How do you educate a student who may be smarter than you? This is the unique challenge facing teachers of gifted students. They are responsible for the academic and social development of students whose intellectual abilities outpace their peers and possibly even their teachers.
Every school has bright students. But some students distinguish themselves with abilities so remarkable that they are considered gifted. They may excel at Math, German, piano playing, or all of these. Whatever their gift, it is the responsibility of the school to provide the specialized education these students need to thrive.
This schooling is commonly called GATE, for Gifted And Talented Education. It involves a number of unique approaches to teaching designed to foster the student's gifts while also relieving some of the pressure and confusion that can come with the gifted label.
The goal of the GATE teacher is to ensure that the gifted student receives an education that is on par with their abilities. These students show great promise and GATE teachers must work with students, parents, and administrators to help these talented kids live up to their potential.
What Is Certification?
Teacher certification is a key component for providing standardized, high quality education to students. The certification process ensures that all teachers have the education and experience necessary to be effective educators.
GATE certification is considered a supplemental certification. An aspiring educator hoping to work with gifted students will first need to obtain a teachers certificate valid in the state they want to teach in. This will qualify them to work with regular students, but not the gifted.
Standards for working with the gifted vary widely across the states. In some cases, no additional certification will be required. In other cases, college level coursework in gifted education will be necessary for certification. Requirements over the nature and length of this schooling also differ. This illustrates the disparity that exists between attitudes and resources available to the gifted across the states.
College and graduate level course work will focus on the unique emotional, social and academic challenges facing the gifted. The strategies for teaching the gifted can vary widely from traditional teaching strategies. GATE teachers must have a firm practical and theoretical background before they can hope to teach successfully.
Once additional schooling has been completed, teachers can apply for GATE certification. The application process varies by state. In some cases, having completed a graduate program will meet all of the requirements. In other cases, teachers will have to take an additional exam focused on GATE students.
In many cases, a GATE teacher will be required to undergo ongoing professional development in order to maintain certification. This is to ensure that GATE teachers are aware of the latest theories and peer established best practices.
What Does A GATE Teacher Do?
GATE teachers come in many forms. It is important to remember that being gifted does not exclusively mean that a student excels academically. Gifted can refer to a range of exceptional abilities related to the visual and performing arts, creativity, intellectual achievement and leadership. With such a wide range of abilities to respond to, a GATE teacher must be flexible.
The responsibilities of the GATE teacher will depend largely on the resources available to them. One educator might work in a school building dedicated to the gifted and filled with technology and resources. Another may only be able to offer after school counseling to exceptional students. In both cases, the GATE teacher plays an important role in the development of the student.
Traditionally, classroom teachers act as authority figures and maintain a certain distance from students. GATE teachers have a different relationship with their students. They act as facilitators, advocates, and collaborators. Exceptional students typically have a high level of initiative and curiosity so the GATE teacher's role becomes less about motivating, drilling and practicing. Rather than laboriously committing the periodic table to memory, a gifted student may be given open access to a lab to carry out their own, loosely guided chemical experiments.
GATE teachers will also be responsible for providing appropriate audiences and resources for student's work. Being gifted can be an isolating experience. Many students struggle to find peers and even teachers who share their interests. A math prodigy or a violin virtuoso will find little of use to them in a traditional school setting. They require the aid of experts in the arts, academia and the private sector to provide them with all the attention and criticism they need. GATE teachers facilitate these connections.
Assessing Gifted Students
One of the most important duties for the GATE teacher will be to assess students who show signs of being gifted. If a student is in fact gifted, it is crucial that this is recognized early so that the student can receive specialized education. If their gifts are left to languish, exceptional students can suffer from boredom, discipline issues and underachievement.
Most districts use a four step process to screen potentially gifted students. The goal of this process is to distinguish the gifted from high achievers. High achievers, while very smart and capable, can thrive in traditional educational settings. Gifted learners require specialized attention. The GATE Teacher directs the assessment process.
The first step is the nomination of a gifted student. This is simply the acknowledgment that a student displays exceptional skills. A nomination can come from a teacher, parent, community member, or even the student themselves.
A nominated student will undergo a screening process to assess the depth and range of their skills. This process can include a battery of tests, a review of grades and performance, and a student interview. The goal is to get an objective determination of a student's abilities.
If a student meets the threshold set for gifted students, they will be formally referred to a gifted program. This is a means for individual districts to access state wide resources for gifted students.
The final step will be an independent intellectual evaluation of the student, usually by an educational psychologist. This is used to assess a student's learning needs and their individual strengths and weaknesses. The results of the evaluation will be used to better align the student with the gifted program that can best serve them.
Modifying the Curriculum
The greatest challenge facing a GATE teacher will be modifying the curriculum to meet the unique needs of gifted students. This is more complicated than simply offering harder tests and longer essays.
Gifted students thrive in nontraditional settings and they employ unique skill sets. They do want more of a challenge; they want the freedom to pursue the projects and subjects that most interest them. It is necessary to tailor a curriculum to each individual student based on the learning needs established during the assessment process.
The nature of being gifted presents further challenges. Some students may excel in Math but struggle with Language Arts. Another may speak six languages but grow bored during science lessons. GATE teachers have to find a balance between the student's natural interests and abilities and their broader need to receive a well rounded, useful education.
GATE teachers have the freedom to modify the depth, complexity, and pace of their lessons according to the needs of their students. They will also employ different instruction methods that are more conducive to gifted learners. The emphasis is placed on long term, individualized assignments rather than routine instruction. For instance, many GATE teachers allow students to submit proposals for long term, research-based projects. These projects are expected to be in the subject the student excels in and a significant part of their school day is given over to the project. After a prescribed amount of time, the student submits a comprehensive report and makes a presentation to the class. The student learns a great deal, but the process is largely self-directed.
It is impossible to make generalizations about modifying curriculum because individual student needs are so different. But in every way, the focus is placed on giving the student the space and support that they need to thrive. Curriculum and pacing are directed more by the student than the teacher.
Becoming Certified as a GATE Teacher
GATE teachers work with one of the most unique and exciting populations of students. Their students will be the inventors, innovators, artists and decision makers of the future. The challenges are many, but the rewards are real.
If you are interested in becoming a GATE teacher, find your state's teaching certification requirements here.
Emotional Challenges Facing the Gifted Learner
Gifted students have many opportunities, but they face significant challenges as well. Many gifted students struggle with psychological and emotional problems that can hamper their success in and out of school.
In an article called “Early Entry to School in Australia: Rhetoric, Research and Reality”, the authors write that gifted learners can suffer from “Socio-emotional problems that include difficulty with social relationships, isolation from peers, pressures to conform, resistance towards authority, refusal to complete routine and repetitious work, and frustration with every day life.”
These problems can result from years of being unchallenged in school. When gifted students are used to feeling bored, uninterested and fundamentally different than their peers, this can lead to deep feeling of isolation and loneliness. This emphasizes the importance of early assessment for gifted learners.
Gifted learners may also struggle to find a balance between having an exceptional mind in a child's body. Despite their amazing intelligence, gifted children face all the same insecurities and fears that all children face. These students may understand abstract concepts like death or sex, but be unable to deal with them emotionally. This is known as asynchronous development and it can have serious, lifelong affects on a child's mental health.
The source of a child's gifts may also be a serious hurdle to their development. Students with autism can have brilliant minds but very low emotional and social intelligence. Schooling, for these students, will have to focus on strategies for maximizing their gifts while minimizing their disability.
In this way, the role of the GATE teacher is as much about being a life coach as an educator. They must teach their students to thrive personally as well as intellectually. School is meant to prepare you for life more than for tests. Gifted students deserve the same opportunity.