Children Need Gifted Teachers
How Can Schools Attract Gifted Teachers?
What makes an excellent teacher? Beyond intelligence, a great teacher is a great communicator. The best teachers use their own love of learning to inspire young people and to nurture their gifts. Students across the country need a consistent supply of gifted individuals becoming teachers each year. However, we face a serious problem today.
The most gifted students in high schools generally do not choose to become teachers. This is the result of several factors including: the nature of gifted students, the nature of educational bureaucracy, and the variety of career options available today. Let's explore these three factors and see if there may be a way to encourage more gifted individuals to become teachers.
Read About Gifted Education
This comprehensive and well-researched book is essential for teachers and parents. My own copy is dogeared and underlined.
Different Natures: Gifted Students Often Hate School
Gifted Students v. Educational Bureaucracy
Gifted students need to march to their own beat. The many rules, endless credentials, and mindless zero-tolerance (zero-common-sense) policies of public education today are not attractive to a student who values thinking for himself/herself. Highly intelligent people value real knowledge and have little patience with paperwork and policies that do not directly relate to the pursuit of knowledge. Rigid structures frustrate the gifted mind, since it often thinks outside the boundaries of textbooks and current educational fads.
Gifted students also have what Ellen Winner (1996) calls a "rage to mastery." They want to go as far as they can as fast as they can. This nature gives them little patience with courses such as "Introduction to Education." They would prefer to master a content area and be let loose in a classroom to learn efficiently on the job. They don't see why an Einstein should need a degree in education in order to teach physics. They do not want to take time away from their passion to sit through diversity training and silly team-building exercises.
Why Would a Gifted Individual Want to Return to Teach in a School?
Given that most gifted students spent most of their public school years bored beyond tears, dragging classmates through endless team projects and reviewing the same already-mastered material year after year, it seems unrealistic to expect these students to enthusiastically return as teachers to the very system they so recently escaped. Education school itself is not much different from their public high schools. Pedagogy courses and lightweight fare such as "History of Public Education" do not offer the intellectual challenges gifted students need and want.
Career Options for the Gifted
Good for Graduates, Bad for Public Schools
What careers attract the gifted? Highly gifted individuals gravitate toward challenging fields that satisfy their drive to master complex subjects. The highest average GRE quantitative scores (over 700) are generally found in engineering, the physical sciences, and economics. Those fields with the highest GRE verbal scores (above 550) are philosophy and English. Graduate students in education averaged 450 verbal and 531 quantitative (Shuford, 2005).
The opening of opportunities for women in the second half of the twentieth century had an unexpected side effect--a brain drain from the teaching profession. In generations past, highly-educated women became nurses or teachers, the socially accepted professions for women. Now the gifted young woman who would have become a math teacher in 1960 can pursue engineering, astrophysics, or econometrics. The gifted orator might become a governor instead of a debate teacher. If schools are to compete for such talent today, they must offer a level of professional satisfaction and status that can attract gifted individuals.
The Solution: Professionalize Education
Professions generally require college degrees. A profession has a recognized body of knowledge that must be mastered, e.g. anatomy, biochemistry and physiology for doctors, statistics and calculus for actuaries, etc. While education requires a college degree, the "body of knowledge" is less defined and more subject to fads and trends than to cognitive science. Given advances in neuroscience, there is no reason education could not be more professional.
In Japan, for example, teachers are treated like professionals. They do research to improve classroom instruction, working to develop model lessons which they then teach to students while their fellow teachers observe (Stigler, 1999). Like other professionals, teachers contribute to the knowledge base of their profession and seek constant improvement. American teachers, by contrast, are often treated as hired hands by their administrators, who seem more concerned with zero-tolerance policies, paperwork, and funding than with teaching content to students. There is no time in an American public school teacher's day for research and development.
If gifted students go into teaching, you can bet they want to do it excellently. If schools could be flexible enough to embrace the creativity of our best minds, we could have the best teachers in the world. Change the credentials required for teaching so that mastery of subject areas is encouraged and rewarded. Greene (2005) cites numerous studies that show traditional certification is not related to student performance, although high school teachers with masters degrees in their content areas (not in education) did tend to produce higher student performance.
Hillsdale College is leading the way. Rather than keep up with changing and increasingly irrelevant teacher certification requirements in Michigan, they started from scratch and asked themselves what a teacher should really know, ignoring what bureaucrats think they should study. Their program will henceforth produce highly educated teachers who do not automatically qualify for state certification. Students may pursue state certification if they wish, but they will likely be pursued by private and charter schools that are unencumbered by certification requirements.
Greene, J. (2005). Education myths. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Hillsdale College Website. Retrieved August 7, 2012 from http://www.hillsdale.edu/academics/majors/edu.asp
Shuford, T. (2005). GRE scores of school administrators. Retrieved July 5, 2012 from http://www.educationnews.org/articles/gre-scores-o...
Stigler, J. & Hiebert, J. (1999). The teaching gap. New York: The Free Press.
Winner, E. (1996). Gifted children: Myths and realities. Basic Books.
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My Personal Experience
Gifted Teachers I Have Known
Since I am over fifty years old, I was blessed to have some highly intelligent teachers. I am sure many of them would have made amazing engineers, astronauts, literature professors or economists--yet they chose to teach in a small school. They chose to teach me. I am glad they taught in an age where classroom discipline was expected and where they had the respect of parents, principals and school board members. Without my teachers, I would never have considered engineering school. I would never have read Tolkien. I would never have attended special weekend science programs at a local university.
The teaching profession must attract such people again, otherwise another generation will grow up without struggling with great books or learning that they really can do calculus. It will take fundamental changes if teaching is to again take its place among the highly respected professions. Government and unions will need to let go. Talented teachers will need to rise up and take charge of their classrooms and insist on support from administration--even form their own schools to act as models. Parents will need to applaud excellent teaching and teach their children to respect excellent teaching.
Intensity: A Gift and a Burden
Gifts My Teachers Gave Me
My schools were small. There were no special programs for gifted students. There were, however, teachers who cared enough to go beyond their regular duties and nurture the gifted. Here are some of the simple gifts they gave to us.
The Gift of Unstructured Time
Within the rigid school schedule, some teachers found ways to give us time for independent reflection. One way they did this was through benign neglect; allowing us to read interesting books while they worked with the rest of the kids to cover the standard curriculum. As long as we put down our books long enough to ace the periodic tests given to the class, we were left alone. We just needed to speed read the textbook and ace the test; then we got to spend the rest of class time reading Dickens, Tolkien, or Austen. The deal was unspoken, but it gave us the freedom to learn instead of waste time.
A variation on unstructured time was the unstructured assignment. For example, the quarterly history projects might be offered as a menu of options. While many students chose project options with detailed rubrics and step-by-step instructions for completion, the gifted students often opted for the project called "independent reading." Within the historical period we were studying, we could choose our own books. The assignment was to read about a thousand pages and meet with the teacher to discuss our readings.
The Gift of Confidence
The teachers who taught me the most were those who were willing to allow me to try things, to struggle, and sometimes even to fail. I remember telling my physics teacher once that I had chosen a bubble chamber as my science project. I knew only that a bubble chamber allowed one to observe the tracks left by radiation. I did not yet know that I would need liquid hydrogen and a means for maintaining pressure and temperature to keep the hydrogen liquid; nor did I know where I would find radiation to study. While Mr. C could have immediately told me it was impossible within a high school setting, he instead told me to research the project and get back to him. I learned a lot in the following week. When I reported back to Mr. C, he smiled and showed me a science catalog which contained a cloud chamber kit-a project that interested me and that was appropriate in scale. He had been confident I could discover my own limitations and was ready to help once I did.
The Gift of Respect
The best teachers knew how to maintain their authority as teachers while treating us as intellectual peers. An economics teacher who respects you enough to challenge you and argue with you is giving you a gift. A teacher who takes time to find some room for improvement in your project or paper is showing respect. A teacher who calls you out when she knows you could have done better (even if you still did better than the rest of the class) is showing respect.
Teachers need not be certified in "gifted education" in order to give students these simple gifts.