Gifted Doesn’t Mean You’re Smarter

August signals the beginning of the end – the countdown to back to school. Since being a teacher is so much of who I am, I wanted to ensure that I carved a space in this blog for educational topics and specifically gifted education. As an aside, my twitter is dedicated to my teaching journey, so if you are interested in more of that, there is a link to my account at the top of this page. When I tell people that I am a teacher, one of the questions I get asked the most is about gifted education. There is something elusive and mystical about children who are brighter than the rest. The general consensus is that these students are the unicorns of the education system – they follow all instructions, understand everything, and always ask for extra work. I’m here to tell you that this is not the case.

When I was in school, I had never heard the term “gifted”. Perhaps it was because I went to a private school, but as students, we were all told we were bright and capable. I know that many students were deemed gifted, mainly in public school or by private assessment, but it wasn’t something that had a specific place in my elementary school history. It just wasn’t something I had encountered growing up. When I was earning my Bachelors of Education, there was very little discussion about gifted education. It wasn’t until I completed my the first part of my additional qualification of Special Education that there was talk of the gifted side of special education. In fact, for the whole course there was one class about it (can you hear my sarcasm through the keys??). Throughout my entire Special Education qualification (all three parts), discussion and planning around gifted students seemed like an afterthought. In case you are wondering why this would even be a special education topic, it is because the curriculum is changed to meet the needs of these learners. They have needs that go above and beyond what the regular curriculum has. The absence of this in the courses and teachings further strengthened the idea that gifted students didn’t need to be discussed because there wasn’t anything difficult about working with them. Shame on the system.

I will be the first to admit that I was hesitant to work with gifted students, as I didn’t want to seem “dumb” or “incapable”. I was offered the position at my current school, having only worked with the students on the other side of the special education spectrum. Those students worried me because in my mind they were all students who were doing university-level math and reading at a high-school level. When we think of these students from a media perspective, we think of savant children who can do anything. All I can think of is the 1991 movie Little Man Tate, about a little boy with extraordinary intelligence. There is a very memorable scene near the beginning when they are trying to teach him to say the word “plate” but he keeps saying “Koffer” instead. They think something is wrong until they realize he is reading the brand of the plate inscribed on the back. What I came to learn very quickly is that, unlike in the movies, gifted doesn’t mean you are smarter than your peers. There is a heavy crown that comes with being labelled gifted.

The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) is a test to measure intelligence in children. It is also the scale used by many school boards as a pre-requisite for the gifted program. It doesn’t measure straight IQ. It looks at verbal (spoken) and non-verbal (pictures, coding) reasoning. This means that when you are gifted, you think differently. It doesn’t mean you can spell out facts like an encyclopedia, or explain how to split an atom. It means that when you look at a problem, your mind tackles it differently. You can reason differently, and look at the world differently. This is not a test that can be studied for or requires reading or writing, much to the chagrin of many parents who are hoping to increase their child’s chances of being placed in that program.

Why do I bring this up? Because since I began teaching in the gifted program, I begin every year with the same statement. Gifted doesn’t mean you are smarter. The first year I taught in the gifted program, a student came up to me and asked how I became so smart. When I asked her what she meant, she replied that I knew all the answers. After a few moments of thinking about how to craft a response in my head, I told her that I did not know all the answers; I just knew where to look to find them. After I said that, it was like a weight had lifted off my shoulders. I was no longer scared of not being as smart as my students, or being incapable of answering their questions. It was then that I knew my job was not to answer their questions but to teach them to answer them for themselves. So many students come into the gifted program at the top of their class. They are the students for which academics come easily. They are the ones the teacher doesn’t need to worry about. The system has built them up to think that they are more academically inclined than their peers, which isn’t necessarily the case. Often students have difficulty with social relationships, self-regulation, organization and goal-setting. As I mentioned before, being gifted is not all rainbows and sunshine. There is a heavy crown that comes along with the title.

As parents, we have to make the best decisions we can for our children. For some, this means a program that is tailored to fit their academic needs (such as a gifted program). For others, it means a program with like-minded individuals might not be the best fit. The key is knowing that there is no one-size-fits-all program for gifted learners. Ironically, Hubby and I discussed that if J had testing in the gifted range, we would not send her to the gifted program, as she loves her current school and the friendships she has forged there. I adore teaching the gifted program, and I would never want to teach any other group. The students can be adventurous, outgoing, inquisitive, or self-driven. However, they can also be shy, socially awkward, anxious, or quirky. They are not perfect but are perfect for me. What they are not, is smarter than everyone else.

This is life. Love, Mom.

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