I heard a story from one of my lecturers when training to be a teacher, which illustrates possibly one of the most important aspects of teaching – perhaps even more important than the actually teaching – that is, the quality of the relationship between the teacher and the students.
The story was about a boy who attended a large comprehensive school with crowded corridors full of boisterousness (and that was just the teachers!). This particular boy, let’s call him Jim, was a little smaller than average, a little quieter than average and a little more anonymous than average. He never liked school; if truth be told, he hated it, every day of it. He was alone and friendless and for all intents and purposes, he may well have not existed so unknown was he.
One particular day he was struggling his way through yet another typically crowded corridor, hugging the wall, inching his way to another class, hoping to get there safely. Amid the chaos, he felt a pull on the elbow of his sweater and turning, he was faced with the Chaplain who, also in rush to get through said, with a smile, “excuse me please” and then carried on through the crowd.
With some relief no doubt, Jim completed school. He went to work and several years later, he emigrated far away. He set up home, founded a successful business and one day met the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.
Jim returned home with his fiancé and called to his former school to enquire of the principal the wherabouts of the Chaplain from his old schooldays. Jim told the story of his life after school, his emigration abroad and his business success. He explained that he was getting married and he very much wanted the Chaplain to preside at the wedding. The principal was a little puzzled. Why had Jim come all this way and after such a long time to seek the Chaplain. After all, he hadn’t stayed in touch.
Jim pulled himself up in his chair and smiling, he told the principal the other half of his life. He told him of the miserable time he had in school; the crowded corridors; the anonymity and the terror of being a child feeling totally alone. And he told of the one time, the only time in all of his school days, when someone spoke to him as a human being – the day the Chaplain said to him “excuse me please”.
We should never underestimate the power of positive regard. But how often do we, as teachers, consciously direct our mind towards it? And if you could do something simple to show it, would you?
The story above is perhaps, a tad dramatic a way to illustrate the plight of gifted children in Irish schools. To be sure, the experience isn’t uniform. I know many schools, principals and teachers doing great work (here’s one).
I also know many teachers who nod their head when I mention gifted students. Some of them are the same teachers who think that just because they read the NCCA’s Draft Guidelines (now badly in need of revision) that they are experts. They are also the same teachers who, when a parent mentions giftedness, says “sure aren’t all children gifted”.
Just in case you are thinking, yes, it is that bad. (and if you don’t really know how bad that is, then it’s worse!).
Without specific direction from the Department of Education, even the simple recognition of gifted children in most schools is missing, a recognition that is the single most important step in demonstrating positive regard for gifted children. I have known some gifted children whose school life experience was not a million miles from Jim’s.
In an ideal world, schools would have a specialist gifted policy, funding and specialist programmes. In a less ideal world, we might still have a school policy that says something like ‘we recognise that there is such a thing as a ‘gifted child’; that they are not the same as the ‘high achieving child’ and that they often need something more and/or different to achieve their learning potential and we will do our best to address that‘.
Would it be nice if a policy said more? Absolutely. However, current economic realities mean that there is no official funding for specific gifted provision in all of Ireland. But that doesn’t mean a school can’t do anything. At a minimum, recognising gifted children exist in a school allows parents (with a lot of relief) to have an open discussion with their child’s teacher about their child’s progress. That opportunity can be good for everyone.
And even if a school decides not to mention gifted children in their various policies, at least you, as a teacher, can try to identify the gifted child in your class and let them know you that you think they are capable of more. Though as a dedicated teacher (which, if you are reading this you most certainly are) I know you would do more than just that.
Every child likes to feel competent and capable; it’s no different for gifted children but they need their competence and ability recognised at their level. Imagine expecting Usain Bolt to be happy running three-legged races in school all the time!
So, this September, you can take a conscious step to show positive regard to the gifted children in your class and school. The question is, will you?
I’m happy to help; email me here if you would like to be pointed in the right direction.