Why some teachers don't "get it" about gifted education

Most teachers care about their work. Most would like nothing better than to be able to meet each child’s educational needs, teach creatively and instill a love of learning in their students. Then why are gifted children so frequently overlooked, undereducated and unstimulated? Why do so many parents feel that their child’s teacher just doesn’t “get it” about gifted education?
At first glance, you might think that teaching a gifted child would be a pleasure. Who wouldn’t want to teach a curious, deep-thinking learner who absorbs information like a sponge? And while many teachers embrace all children, including their gifted students, some offer little support for the much-needed enrichment and acceleration these students require.

Why some teachers don't "get it"
1. Competing demands 

Teachers are increasingly burdened with meeting administrative, state and federal standards. Meeting these requirements, teaching to the test, and ensuring that struggling students don’t fall behind are paramount. Many are faced with large, heterogeneous classrooms, and asked to “differentiate” instruction, an often impossible expectation. With time constraints and competing demands, it is understandable that “teaching to the middle” saves time and energy. It also makes sense that children with more significant learning needs get most of their attention. The 2011 Fordham Institute report affirms this; when teachers were asked where they would direct their energy if they had time available for individualized attention, 80% claimed that they would attend to their struggling students, whereas only 5% stated that their advanced learners would receive attention. In a hectic classroom with limited time and resources, gifted education is less likely to be a priority.                      
2. Inadequate training

Many teachers have little training in gifted education. The National Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development study of 3rd and 4th grade teachers found that 61% had not received any staff development or training in gifted education. Without adequate training, a teacher may try to find some “enrichment” to enhance a child’s learning, but the plan may be arbitrary and not necessarily tailored to the child’s academic needs. If the school district lacks a formalized gifted program, there may be even less structure or oversight available. Teachers often have little understanding of the social and emotional needs of the gifted, and may make assumptions based on stereotypes. For example, one study1 reported that teachers believed acceleration was a beneficial option for academic reasons. However, they assumed that it would have a negative emotional effect, so failed to consistently recommend it as an option for the gifted students. 
3. Low priority

Teachers may be responding to a socially accepted culture of widespread neglect toward gifted children. According to a 2012-2013 report from the NAGC about the state of gifted education, the educational needs of the gifted are still marginalized.  Large discrepancies exist between states with respect to whether gifted education is mandated or warrants funding. And there is little support or expectation for additional teacher training. For example, only three states require that general education teachers have some training in gifted education, and only 17 states require that teachers in gifted programs obtain some form of credentialing in gifted education. If educators, administrators, and governing bodies fail to endorse the importance of gifted education, it may be hard for teachers to appreciate it as well.
Furthermore, many teachers are concerned about equity and the appearance of elitism. They don't want to "favor” gifted children; after all, they are viewed as having already lucked out by merely possessing abilities that surpass their peers. Many worry about how parents in the community will react, and whether less talented children will feel criticized if gifted children receive different services. For example, Gallagher and colleagues1, found that while teachers acknowledged that ability grouping would be beneficial, they failed to recommend it because of concerns about how the community would react, how other children in the classroom might feel, and whether it would be viewed as elitist.
4. Attitudes, stereotypes, and resentment

Just like anyone else, teachers possess their own subjective attitudes and opinions about gifted students. In light of the relative absence of training in gifted education, most are left to call upon their own personal experiences to formulate opinions about gifted education, gifted children and their families. In a review of the literature, McCoach and Siegel2 reported contradictory findings from studies of teachers’ attitudes toward gifted students, with some studies finding positive and others identifying negative attitudes toward gifted children. They also found widely discrepant attitudes among teachers in their own study, ranging from highly positive to extremely negative.

Teachers also may be as influenced by cultural stereotypes as the rest of us. Researchers Geake and Grosssummarized the literature and theorized that widespread appreciation of sports and performing arts abilities in our culture is consistent with a view that developing these talents serves others, as it can potentially bring enjoyment to the community. However, the development of intellectual talent is perceived as selfish, leading to benefits solely for the individual. In addition, the authors pointed out that teachers may have negative perceptions of gifted students because of stereotypes that portray gifted people as arrogant, self-centered and overly confident. They suggest that these entrenched belief systems hamper progress in gifted education. Their study regarding the effects of training offered a hopeful note, however, as teachers who completed a professional development program in gifted education developed more positive perceptions of gifted students.
Some teachers may have their own conscious or unconscious reactions to gifted individuals that are then reenacted in the classroom. These may reflect feelings they have about their own abilities, personal experiences from childhood, or lingering resentment from prior confrontations with parents of gifted children. Teaching is a demanding job, and some teachers may be overwhelmed just trying to keep students in line, manage behavioral problems, and address struggling students who lag behind their peers. They may feel resentment in the face of these competing demands when parents expect them to challenge their gifted child. 

So why should you care?

Understanding your child’s teacher and how giftedness is perceived is invaluable. What, you say? Isn’t it this person's job to teach? Why should I have to worry about the teacher’s opinions and viewpoint? Well, there are good reasons to care. The more you understand the classroom dynamics, administrative demands, and the teacher's professional experience with gifted education, the more effectively you can collaborate and communicate about your child's needs. While you may never know the teacher's personal opinions, gaining knowledge about the school culture, administrative policies and classroom stressors can give you a clearer sense of direction and help you decide which battles to wage. You may not like it, but you are your child's best advocate, and your child is best served when you form a partnership with the teacher and school. Next blog post: how to communicate with your child's teacher.

Related blog posts on this topic: Myths and misunderstandingTop ten ways to annoy a gifted child.

1Gallagher, S., Smith, S., & Merrotsy, P. (2007). Teachers perceptions of the socioemotional development of intellectually gifted primary aged students and their attitudes towards ability grouping and acceleration. Gifted and Talented International, 26, 11-24.
2McCoach, D., & Siegle, D. (2007). What predicts teachers’ attitudes toward the gifted? Gifted Child Quarterly, 51, 246-255.
3Geake, J. & Gross, M. (2008). Teachers’ negative affect toward
 academically gifted students: An evolutionary psychological study. Gifted Child Quarterly, 52, 217-231.


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