A letter from Barbara Swicord, President of SIG:
This month, we appreciate all the unsung hero teachers of the world. And, we at SIG also are focused on teacher appreciation as we hire teachers for our many summer programs across the country. In addition to looking for all the characteristics that great teachers exhibit (e.g. passion for and expertise in teaching, ability to connect with and engage students, high level of organization), we search for teacher characteristics that gifted and talented students tell us they want in a teacher.
We start with the basics. We look for teachers who have experience and expertise teaching gifted students, have in-depth knowledge of the content of the courses they will teach, and have experience and enjoyment of teaching students of the age range of the classes they might teach. When we interview them, we strive to get a sense of the qualities that gifted students desire in their wish list, as well.
From my experience, it’s important to have teachers of the gifted who are intelligent, love learning, and consider themselves lifelong learners. Students need to feel that they have a co-traveler with them on their intellectual journey and that their teachers can keep up with them. They need to feel as though their teachers have considerable knowledge about areas for which they also have a passion.
Students look for a sense of fairness, which would exhibit itself in several ways. First, a fair teacher will treat all students with equal appreciation, respect, and engagement. A fair teacher will also know that it is unfair to ask gifted students to do work that is too easy, repetitive, or menial, and, therefore, will allow the gifted student to be a part of directing an individualized program of learning that is engaging, challenging, and personally relevant.
These students also appreciate constructive and accurate feedback. A teacher may be tempted to provide generic and overly abundant praise for the work of gifted students, as their work may far exceed most of the class or even their own expectations. But, a gifted student really needs specific feedback on what could be done differently to improve the product or idea, what aspect deserves further interpretation or questioning, and how the product could be more creative or applicable in real life situations. General, non-specific praise is not helpful or useful to the student.
Finally, my favorite quality for a teacher of the gifted is to have a great sense of humor. Teachers with a sense of humor create a light, easygoing atmosphere in a classroom, which establishes a productive environment for engaging students, lightening the burden of perfectionism, and being flexible—all important qualities for meeting gifted students’ emotional as well as intellectual needs. This kind of environment is accepting, fun, and exciting. This kind of environment says it’s ok to make mistakes and learn from them. It also says that I care about you and want you to be happy.
If you are an educator, I hope you will keep these qualities in mind as you work with your highly capable students and engage them in letting you know what else is important for them in the classroom setting. If you are a parent, I hope you will be able to find teachers like the ones described here and that you will encourage your gifted children to be forthcoming with their teachers in what works best for them in the classroom. Meanwhile, may we all continue to appreciate the dedication, self-sacrifice, and talents of so many incredible women and men who have chosen the field of education through which to leave their imprint upon gifted students, as well as all students.
President, Summer Institute for the Gifted