And So It Begins…

I have taught school for eight years. Over time, I’ve realized one thing that was consistent within education at a general level amid new curriculums, scripted programs, RTI and classroom interventions, the latest and greatest methodologies being presented.

I came across a blog that made reference to a what happens to gifted students by comparing them to tall poppies in a field or garden.  Because they stand out, they are crushed, cut down, and otherwise destroyed, to ensure that the garden looks uniform.   What teachers are being required to use to teach is essentially a lawnmower.  It assumes that all students fit neatly into the garden, with nothing being taller or more advanced than anything else.  There’s support built in for those things that grow a bit slower, but little to nothing for those that shoot past the others.

Our gifted kids are those tall poppies.  The garden is our classroom, our schools, our educational system. We crush our tall poppies to make things more uniform.  To ensure that all students are demonstrating their knowledge in a way that is easy to assess and that fits in a nice, neat little box.  In one school in which I taught, I was told that all students must be doing the same work at the same time.  I wasn’t allowed to differentiate for anyone.  In another, fellow educators wanted all students doing the same projects, the same writing prompts, and the same worksheets in the same way.  It’s easier to grade, they said.  It was the only way to ensure that all the students had learned the same thing and met the standard in the same way.

I was still a newer teacher then, and very unsure of myself after being cut down myself while working in a traditional school. Our school was still new and developing systems for how we did things.  I didn’t question it because those telling me that was how things ought to be done had far more experience than I.  I felt such unease as I watched my gifted students struggle to complete projects when they could show they knew so much more if they  were given the opportunity to do their assignment differently.  So I rebelled quietly.  I began to take the ideas we came up with as a team and open them up, giving more general guidelines for students to follow, and when they asked “Can I…” I said yes, knowing  their idea would give them the opportunity to experience skills like decision making, problem solving, and creative thinking.

With every assignment and project, my students were getting more involved in the content, asking questions even I didn’t know the answers to.  It was rocky for all of us.  I found out that I wasn’t as much of a resource as I wanted to be, that I had room to grow. I needed to know more about  our content, about how they thought, how I could question with purpose, and where we could find information on the fly and how to handle it when we couldn’t find what we wanted. They found that they had freedoms in our classroom they’d never felt before.   Some skated by and I’ll admit I didn’t catch them all.  Some were still afraid to try, for fear that by doing anything, it would be seen as wrong and once again, they’d be crushed or cut down.

My team was not pleased.  I didn’t do what we’d agreed to do, and they said that parents were upset because it wasn’t easy to see how their child’s work stood up to the rest.  It was jumbled, messy, and unclear.  I questioned our practice–did we really grade work comparing one student’s work to that of another?  I never had.  One of my teammates was upset because the kids had done the work themselves, without fixing from me, and it didn’t look as good as she felt it should to be on display.  When I explained that this is what work that kids do looks like at this level, she questioned my ability to teach at all and asked why I hadn’t fixed it–it should be perfect if the public was going to see it.  She taught her students that if their work didn’t look a certain way, it wasn’t worth sharing.

Was that the message that we wanted our kids to get from us?

Then there was what I heard outside of my classroom, outside of my school, from other educators.  “Those damn gifted kids” cause problems in the classroom.  They’re disruptive, rude, and act like know-it-alls.  They refuse to work.  They refuse to put their books away while I’m teaching.  They talk back and question my authority on content, and then dare to bring up alternative theories.

I told my fellow teachers, of course they are disruptive!  They’re bored!  They need challenge and to have opportunities to go beyond what is next in the textbook.  They need to learn to question and to use their knowledge to form ideas and new questions!  What saddened me most was when these educators, many of whom I had admired until then, said that it was up the kids to conform, to be quiet, to not question anything, because they were under no obligation to change how they taught to allow students to do anything that stepped outside of what was next in the curriculum. Many said they would not change how they taught to accommodate the needs of one child–it hurts the others when someone isn’t the same. They could get all the enrichment they wanted on their own time.

I was so upset…I read everything I could on teaching gifted kids in the regular classroom.  And I found that most teachers had no idea how to do it.  It wasn’t about handing them independent study and leaving them to learn on their own. It wasn’t about making them “teacher’s helper,” either, when their work was finished.

So it wasn’t because these teachers hated their gifted students…they didn’t understand how to help them and it was simpler to refuse to do it than to look into how they might.  I thought back to my own teacher training in gifted education.  10 minutes during a week-long course in meeting the needs of special education students.  The instructor essentially said, “There are kids who are gifted.  They learn faster than other kids.  You should do stuff to challenge them.”

And then I found out how little support gifted kids get in a traditional school environment.  Many get a pull out class 2-3 times a week, usually less and never at all if there is testing going on, to do enrichment projects with a resource teacher.  Some get accelerated into a level they need, like the kindergartener I had when I student taught who came to first grade math and our highest reading group.  This only happens if the schedule can accommodate it….once the schedules between levels don’t match up, it stops for most kids. Others go to magnet programs where, in theory, they are being challenged in their classes by teachers who have experience in working with gifted kids.  But most, because of budgetary constraints, get nothing at all. They may not even get identified because no one is on staff to do the work.  Some of the first positions cut when things need to be cut are gifted resource teachers, and many districts have no one in charge of gifted programming at all.

And here was the most disheartening thing of all, which explains why there are so few resources for gifted students.  Identified gifted students in my state earn a school or a district $9.00 each per school year.  In many states, this is far less, if there is anything at all.  Special education students, for whom the government has said publicly need more help to get to grade level so that we can count them among the typical student population, earn two or three hundred dollars each per year for a school.  I am not saying they are not deserving of that funding–they are, and it should be even greater if I can be honest, because special education departments are already running far too thin to meet the needs of all the students they serve.   What I am saying is that there is a huge discrepancy between one type of special need and the other that must be addressed.  Some say that gifted kids “will be just fine” because already they are smarter than everyone else…

Fact is, our tall poppies won’t “be just fine” if they have to continue to do without what they need to grow and develop as learners and citizens.  They need more from us.  We can’t change the funding problem overnight, but we can do things in our own classrooms to ensure that our tall poppies can grow at the rate they do so naturally and support them when they’re ready to grow faster.

This means that educators have to be willing to change how we do things. Some of us will need to rebel quietly to keep our positions.  We need to change how we view these kids who sit so far outside of the “box” that they confound and frustrate us.  We have to be willing to do some hard work and learn more about how they think, about what they need, both academically and socially.  We also have to do some hard work within ourselves, and be willing to step outside of our comfort zone wherever we are on our path as educators and be willing to listen to our tall poppies about what they need from us.

I hope you’ll join me in the garden.

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