In order to meet the needs of gifted and talented students effectively, we as teachers must begin with a "paradigm shift" (Tomlinson, 1995). We start by changing our title from teacher to facilitator. This requires a shift in our mindsets from being dispensers of knowledge, skills, and concepts to the role of facilitating learning. Tomlinson (1995) refers to this change in roles from teacher to coach or mentor. She further states that we must see ourselves as "organisers of learning opportunities". Gifted children come into our classrooms with knowledge, understandings, ideas and skills which, in reality, outstrip those of not just their peers, but their teachers. Sometimes there's nothing new we can teach – yet there is much we can orchestrate, direct, guide – facilitate.
The literature in gifted education is filled with lists of the qualities and characteristics which make up effective teachers of gifted and talented students. While many of those may be acquired through experience, further study, professional development and the like, they are also traits each teacher should develop – in relation to the teaching of all students. Here in New Zealand, it is well-recognised that every teacher is a teacher of gifted students. Thus, every teacher in every classroom must recognise their role as a facilitator.
And what characterises that role? Do you have to be gifted to teach gifted and talented students? No! But you do have to be willing to learn, interested in learning, always learning. To facilitate requires curiosity, acceptance of ambiguity, and flexibility. It means seeking answers as opposed to knowing answers. A facilitator of learning celebrates discovery, rather than being intimidated by it. Facilitating learning means sharing control, not having it. Facilitators are resourceful, creative risk-takers who nurture and guide individual learners.
So, what does it take to guide learners who are, by their very nature, beyond the curriculum – beyond teaching? Our gifted and talented students require teachers who possess the following:
- a good knowledge of their subjects,
- sympathetic understanding of child development,
- skill in developing flexible and interesting material,
- highly developed skills of questioning and explaining,
- willingness to guide rather than dictate,
- proven success as a teacher, and
- an ability to make – and accept – mistakes (Maker, 1982).
Tomlinson (1995) identifies five skills teachers acquire through differentiating learning experiences. These are:
- The ability to assess student readiness.
- The ability to figure out student learning needs and preferences.
- The ability to create a variety of ways for students to gather information and ideas.
- The ability to develop varied means for student exploration and ownership of ideas.
- The ability to present an array of avenues for students to express their understandings.
A professional knowledge of the unique behaviours, identification methods, and teaching strategies for gifted and talented students is also necessary. Feldhusen (1999) identifies the core knowledge related specifically to gifted and talented students as:
- methods and materials,
- knowledge of nature and needs of gifted,
- skills in teaching techniques (higher order thinking, creative problem solving),
- skills in facilitating individualisation, and
- understanding of contemporary issues.
George (1997) describes the teacher of gifted and talented students as one who is aware of and sensitive to their unique cognitive and affective differences. He illustrates the characteristics of this "ideal' teacher in the diagram below (adapted from p. 82).
Feldhusen (1997) reinforces these qualities with a list of characteristics of excellent teachers for gifted and talented students. Consider these:
- committed to serving gifted kids,
- able to apply theory to practice, and
- capable of gaining support for gifted education.
These personality traits are indeed ideal – but the core skills and knowledge referred to by people like Maker and Feldhusen can be acquired in New Zealand through further study in universities and colleges of education, professional development, journal and text reading, and networking with other professionals. The Ministry of Education has supported the provision of networking opportunities by establishing a listserv, or online mailing list, designated for New Zealand teachers. Join it, participate – share and learn new ideas related to gifted and talented students. Links to suggested professional readings and professional development providers are given here on our site (http://www.tki.org.nz/r/gifted/pedagogy/journals_e.php) In working toward making these sorts of changes in ourselves as teachers, we should remember the words of Carol Ann Tomlinson (1995):
We may not be able to transform our image of ourselves in a flash, but we can change over the course of a career.
Ultimately to be a good teacher of gifted and talented students requires a major shift in thinking and acknowledgment that we, too, are learners. A pre-service student in teacher education recently asked me "What if a gifted student thinks I'm stupid?" My reply, candidly spoken was, "Well, a kid doesn't have to be gifted to think a teacher's stupid. If you are a control freak, a know-it-all, who's inflexible and doesn't celebrate individuality, I can assure you, most kids will think you're stupid." Teaching is about learning – and for gifted and talented students to learn, to grow, and to develop demands teachers to guide, scaffold, facilitate. And grow with them!