Why it Takes the Right Kind of Teacher to Recognize Gifts and Talents Within Student Diversity


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I’ve written about my children before and once again, I will place a different slant on an already explored subject: THE GIFTED CHILDREN OF COLOR, within the public school system.

As a 3 year old early reader, my first born entered kindergarten at age 5. So fortunate were we that she had an excellent teacher who totally recognized her aptitude in that traditionally, play-filled learning environment.

Besides my daughter’s  she could have been trapped in the web-like boundaries placed many other children of color as they navigate the public school system. Having seldom before interacted with her teacher, we both felt it necessary to collaborate  in my daughter’s best interest. At first, this teacher let her read everyday to the class. She also consulted with the school principal who, upon recommendation, advanced my daughter, mid-year, into 1st grade.

My daughter performed all grade level work, but after about three days, wasn’t having it. She was miserable in her new class. So we moved her back where she felt supported, and had already made friends. After her return to kindergarten, we still didn’t want her talent to become lost amidst the future crowded public school classrooms.

I met with the teacher and principal again, and this time I was made privy to a little known Gifted and Talented program at another school. It is now the end of her first year at school, and that program was in high demand. Although it was summer break, I was so very encouraged by that teacher’s dedication to my daughter’s education. With great resolve, we made an appointment to interview for this program.

At her 1st interview, conducted by the district coordinator, we were told that she recognized no exceptional ability, and that the program had also reached max enrollment. My child was reading at a 2nd grade level in kindergarten! No??!!!  Floored and in disbelief, this wonderful teacher, still packing up for her vacation, kept in touch with us. I gave her the news and she insisted that we return to that office, now with her and the principal’s recommendation in hand. They miraculously found a spot for my daughter and the rest is history. My daughter spent all of k-12 in accelerated learning, was awarded Valedictorian, grad of Penn State in Mech. Engineering, earned wings as an Air Force Pilot, now an IP[Instructor Pilot] a Major and is still shattering all ‘glass ceilings’, with a Master’s degree in Diplomatic Relations. She was the poster child for public education. It takes the right kind of teacher to recognize gifts and talents among students of color!

Now, here are some statistics:

Nationally, more than 80 percent of teachers are white; at the same time, students of color make up more than half of public school students. And often, the demographic disparity between white teachers and their students of color shows up in the data.

For example, 1 in 4 black boys with a disability was suspended during the 2013-2014 school year, compared with 1 in 10 white boys with a disability. For black girls, it was 1 in 5, compared with 1 in 20.

At high-needs schools, behavior problems are one of the early warning signs of a student’s probability of dropping out. The National Center for Learning Disabilities analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education and found that students with learning disabilities drop out at nearly three times the rate of students overall. And for black students, dropping out is even more likely.

There exists a double stigma these students face that is a key factor in their graduation rates. It’s not only the academic challenges that can affect these students’ self-esteem and motivation to learn. For black students, there’s also the awareness of racial biases and discrimination.

In the 2014-2015 school year, about 37 percent of black students with a disability left high school without a regular diploma, compared with 23 percent of white students with a disability — a 14 percentage-point difference.

If teachers aren’t aware of the stereotypes that minorities and special needs students face, and aren’t cued into that, the cycle continues.

To interrupt cycles of generations in which students of color fail to graduate high school or complete the basic k-12 education course requirements, we must logically begin with pre-service and in-service teacher training. Teachers must be provided opportunities, within their graduate coursework, to explore and  become  aware of their own biases — implicit or explicit. Soon-to-be teachers ought to be required to take courses in the exploration of culture and diversity to prepare them for the variety of school environments in which they may work. Cultural responsiveness can only approach authenticity and empathic sensitivity, with greater assurance, by teacher prep programs largely devoted to this exploration, examination, and experiential learning… just plain old practice[within safe spaces where the impact upon  diverse populations are controlled]. In other words, teachers need to build their capacity before they interact with diversity as leaders at the school level.

In order to identify a student’s giftedness or school, do we view giftedness as an exception to the group, racially, culturally, or only an exception within your specific group? We must be willing and open to spot intelligence within all groups, races and cultures. A narrow lens, which has framed the public education system, held black children to be viewed as possessing less intelligence and greater problematic behavior than whites. If a black child demonstrated unfamiliar or negatively associated  behaviors or attitudes within a school setting, discipline and discouragement was the strategic go-to. It reinforced negative stereotypes by the masses, and was attributed to academic incompetence, or intellectual disability. Thus, special education placements  ran rampant in public schools, as their idea of appropriately educating students of color. Schools test and refer for identification of disability far more often than  to identify accelerated ability, intelligence or aptitude among children of color. A true dilemma! Therein lies the problem…not them, but us[educators].

On the flip side of this dilemma, when a student earns unusually high grades on exams and assignments, the initial reaction has frequently been to assume dishonesty, cheating, or luck. Consider that mindset permeating an entire school culture. Throughout his or her school day, an exceptionally gifted child continues to be second guessed and doubted. It will wear off onto that child, and other children will receive the same message, as well. Without sincere acknowledgement, encouragement and recognition, they stop trying, stop engaging and anger, disappointment, and disillusionment soon follows. Students act up, act out, are absent more often, and eventually drop out, unprepared for life outside and beyond the classroom. These scenarios all are made possible by the lack of cultural proficiency and bias on the behalf of  underprepared educators.

With the best of intentions, educators have biases that creep into their interactions with students of color. It is largely under the surface, and when they believe they are being fair-minded, unbiased, it slips out, and seeps into the learning spaces of students. It is important that these biases are identified, examined and conscious decisions, communication, practices and perspectives guide pedagogical methodology, and instructional delivery in the best interest of all children. Academic achievement, successful learning outcomes and life and career excellence should be an expectation and not an exception for students of color. It should be communicated as such, too!

Cultural sensitivity comes from a position of strength, value and a desire to build upon that which is already there. It is empowerment, with an understanding that everyone comes with unique and equally valuable sets of beliefs and experiences-all of which are relative and subjective. A cultural difference is not a deficit, but strengths to be acknowledged, appreciated and celebrated.

When teachers understand how a student’s background can affect his or her behavior in the classroom, they can build better relationships and diminish the effects that double stigma has on their students. In a classroom of 30 students, so many have gifts and talents, but it takes the right teachers to recognize them!

 

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