Teaching Gifted Students

Interview with a Gifted and Talented Teacher

Melissa Kuns is an expert teacher in the Margaretta Local Schools district located in Castalia, Ohio. During her years of teaching, she has always made it a priority to meet the needs of students. Five years ago, when the position of gifted teacher arose in her school system, she was the perfect candidate for the job. Melissa shares with JobMonkey what it takes to be a great teacher for gifted students.

How did you decide to enter the field of education?

From the time I was in second grade I knew I wanted to be a teacher. My mother, father, and almost everyone from my mother’s family were educators. I have always had a love for children and so it was the natural thing to do.

What is your education background? What requirements did you have to meet to become a teacher for the gifted and talented?

My background includes an elementary degree for grades K-8 that I received from Wilmington College. I also have a master’s in curriculum and instruction from Ashland University (AU). In order to be a gifted intervention specialist I had to attain my gifted endorsement which was similar to a master’s except for the huge project at the end since I had already done my practicum for my masters at AU.

Since you engage in a program that utilizes both inclusion and pull-out methods, please describe the advantages and disadvantages of each method.

There are advantages to a pull-out program. You can really personalize the instruction for each child. Since the teacher has the children for several years, one can start where you know the child left off. I know the child’s strength and weaknesses well and can tailor assignments to work on both. The students also have told me that they enjoy the small class atmosphere more because we can move faster, have more in depth discussions, and they don’t have to wait on others who do not understand or complete their work assigned before moving on. Most schools that have pull out programs don’t have to cover the “state standards” in their time with the students. This allows the instructor to allow more creativity and problem solving experiences for those students who need and enjoy the rigor.

Pull-out is not without disadvantages though. The group becomes “cliquish” and may get swollen egos. Also, since I do have them for several years, it sometimes becomes difficult to teach the same skills that are repeated from year to year in a way that is still motivating to the students.

Inclusion offers a different variety of advantages. More kids that are not in the gifted program but who normally would find the regular curriculum too easy benefit from the enrichment and harder rigor. We see several students, often boys that become lazy and careless because they are not challenged enough. They also never learn to study.

Another advantage is that if I teach with another teacher we can use the materials that are used for regular instruction and twist it to make it more difficult and creative (meaning I don’t have to design everything from scratch!) 

I also find the inclusion method to have several disadvantages. Usually, in the regular classroom there is a lack of time to spend on any one topic and complete the in-depth projects that the gifted kids really enjoy. For instance, my novels often take more time for me to complete than the regular education teachers. As a result, I usually feel rushed to complete the book and activities in the same time frame so I don’t drag the other teachers down.

How do you create a curriculum that meets the needs of your students?

Obviously I use the state standards for the grade of the child and the grade above to add rigor to the assignment. In gifted education, the assignments should be at or above the analysis level of Blooms Taxonomy (a system of asking questions and completing tasks at various levels of thinking) whenever possible. I also try to add some research and problem solving in the regular assignments to add depth. Most importantly, I use as much pretesting as possible to assure that the students have mastered the regular curriculum first before I enrich or accelerate.

Do you have a favorite lesson or topic that you teach?

Not really. Every grade has a unit that I enjoy. I love the artist unit that we do in 4th grade because they get to learn about one topic in many ways and they can share their experience with others. My favorite units are those in which we can integrate as many subjects as possible because it adds so much more depth to the unit.

Who are the professionals you must collaborate with on a regular basis?

I meet at least once a week to plan with my inclusion teachers (3 this year), but we plan off the cuff a lot.

What are the greatest rewards of being a gifted intervention specialist?

I love being able to see the growth from the first grade to the last. I work with students from the time they are in fourth grade to when they leave elementary school as sixth graders. It’s unbelievable how much they change and learn. It’s also fun to see the kids struggle and work out problems that are difficult for them. With inclusion, it has been fun to see kids that are really benefiting from the more difficult curriculum.

What obstacles do you face in your position?

Sometimes I feel invisible. My collaborating teachers are great- but most people in the school don’t understand what I do.  The gifted program is often overlooked in many ways from materials, to room, to opportunities not offered due to moneys spent on the students at risk. This is a nation wide problem- not just local.

What qualities should a gifted intervention specialist possess?

Gifted intervention specialists should have humor, be creative, and flexible. I really feel that to be a strong gifted teacher, one should teach in the regular classroom at least three years to understand what is expected of the “average” student. Also, the teacher should be teaching in his/her field of study. Previously, our district had several gifted instructors that were math specialists and had never taught language arts at all before. However, the gifted services in our school had been provided through the language arts curriculum. Our gifted math students would have greatly benefited if the teachers were used to enrich the math curriculum. It also would have been more comfortable for the teachers. It is hard to instruct gifted students in an area you are not comfortable teaching.

What advice do you have to offer someone who is considering entering the field of education for gifted and talented students?

Be strong!  It is hard even for me to suggest to teachers I work with to change an assignment or not spend as much time on it as you normally do with the regular classroom, but to reach those high students we must expect more. You must be also someone who can work fast. Many nights I must create new assignments for all of my classes because I have students pretest out of an entire unit or skill and I have nothing prepared from other years. Last, ask for the expectations before you begin. Education changes daily, but many programs don’t seem to have a goal or know what is expected of them. Most of all, work with the regular classroom teachers whenever possible. Gifted education needs all the support we can get and building good communication skills with other teachers makes a stronger program all around.

Please describe a favorite memory from your entire teaching career.

My favorite memories come from the extras that we used to have time to do before. Our Egyptian Nights were great fun and such a great learning experience for our students. We turned the whole school into Ancient Egypt from the music room to the cafeteria to the pyramids in the gym.  The students wrote letters to the local hotels for old sheets and they actually made their own costumes with the help of local seamstresses. I still have students who stop me and ask if we still do that.

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