Saturday, May 12, 2012

Teachers Can't Do It All

I recently reacted to this poster on Facebook, in the group International Gifted Education.  I wrote:  "This is a great sentiment, but where are real teachers supposed to find the time to do this?"  The only person who commented on that original question was Roya Klingner, who jokingly said that good teachers will find the time by working 20 hours a day.  I appreciate the humor in this reply, but I stand by my response:  "Seriously, though, I think we gifted advocates need to stop proposing solutions that put an even greater burden on regular classroom teachers. Most of them are overstressed already."

I  have just about had it with people piling ever more responsibilities and requirements on classroom teachers.  From new standards, new tests, and new technologies to increasing class sizes, dealing with kids with special needs, and increased extra-curricular duties (bus duty, recess duty, detention supervision, after school tutoring), teachers' plates are already full.  When in the world do they have time to individualize curriculum?  People, teachers are human.  They need to eat sometimes, go to the bathroom, sit down for a few minutes.  They have families, they need to get their own exercise, they may even do things for themselves like play an instrument, garden, solve calculus equations for fun (OK, maybe that is a stretch).  

I am passionate about gifted kids, but I am also a substitute teacher.  I go to many different classrooms in many different schools and school districts.  Some schools structure their classes differently so as to ease the teachers' jobs, but all of the teachers I have subbed for have had full and extremely busy days.   

Yes, teachers should learn to differentiate curriculum, to give kids choices in methods of demonstrating what they have learned, to pose projects that can be tackled in different ways.  Good teachers do this and poorer teachers try.  But accommodating individual learners is HARD and takes TIME, especially if the learners are gifted.  Teachers can help the kids who are struggling.  Breaking down the skills and concepts they are teaching into smaller chunks is something teachers usually are good at.  They even, usually, have a large number of other teachers and aides who help them with this.  But helping gifted learners requires a lot more of a teacher.  It requires going beyond what they are familiar with, sometimes learning new material themselves, finding other people who can help, judging what is available, so that, if something must be purchased, the money (usually in extremely short supply, occasionally the teacher's own) can be spent well.  

We might as well admit this:  teachers can't do this.  They can't individualize curriculum for kids who may be placed in their classes, but who are 3 or 4 grade levels above their nominal grades.  Yes, as I have written before, there are phenomenal teachers who can manage this - I am in awe of them - but we have to stop expecting the average teacher to be able to accomplish this.  Teachers have been exploited far too long.  "If you really cared about the kids you teach, you would..."  Fill in the blank (see a list of teacher duties that keeps getting ever longer).  

What can we who care deeply about gifted children do?  Personally, as I told Roya, I advocate structural changes - grouping gifted kids in dedicated classrooms, schools, courses. Yes, the projects even there need to be flexible, but that is different from developing curriculum for each learner.  Cluster grouping is also a possibility, if the schools are too small for dedicated classes or classrooms. 

Dedicated classrooms and special schools work mostly just like a regular school. There will always be a range of abilities in the classroom. Teachers can handle a range of abilities, up to a point - 1 or 2 grade levels above or below the nominal grade level. After that, it is much more difficult, unless the class size is VERY small.

Some schools follow continuous progress models.  Children are grouped for instruction, based on their current level of achievement in that instructional area.  One school I worked at had a math block and a reading block.  All of the math classes met at the same time and kids were placed where they were ready to learn.  Similarly with reading.  Another school did that for grammar and writing.  The drawback of these models is that the teacher loses track of the individual child.  In those schools, I sometimes felt that I missed my "own" kids. 

One other model that I have seen that seems to have potential was a Montessori school.  From an early age, the students were trained to work relatively independently on a set of tasks.  The level and complexity of these tasks varied, depending on the child.  I have subbed in Montessori classrooms that follow this model, but they were not dedicated gifted schools.  Though this model seems to have potential and the teachers in these classes were good, I still did not see curriculum or expectations that were beyond two years above the nominal grade level of the class.  This model has potential for use in a gifted school, in my opinion, but even in this setting, the teachers cannot be expected to accommodate a range of more than 4 or 5 grade levels.

There seems to be great future potential in various models of computerized instruction.  From flipped classrooms to online learning, to adaptive programming, to digital production, there are now more options in this direction than ever before.  There are still problems with these models, though.  Doing chemistry on the computer is NOT the same as doing chemistry in the lab.  Skyping with a group of students from around the world is not the same as trying to convince the people in your class that your idea is valid.  Even if computerized instruction were perfect and readily available everywhere, you still need relevant experiences, discussion and interaction.

So I am pleading with gifted advocates everywhere:  work for structural solutions, but don't put down regular classroom teachers if they can't individualize the curriculum for gifted students.  They DO care about kids, but they just can't do it all. 


  1. Laura, I totally agree. We ask an awful lot of teachers, and for kids who are extreme outliers, the stakes are even higher. Are you familiar with my book (co-written with Mika Gustavson), _Making the Choice: When Typical School Doesn't Fit Your Atypical Child_? http://www.giftedhomeschoolers.or/ghfpress.html#choice That's one of our points: that gifted - as especially 2e - kids have needs that often go beyond what is reasonably available in the traditional classroom.

  2. ...and now there is yet another book that I would love to have, but can't afford. What a valuable resource!