The Personal Touch A Preferred Approach in Supporting Educators of the Gifted

I have always been struck by the beauty of snowflakes, their delicacy, intricacy and individuality. No two are the same. Each follow slightly different paths from the sky to the ground, encountering slightly different atmospheric conditions along the way, resulting in their varying final and beautiful formations.

In general I think I have always been drawn towards individuality and personalisation, happy from a young age to go against the flow, listening to my inner voice, enjoying being an observer of people and curious about them, sparked by the individual personalities of children in my classes and interested in what they have to say and contribute. I do understand the need for systems, regimes and some standardisation, some things just need to be black and white for accuracy and safety, but when it comes to responding to learners and learning needs I have always preferred to have room for a personal touch for the best possible outcome.

Adding a personal touch can mean enhancing something to reflect your own personal style but it can also mean trying to enhance something to reflect the style of others. With regard to teaching and learning, I am drawn to achieving both.

With the theme of this year’s Gifted Awareness Week being Diversity and with my current role being centred largely on providing for the professional needs of educators working with gifted children, I want to write about the importance and benefits of being able to offer a diverse, flexible and personalised approach when supporting teachers and schools who are trying to design or improve their processes of catering for gifted learners.

I understand how the busy educator might be drawn to predetermined packages and readymade solutions – you know what you are getting and there should be no surprises, plus it is quicker and easier to establish. My experience has been that these have often left me feeling dissatisfied and considering what we didn’t have time to cover or spent too much time on, or how aspects didn’t quite suit the uniqueness of this setting or that.

Working in the field of gifted education just doesn’t lend itself well to pre-packaged anything really. The Ministry of Education acknowledge that giftedness can mean different things to different cultural communities. They do not impose a definition on schools in New Zealand but rather encourage them to consider this with regard to their community, providing some guiding principles. Giftedness we know to be a multi-categorical concept and the children identified as gifted are equally diverse in their abilities and needs. So no one definition is going to cut it for all, and no one method of identification will suffice, nor will any singular programme or provision option meet all needs. So learning for educators is going to have to account for the community they are in as well as the learners they have in their school.

In addition, my experience has been that each context is unique not just in terms of demographics but in culture, vision, values, experiences etc. There is so much to ascertain before any plan can be determined. Establishing relationships, making connections, determining vision, experience, practice and confidence all are essential prerequisites for a healthy learning scenario to occur. Reciprocal questions like: What are your hopes and aspirations for your gifted and talented learners? What are your hopes and aspirations for yourself/your educators throughout this process? What is your motto? What principles and values drive your practice? Have you any concerns? Have you/any staff undertaken any professional learning and development in this field? In what ways do you connect with your parent community? What conditions have you noticed result in positive learning outcomes for yourself/your staff? What do they value and appreciate in terms of professional learning? What have you tried in the past with regard to meeting the needs of gifted and talented learners? Tell me about your successes. What were you not satisfied with? What other professional learning and development projects are currently underway? All help to create connection and relationship as well as help to frame up together the look of the learning and development plan that has the personal touch. Teachers appreciate this interest and investment and so do I. We feel ready to work well together, in a way that suits both.

Being able to be flexible to type of need is also rewarding. The plan could focus on leading whole school change or change across a Community of Learning within a set timeframe, but then this might not be the best option or response. It is great to be able to respond to the need to mentor a new Gifted and Talented Coordinator on an “as needed” basis, responding to their specific questions when they have them. It could also be responding to a teacher or principal with regard to a specific child they have a need to seek support with. It could, equally, be supporting one aspect of school development work, e.g. self-review or co-constructing a shared understanding of giftedness with the community, or digging deeper into understanding what kind of issues are going on with a bundle of disengaged gifted learners, or designing a programme that is going to take gifted writers to another level in their writing development. Being open to what is on top for educators and schools and being able to respond accordingly to need without constraints of packages and timelines is refreshing and rewarding.

In working through the plan I have seen the need to remain flexible and open to shifts and changes. Feedback at each step is so valuable – How is that going? How are you finding that? How do you feel about this? What are you noticing? Do we need to make an adjustment to the plan? A bit more of this, a little less of that, more/less time needed than anticipated, a diversion to include xyz. The questions again are reciprocal. This is a two way conversation based on current observations. When time and approach can be somewhat flexible teachers feel they have time to think, to consider, to try differently, that their thinking and learning is valued.

The results of this approach to learning and development speak for themselves: cemented learning, clear ownership of practice, and outcomes that are suited to and unique to the individual educator or school, notwithstanding the children and community. Educators have commented that they have appreciated working within the vision and values the school hold dear as a school and community; that they felt valued and supported throughout the process; that the results, tailored specifically to their school, felt special and unique in the way they were integrated into their personal setting.

Seeing the personalised and different products for each school, ones that fit and suit not only the children in the school but the school and educators within, is very satisfying and rewarding. So here’s to the individual and to the personal touch when it comes to professional learning and development for educators of gifted and talented students, for in responding to diversity we create beauty and strength.

Written by Anna Meuli. Anna is the Consultancy Manager for the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education and is responsible for the supports offered to the adults who support our gifted children.

Posted as part of the 2017 New Zealand Gifted Awareness Blog Tour #NZGAW, run by the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education.

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Created with images by GollyGforce - Living My Worst Nightmare - "Distorted Self Portrait" • Lisa Zins - "Snowflakes" • Cassandra - "Snowflakes" • Thomas Marthinsen - "Snowflakes".

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