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Teachers of the Gifted or Gifted Teachers?

We all have one. Mine was called “Mrs T.” Mrs T asked interesting questions, pushed the boundaries of our thinking, listened to and valued our opinions, and trusted us. She was witty and sharp, a ‘rule-breaker’, supplying us with contraband chewing gum and a couch to lounge on while we read George Orwell’s Animal Farm (not on the curriculum in Mississippi in the late 1970s). Mrs T gave us 35mm cameras, took us to the old town cemetery for a shoot and then gave us the school’s darkroom as our lab for creativity. She even had a computer in her classroom! Because of her, three high school female freshmen became good friends, and eventually the school’s newspaper editors, honour graduates, school leaders, and so on. Many memories were made.

And Mrs T, as it happened, was my favourite teacher. She remained my inspiration as I sat my final examination to be certified as a teacher and had to write about my philosophy of teaching. It wasn’t until I began my postgraduate studies that I came to realise that the class Mrs T was running was the school’s pull-out enrichment programme for gifted and talented students. I have often wondered … is it the principles and practices of ‘gifted education’ that make these memories so strong, or was it something about Mrs T?

It seems fitting during Gifted Awareness Week to think about and reflect upon how teachers affect the lives of their students. What influence do teachers have upon the hopes and aspirations of gifted and talented students? What knowledge, skills, and qualities are needed to work with gifted and talented students? We can turn to theory and research for lists of the characteristics of ‘teachers of the gifted’ – see for example, a blog by Carol Fertig which highlights a range of personal qualities, social skills, and intellectual abilities.

I am often asked … do you need to be gifted to teacher the gifted? Research conducted by Australian colleagues, Wilma Vialle and Siobhan Quigley, found that gifted students valued the personal-social qualities of teachers more highly than intellectual qualities; however these two sets of qualities were not that easily dichotomised. As these authors conclude, “…teachers’ personal qualities are inextricably linked with the teachers’ intellectual characteristics and their teaching strategies.” Not surprisingly, Vialle and Quigley recommend changes to teacher education, but also careful selection of teachers to ensure those of gifted students have enthusiasm for both the subjects and students they teach.

There are consistent calls in New Zealand’s research (e.g., Education Review Office’s 2008 report) for pre-service teacher education and ongoing professional learning and development. Gifted Awareness Week provides an opportunity to reflect upon our teacher education programmes. Is it still the case today of the “one-off” lecture or reading on giftedness and talent? How can we support our pre-service educators to ensure our teaching graduates are prepared for working with gifted students?

What opportunities are available for ongoing professional learning and development? (We can ask the same question in terms of the “one-off” pd day or workshop!) How can we ensure all teachers have opportunities for ongoing support as they work with gifted students? What advanced study should be facilitated and offered to those with responsibility, interests, or passions for gifted and talented education? How important is ‘informal’ relationship-building, networking and support for professional growth and development?

And then I wonder … did Mrs T need any sort of specialised professional development or advanced study as a teacher of the gifted … or was she simply a gifted teacher?


  • Sue Barriball

    My Mrs T was actually Sister H - a no-nonsense, highly intelligent nun who never let me get away with lazy thinking, asked me deep questions and let me ask my own, and always challenged me to go further.   When I turned in work which was beneath my ability, but would pass, she refused to accept it.    She was blunt, sometimes not very nice, but I adored her.    In all my schooling, she was the one person who really 'got me'.    When I look back at her now, I think she was a gifted woman, as well as a gifted teacher.  Like Tracey's Mrs T, Sister H bent the rules, probably rubbed the hierarchy up the wrong way from time to time, and would go out on a limb for me to make sure I was still learning.  

    My own perspective on teaching gifted children is that the ideal is a teacher who is him/herself gifted and also a highly effective teacher.   A teacher who is a gifted person has a depth of understanding of the gifted child's experience of the world around them which I don't think you can learn from books or lectures.    No matter how wonderful your teaching skills, this understanding impacts on the way you relate to and support the gifted child.   I have a suspicion that teachers who are highly enthusiastic about and effective at working with gifted children were probably gifted kids themselves, even if they were never formally identified as such!   

  • Deb Clark

    After teaching for 15 years in the mainstream and for eight years in a specialist gifted enviroment, I believe training in gifted education is vital to successfully meeting the needs of our gifted students. I believe you could put a class of gifted students together with an amazing teacher however if that teacher has no understanding of the holistic needs of gifted students and how to address these, you'd still just have a class of gifted students and an amazing teacher- not a programme for gifted.

    I think there are a group of teachers who are naturally 'gifted' at teaching- they are reflective, embracing of difference, genuine in their desire to meet needs, great at building relationships and comfortable with facilitating learning in the true sense of the word. Teachers with this core, possibly innate? philosophy to me have the basis of a great future in gifted ed- they just need the specialist knowledge and skills input.

    Gifted education shouldn't be 'hit or miss', lucking in one year maybe out of 8 with a teacher who not only understands you but what to do with you- it should be available to all who need it when they need it but as one teacher who taught for many years before spending any real time learning about the needs of gifted education it doesn't happen without some input.

    I think there are some teachers who are more suited to teaching gifted students than others but I also believe that every teacher would be a better teacher of gifted students if they understood what it meant to be gifted. Hard to get that with out some input!

  • Mary St George
  • Mary St George

    I hope you don't end up with a double-up, but from here it appears that half of my post mysteriously vanished into cyberspace. Trying again with the second half!

  • Mary St George


  • Mary St George

    I agreed with Deb Clark's viewpoint that while some teachers have a natural affinity with gifted students and their needs, all teachers can benefit from guidance and support in teaching gifted children. Furthermore, I believe that the skills learnt in becoming a truly responsive teacher of gifted and twice exceptional learners will serve teachers well in all of their teaching endeavours.



An organisation for anyone with a professional interest in gifted and talented education.