explaining, or demonstrating has any relevance because I've yet to find an elementary school teacher who understands evidence, let alone acts on it.

    I entered these relationships with a lot of empathy and with confusion as to how these poor teachers could meet the diverse needs of those in their class. After years of watching them blame my child for his needs (mostly the desire to learn despite flawless behavior while learning nothing) for blaming us because his skills are far advanced, I gave up and took my kid out of school.

    I've found that those with doctorates in math aren't intimidated by his math ability as every single elementary math teacher was. Elementary school teachers were threatened and determined to teach him that adult level abilities in reading, math, chess, music, science, history, or whatever were not appropriate for his age level. In contrast, professors, artists, musicians, chess players, scientists and magicians have been generous, encouraging, helpful, and inspirational.

    I got involved. I advocated. I begged and pleaded. I asked for help from the professional elementary educators to address this extreme outlier kid before he imploded. I got oodles of documentation, outside testing, school testing, and daily performance to document that I wasn't just nuts and a pushy parent. It did no good. No teacher helped. No one deviated from the norm and dared to think that a kid reading philosophy at 7 might need more than the standard curriculum. In retrospect, the elementary teachers did us a huge favor. Only leaving those more interested in checking off boxes on a list than learning or teaching would get my kid what he needs.

    I can't follow any of your advice anymore. I can't build a relationship on mutual respect because I no longer have any respect for them, but it wasn't always like this. I learned the hard way. I started positive, hopeful, and cooperative, but after years of advocating for many kids, I ended up thinking most the elementary teachers we've encountered, even those with decades long experience teaching gifted kids, are incapable of addressing the needs of gifted kids. They are scared to death of a kid who thinks circles around them, and frankly, just so limited that they can't even admit or accept their own limitations. I did remember who was most important in this relationship -- my child -- and so I got him away from those people.

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  5. Dear Anonymous,
    I'm sorry that you feel this one post negates everything else I have written. I did state that, "Will every teacher respond to this approach? Absolutely not." and I did so with good reason. Every situation and every child is different. It sounds like your child is profoundly gifted from your comments. I think you did exactly the right thing. I have found few public schools that can meet the needs of the profoundly gifted. I would direct you to the Davidson Institute for further resources. They have excellent programs for the PG.
    When I consult with parents, I seek the best educational solution for their child whether it be public, private, charter, cyber or home schooled. It seems like you weighed your options and made the best choice for your child.

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  6. I think that Lisa and I, because we're consultants, see a lot of situations from the outside -- we have seen many different stories play out in different ways at different times, rather than being caught up in the high-stakes stories of our own personal children.

    I agree -- no one solution is best for everyone. Sometimes there isn't a good solution to be had within the specific school. The key is that when you've gotten to an emotional place where *you're* not wiling to be a collaborative partner, then it is not particularly surprising if the teachers are also not particularly collaborative. You cannot control their reactions, but you can control your own presentation. And what Lisa is suggesting is the best way to load the dice in your favor.

    It doesn't always work -- as you suggest, sometimes the teachers (particularly elementary school teachers) have their *own* transference reactions to gifted kids or gifted parents, and sometimes the schools have their *own* internal problems to deal with that you have nothing to do with. I've seen all that, too. But in those situations, coming in armed for bear wouldn't have worked either. When I'm consulting with parents, I'm helping them figure out how to evoke the most helpful responses from the school, and how to tell when those helpful responses aren't likely to show up, so that they can decide where to allocate their time and effort. Deciding to choose a different shouldn't be a reactive angry thing, but a thoughtful response to a clear understanding of both yourself and the school folk and what is realistic within the situation.

    And I think it's sad if the mere suggestion of attempting to catch flies with honey leaves a parent feeling that they cannot trust even folks like us for support and honest feedback. That would, of course, tend to leave a parent with fewer and fewer resources over time, which would then tend to increase the very feelings of anger and isolation that are so troubling for so many GT parents. I don't mean to claim that this dynamic has happened for you, but I can say that I've seen it happen in other situations, and it always saddens me.

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  7. ljconrad,

    I have had experiences similar to Anonymous above, but I don't think that my experiences negate everything you've written. And I think Anonymous may not believe that either. From her post, it sounds to me more like she is expressing her frustration.

    I still agree that parents should begin the process with the kind of open-minded approach you describe. I also tried to do that. It seemed to me, that no matter how hard I tried (or maybe I tried too hard?) the school was unwilling to address the needs of my kids. My choices were reduced to this: Do not advocate--kid receives nothing, or advocate--kid receives token effort and family receives animosity from the school community.

    I pulled them out.

    And I seriously question whether my inability to advocate effectively for my kids is an indicator of some personal failing. That hurts.

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  8. I think that educational desires of children who are on the extreme tale of the distribution are going to be difficult to in the group environment, and that's part of the realism of the situation.

    I'll also say that as a parent of very bright children who are well served by their school for gifted children (and, who I don't see as having extraordinary schooling needs, in spite of their IQ tests), I'm always wary of hearing that a child does "sixth grade work" or reads at the "12th grade level." Those just aren't meaningful terms to me, and seem to rely on education/learning/and cognition model that's far more hierarchical than I believe it to be.

    I don't, though, regard the inability of people to advocate for and achieve the appropriate educational environment for their children in school as a personal failing -- some children aren't going to do well enough in the environment that a school can offer (even a school that tries) compared to how they can do elsewhere, and some schools aren't going to try.

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  9. Your post was thoughtful and, in my opinion, could be used as a generalized template for any number of possibly confrontational situations. It is so easy to escalate when dealing with these situations but rather more difficult to come down the confrontation-ladder afterward.

    Sadly, for me, a combination of factors have come together in such a way as to make such a tidy solution unlikely. The fact that I am simply not very good at building a 'relationship' with the teachers and the overall hostility (due to budgetary problems and an unwanted change in administration and guidance personnel) in the school my student attends makes it no easier.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

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