We sit together across the table from each other in a small room that, in a few moments, will become the school's resource room. Both of us are in our young 40s and the seats we are in at the moment are clearly meant for bodies much smaller than our own. These chairs fit kindergarten and first graders quite well, but they are less than ideal for the type of parent-teacher conference I am now navigating. Both of us are cramped and confined, our knees peek above the table and, I notice, whenever this mother waves her hands in the air for emphasis, her arms have to travel awkwardly down a few extra inches to reach the surface of the kidney-shaped table that separates us. Even without the arm waving though, it would be clear to anyone who walked in on this scene that the lady who sits before me now is equal parts frustrated, worried, and just plain confused. She finishes her story.
"So he got a warning... for that?! Doesn't that seem unfair to you? At the very least, it's a bit overkill, isn't it? All he did was answer her question-and what he said was true!" Again, her hands find their place on the table.
I glance at the clock and inwardly wince. We've been at it for twenty minutes already and soon, very soon, the young kids and the reading specialist who normally use this room will come strolling in ready for their day to begin. We need to be out of here and I've hardly gotten a chance to respond.
I clear my throat.
Before I go any further I should clarify a few things. First, I am not the regular classroom teacher of the third grade student whose mother I am now speaking to. I am her son's "other" teacher. Even this lady is not quite sure what exact title I bear. She knows me as her son's "gifted resource teacher." The title is a bit amorphous, granted, but in essence the bulk of my job duties are centered on providing this child-- and all others that are identified as gifted in this school-with support in their public education. The model that our division uses for servicing gifted students is the same one that is used across the bulk of school districts in the United States. At the elementary school level (where I am now) I have the job of creating and implementing enrichment lessons/units that support or augment whatever is happening in the regular classroom. In my school division, I service three elementary schools. At the middle school level (I am responsible for one of these in our division, too), it means I primarily support the teachers with resources that will help them adapt their "typical" lessons to better meet the needs of the gifted students in their room. Given this broad mission statement, depending on the school I am in on any given day, what I do hour to hour (and week to week) can have a very different look and feel. In one school, for example, I do only pull-out enrichment with students; in another, I do a mix of teacher support and whole class instruction; and in another, I do a bit of all three-finding resources, delivering whole class instruction, and providing pull-out enrichment.
It's not hard to feel a bit scattered and fractured in this job. With so many different grade level preparations (grades 1-5) and diverse school schedules (some start at 7:30am, others at 8:30am) I have to be on my toes. A lesson with first graders at one school might require pattern blocks and last just 35 minutes, but at the other school I'll visit on that same day I'll need colored pencils, glue, and a set of dictionaries for a lesson that lasts sixty-five minutes. In between traveling from one school to the next, I'll scarf down a sandwich and a can of V-8 in the car and call it lunch. I might also return a phone call or two or check my messages. When I arrive, I'll unpack my trunk of the materials I need, make sure the room I have been promised is not already in use by another teacher, and then I'll go collect my students from their regular teacher.
I am paid a regular teacher's salary but, like most other teachers, my responsibilities extend well beyond just classroom instruction. I also administer testing for students who are screened as candidates for the gifted program. I deliver inservices for school staffs on topics ranging from the "characteristics of gifted students" to (the much more popular) "impact of brain research on classroom instruction." I attend Back to School nights and PTA events at each of my schools and, when I can, I pop into a faculty meeting here and there to make sure that teachers know who I am and what I can do to help them.
According to the most recent position paper of the National Association for Gifted Children, the federal government's support for gifted children now stands at only 2 pennies for every $100 dollars it invests in K-12 education. States' financial support for gifted education varies widely across the nation but it's definitely safe to say that there is not a lot of money being used to prop up the job that I and others like me have. Thus the many duties that fall under my job description.
Regardless of the job, most of us in public education don't teach for the money and my own reason for tackling this job, as harried as it is at times, is simple. I do it because gifted education is something I am truly passionate about. I genuinely worry about what happens to those students who need further challenges but don't get it; those who sit through lessons reviewing skills they already mastered weeks or months ago; students who get bored and then, perhaps, raise a ruckus in the room for everyone else or start to shut down and no longer try. I worry about what sort of opportunities these children will be presented with so that they can see exactly what sort of real value and an asset their intellectual gifts are-not just for themselves but for our society as a whole. The emotional and intellectual needs of gifted students are manifold and for nearly all other types of students in the "special ed" categories, opportunities and resources abound. And yet, at the gifted end of this special ed spectrum, there are relatively few roles in public education where one can work for the needs of gifted students. The job I have now is, luckily, one of those.
I started my public ed career in gifted education; I got my Masters in Teaching with an emphasis in gifted programs. I've co-authored two books for teachers about differentiating instruction for gifted students. I've spoken at conferences on the state and national levels, and I have consulted with school districts to draft and implement new models for reaching their gifted populations. I see it as my job to help educate and, equally important, even advocate for this group of students. Sometimes I do this by working with teachers and their students. Sometimes I do this by speaking with principals and guidance counselors.
I look back at the woman across from me. Now that she has had an opportunity to express her concerns, she seems a bit more at ease. She glances at her own watch and, somewhat startled at the time, apologizes for the length of her monologue. I assure her it's okay and summarize the core of her concerns for the two of us: she wants to understand the motivations of the teacher who effectively shut down her child for what was, really, a pretty clever response to a math question; she wants advice on how to discuss the incident with her son; and she wants to know what she can do to coach her son in better ways of responding to this teacher (and others like her, I presume), now and in the future.
There's much to be discussed, and the problem we face at the moment is, well,... the moment. With a class of kids about to file in, there's simply not enough time to tackle a thorough discussion about what is really the "double-edged" sword of giftedness, a theme that been running in the background throughout our meeting.
I consult my calendar as we hear the sounds of laughter and wet shoes squeaking in the hallway outside the door. One child wonders aloud why the door to this room is shut when normally it is open. As the mother stands, I suggest we meet again on Wednesday to continue our conversation. She accepts and seems, for the moment at least, mollified. She leaves, weaving her way through the small throng of children who, sure enough, were just waiting for the door to open.
And now it's time for my day to begin.
NEXT BLOG: "The Double-Edged Sword of Giftedness, Pt. 1"