Administrators of Gifted Programs: Paying Attention to the “Man Behind the Curtain”

By the Duke University Talent Identification Program

In the previous article about those who serve as administrators of gifted programs (AGP), the challenging nature of this role was explored, and the proposal set forth that the many demands that confront an administrator of a gifted program comprise a “Mission Impossible” scenario. Fortunately, there are professionals who are highly capable of merging the roles of leader, manager and advocate, and they are highly successful in their efforts on behalf of gifted students. Their effectiveness as they work behind the scenes, pulling levers and making magic in the midst of institutional smoke and fire calls to mind the legendary Wizard of Oz. Unlike the wizard’s admonition to Dorothy to “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” in this article we pull back the curtain to examine the how interacting with the AGP can be accomplished in a manner that enhances the likelihood of success.

Advocacy

Advocacy is the term that describes a process of bringing about a change in attitude, in practice, in policy or regulations that improves a situation. Advocacy can occur at the micro or the macro level. “Microadvocacy” involves seeking an alteration of attitudes, beliefs and practices of those who work most closely with one child: the teacher, guidance counselor, gifted resource teacher or principal. Microadvocacy is about enhanced parental involvement with the people at their child’s school to improve the relationships and the conditions of (and ultimately the learning outcomes for) their child. The issues, concerns or questions to be addressed are all problems related to the individual student. On the other hand, macroadvocacy involves the process of bringing change(s) that affect many students—the attitudes, practices, policies and resources at the district, state or national level. Advocacy at the macro level is often about politics. It is about those who hold positions of authority and control resources. Politics is the art and practice of making decisions to allocate scarce resources to virtually unlimited needs. Policy is the outcome of the political process. Policy decisions apply to many children across many situations, children who have similar characteristics and needs, and as such become the target population for the policy. Such decisions are made at the district, state and national level.

Microadvocacy

Being an advocate for your child suggests that you want to affect the attitudes, decisions and/or practices that currently exist in your child’s school. You might have a concern that a teacher does not recognize that your child has far exceeded the learning goals designated for her grade level and needs a different set of materials or assignments to be appropriately challenged. You might be in a situation in which you have relocated, and your child was served as a gifted student in the previous school system but is not receiving services in the gifted program in her new school. In these circumstances, microadvocacy is called for because it is at the level of the individual. As a first step it is always appropriate—and is the best political strategy—to begin with your child’s teacher. There are a number of advantages in doing so:

  • First and most significant, advocacy is about building relationships; beginning with the teacher demonstrates a level of trust and confidence in the teacher’s expertise and skill that will increase the likelihood of receiving support or improving the climate.
  • Next, it doesn’t serve to give the appearance of “going over her head” to a higher authority to accomplish what could have occurred in concert with the teacher. Respect the teacher as a professional and convey your perception of her potential to be a part of the solution.
  • The teacher knows your child better than anyone in an administrative role, and is in a position to make an immediate change in the classroom.
  • The teacher will be more focused on you and your child—the higher up the chain of command you go, the less personal the relationship will be.
  • The teacher has (or should have) sufficient knowledge of what programming options, if any, exist and how a student could access or qualify for those services.
  • Because more of the student’s time is spent with the classroom teacher than with anyone else, this is the person who may be most important to engage in addressing the problems and seeking solutions to providing an appropriate instructional program for your child.

Things to remember when working with teachers:

  • While you have your attention focused on your one child, the teacher must equitably address the needs of all of her students, and as you work through possible solutions, it is important to accept that, as important as your child is, she must share the teacher’s time and attention with other students. Be sensitive to the pressures teachers face in meeting the needs of children with disabilities, English language learners, and the myriad other issues that children bring with them to school. Your child IS important. However, so is every other child in the room.
  • You catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a barrelful of vinegar. Offer your compliments about the positive aspects of your child’s relationship with the teacher, or the classroom climate. Even if it’s only to compliment the bulletin board, find something to offer that shows your appreciation for the strengths before beginning to explore solutions to problems you perceive as shortcomings.
  • Be sure to include—perhaps even begin with—what you are willing and planning to do as a parent to support your child from your end. The message to the teacher here is that you are not putting the entire burden of maximizing success on the teacher; you’re willing to do your share.
  • For students who are in the upper grades, it is reasonable to give strong consideration to including them in the conversation. Student-led conferencing offers a powerful means to have everyone at the table involved in developing and planning solutions to the problems of concern.
  • Prepare for the conference/meeting by developing some specific strategies you would like to see implemented or goals that you want to accomplish so that by the meeting’s conclusion agreement could be reached on the actions to be taken. Examples of goals that might be discussed could include (1) alternative assignments; (2) compacted lessons; or (3) a referral for screening/evaluation for advanced learning opportunities. The thing to be avoided is, going into the meeting with the message, “My child is gifted, now what are you going to do about it?”
  • Do your homework prior to the meeting. Visit the school’s website to find out what information is available that you can discuss in the conference, and try to determine in advance what is negotiable, and what is not. It serves no purpose to meet with the teacher for an hour requesting something that the district policy does not permit.
  • Regardless of what you know and who you know, keep the conversation about your child only. It is inappropriate to discuss information about any other child, regardless of how well acquainted you may be with that individual’s situation or experience. Confidentiality prohibits—both ethically and legally—the discussion of any specific individual other than your own child(ren).
  • Treat the teacher as a professional. You wouldn’t catch your doctor in her parking lot and expect to conduct an on the spot consultation with her. Call for an appointment, plan ahead in order to be on time, and use the time wisely. If the conference/meeting isn’t concluded in an hour, look carefully at how the time was spent and what was talked about. In most cases, if the problem or issue can’t be resolved in an hour’s time, then it is evident that it is necessary to go to a higher level of authority in order to craft a solution.
    • To be knowledgeable of the rules about how one qualifies for services as gifted if such provisions exist. States vary widely in their statutes governing programs for the gifted, and it cannot be assumed that it applies in exactly the same way in every setting. You can, however, count on the AGP to be able to describe to you what the procedures do allow, what services the program does provide, and provide an assurance that if your child is eligible, the services will be provided just as they are for other eligible students.
    • To have the knowledge of tests and measures to understand the implications of evaluation results for a student, including the differing implications regarding necessary services for a student who has an IQ of 130 and another with an IQ of 165.
    • To have access to and control of resources so that appropriate differentiated instruction can be provided to the student through any one of several options.
    The outcome of microadvocacy might not be the optimal solution; it might be an adequate solution, instead. There is also the possibility that through the process, the parent comes to understand that there is nothing available to address her child’s needs. There isn’t anything that the child is being excluded from—there just is nothing in place to address the needs of the child as a gifted and talented student. It is at this point that macroadvocacy comes into play.

Even with the best of intentions and the most effective strategies in place, there may be no satisfactory resolution to the problem that emerges from working with the teacher. If so, working with someone at a higher level, who may not know your child as well, but who knows and understands policy and expectations, has access to a wider range of resources, and can help leverage a resolution to the problem or issue at hand. This person may be a guidance counselor, principal, or even the district’s gifted program coordinator. In this capacity, such an individual serves as the AGP who is in a position to assist you in solving the problem. Insofar as the problem is related solely to your child as an individual, this is still a microadvocacy process. In this regard, you can count on the AGP.

—Rick Courtright

This article was originally published in Gifted Today and is used with permission.

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