Taught in the Crossfire

By Lisa Van Gemert.

Educators have notoriously difficult jobs, and those duties aren’t made easier when a gifted student requires special attention. Working together, teachers and parents can make a difference. This article will show you how to work with your child, communicate effectively, become an ally, and get the most out of the men and women you rely on to maximize Johnny’s potential.

‘If you don’t get me out of there, I’m going to become a discipline problem.”

These are not the words a parent wants to hear coming from her son after his first day of first grade. ‘The other kids can’t even read, can’t do multiplication, and the teacher talks to me like I was six (which, of course, he is),” he says. Even if your child did well in the less-structured world of kindergarten, he may act out when first grade begins. First grade is supposed to be “real school,” and in school you’re supposed to learn something you didn’t already know.

Sound familiar? It’s easy for gifted students and parents to become frustrated with a system that seems designed to foster learning in all but the children most capable of it, and that frustration is often directed at the face of education – the teacher. Parents of gifted children are quick to vocalize their dissatisfaction with the school system’s handling of their child’s education – below-ability classroom work, slow pacing, waste-of-time homework assignments, using the child as a teacher’s aide, and giving her more of the same level work rather than ability-appropriate tasks, etc. All too often, the teacher and parent end up pitted against each other in a battle of wills, even though they share the same goal.

Recognizing and clinging to this common ground is the key to helping your child succeed in a mixed-ability classroom. Cindy Perry, a third-grade teacher in Arlington, Texas, says, “The whole is to challenge the children, yet I get frustrated in my own lack of smoothness in differentiating my classroom.” Her point is important. Parents must realize that what they want – the best possible education for their children – is difficult to provide. Teachers, even the most skilled and motivated teachers, face constraints that prevent them from giving every child the best education possible. Any parent with more than one child understands the idea of competing interests with limited resources. When you factor in that guiding a classroom is far more complicated than picking a fast food restaurant or what movie to watch, it is easy to see that a teacher with a classroom of 30 may not be able to please everyone, no matter how much she desires to meet every student’s needs.

In an era of standards-based education, teachers often must choose to allocate finite resources to those things on which school performance is based. Teachers also report challenges such as too little space in the classroom, lack of quality materials, time required by the school district for testing or other activities that take away from instructional time, programs with large documentation requirements, and a lack of sufficient planning time. Most likely, your child’s teacher is just as frustrated as you are.

Sometimes, teachers are new and still learning the basics. Patti Cryer, the Secondary Gifted and Talented Coordinator for Marble Falls ISD in central Texas, says that before teachers can reach their potential, they have to be “comfortable in their own skin. A first-year teacher won’t have an understanding of the nature of all students and may not know how to handle the intensities and different ways of thinking” that come with teaching the gifted. Cryer, who is parenting gifted children herself, has a unique perspective as someone on both sides of the fence. “Some teachers have a belief that gifted kids are going to get there on their own, and they may not know how to challenge them,” she says. A parent doesn’t always know how to challenge his child, either, so it can be unfair to expect a teacher who has spent far less time with the child than he has to know what is going to work best.

Sometimes, the very practice that angers a parent makes sense when the teacher explains the rationale behind it. Eric Bear, an elementary Montessori teacher in Eugene, Oregon, understands parent irritation at having her gifted child used as a teacher’s aid. “When they’re tutoring other students, they’re not learning anything new. They’re not getting an education any more,” he says.

Perry sees it differently. If she has a section of material to get through with the whole class, she sometimes has gifted students tutor more typical learners so that the class can move on more quickly to something that may challenge the gifted learner. She also recognizes that gifted children often enjoy teaching their peers.

This issue illustrates another important point: there is often no one right way to run a classroom. Although all educators would agree on certain standards, teaching is an individual art, and what works for one may not work for another. Because of this, sometimes the child is her own best advocate.

Patricia Bear, a mental health therapist, remembers her own son’s experience with a teacher in elementary school. “When Zack was in fourth grade, the teacher noticed he was bored with the vocabulary assignments, even though she has creative stuff,” Patricia says. “He was trying to make a joke out of it, so she asked him to make her a proposal of an alternate assignment. She didn’t punish him for already knowing it.” Bear allowed her son to negotiate his own learning with the teacher, an approach that parents should consider. Gifted children often have superior reasoning skills. They can use those abilities in creating strategic plans for learning in a mixed-ability classroom. These children also frequently have more insight into the way the classroom works and understand the constraints of it better than parents who are not there everyday. Obviously, if the child is unsuccessful, or the results are unsatisfactory, the parent needs to get involved.

One of the key ideas in avoiding an adversarial relationship with a teacher is to recognize whether the issues you have are with the teacher, the school, or the system itself. Direct your proactive problem-solving skills toward the correct person or entity. Do this by asking questions without a passive-aggressive agenda. You may find that the person you have been complaining about is your biggest ally.

It is easy to get caught up in the idea that your child deserves to be educated to the height of her potential and ignore the simple fact that some children have potential that is so great it is difficult to discover what that is, much less meet it. IT is not malice on the part of the teacher when he cannot meet the needs of your child in the way you would like. Children are all different, so there is no set way that a teacher can adjust for them. Some teachers are simply better than others, and sometimes you will not have a good match. If you can change teachers, great. If not, you will need to bear more of the responsibility for your child’s education than may seem fair.

Be prepared to make practical suggestions, keeping in mind the constraints under which the teacher is working. Be ready to advocate for differentiation (the adjustment of the curriculum itself and the way it is delivered and assessed), not just ‘moreferentiation” (a made-up word that means dumping more mindless worksheets on the kid who finishes first). Be thoughtful and reflective about what has worked in the past, yet stay open to new ideas and methods at each grade level. Volunteer at the school so you experience the teacher’s environment for yourself. You will see the classroom experience in a new way when you truly view it through a teacher’s eyes. Who knows? You may find more than an ally. You may find a friend.

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