A Parent’s and Teacher’s Perspective: How We Found Our Way into the World of Gifted Education
By Lynn Devora-McNabb & Kim Hildenbrand
We are two people who reside in the world of giftedness: a mother of a gifted child and a gifted education teacher. We have interwoven our stories to explain how we found our way into gifted education in public schools.
Kim: Life with a Gifted Child
I’m the mom of a gifted child—but for many years, I had no idea what gifted even meant. I did know that from a very young age, my son was different from other kids. He spoke in full sentences ridiculously early. He was reading fluently and doing math problems in preschool, without being pushed. He constantly asked questions — really complicated questions.
However, he also struggled with asynchronous development (developing unevenly across skill levels – something often seen in gifted children), perfectionism, and several of Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities. In particular, we noticed his emotional intensity, his imaginational intensity, and his intellectual intensity.
What did that look like? As a toddler, he argued like a tiny lawyer at any perceived injustice, no matter how minor. When he was 4, he told us he sometimes saw his daydreams projected in the sky. When he was 5, he said he’d invented a new method of counting. He loved preschool, but we had no idea how elementary school would turn out.
Lynn: My Teaching Background
I have been teaching in public education for over 20 years. Most of my teaching career was spent in low-performing schools, working with students who were not achieving grade-level standards. In a previous school, I was known to work well with struggling readers, so that was the demographic I worked with the most.
While I thoroughly enjoyed working with struggling students, it became increasingly difficult as schools were placed under more pressure to raise test scores. Most of my students did not reach grade-level standards on state testing, so in the classroom, we celebrated the smaller successes like mastering a list of sight words or increasing reading fluency by a few words per minute.
What I found most challenging was the fact that a lot of my autonomy and creativity as a teacher were taken away when schools began requiring various direct-instruction reading and math programs to be taught. I was instructed to teach from manuals and follow lesson plans. It took the joy out of teaching, and it certainly took the joy out of learning for my students.
Kim: Our First Public School Experiences
Before my son started kindergarten, the teacher administered a test that revealed he’d already met grade-level standards. His teacher was, however, dedicated to challenging him, and she went above and beyond to meet his needs. She also lavished him with positive attention, and he adored her. He was a happy kindergartener.
Everything changed when we moved.
In first grade, he told us the work was easier than it had been in kindergarten. He had no connection with his teacher; in fact, he felt disliked, which was devastating for him. He was bored (“I’m not learning anything!” he’d say regularly) and at home, he frantically researched unusual topics and begged for “hard math.”
He became a different child - one we didn’t recognize. He was miserable. He told us he hated school and frequently pretended he was sick so he could stay home.
We knew we needed to switch schools and began researching gifted programs in our area. We were shocked at the wide range of services various districts provided: Some began gifted services in kindergarten, while others didn’t begin until later elementary years. Some offered in-class differentiation, a “pull-out” program, or after-school enrichment, but we really wanted a full-time gifted program. After all, gifted kids are gifted all day, every day — not just two mornings a week or Wednesdays between 3:00 and 4:00 pm. However, those programs were hard to find.
Lynn: Becoming a Gifted Education Teacher
Six years ago, I found my way to a new city. The school district I was interested in had several teaching positions available. Two of them were elementary positions, and one was for a gifted education classroom. I knew I was qualified for the elementary teaching positions, but it was the gifted ed job description that caught my interest.
It called for a teacher who had the ability to work with gifted students in a project-based, multi-age classroom. Project-based was right up my alley! I had always loved to create high-interest learning projects. I felt like one of my greatest gifts I provided my students was to get them excited about learning by creating interesting projects that covered multiple areas of the curriculum – this was the piece that was missing in my previous employment.
The only challenge was that I did not have a gifted education background. So, I applied for all three positions and thought, if nothing else, it would be good interview practice. I also began researching gifted education in our state. I read everything I could find, and also attempted to find other schools in our state that were addressing the needs of their gifted students with a self-contained, project-based, multi-age classroom.
Kim: Finding the Right School
We reached out to several schools, and one immediately stood out. We got a nice email from a teacher named Mrs. Devora-McNabb (Lynn), describing a program that sounded almost eerily perfect for our son. He could learn at his own pace, explore his passions, and not feel so stuck.
However, I refused to get my hopes up. At that point, I didn’t think public school would be a viable option, and I had no idea what our next step would be.
The first time we went to the school for an orientation in the multi-age gifted classroom, we were struck by how warm and friendly it felt. Mrs. Devora-McNabb clearly loved her job (and the kids!), and our suspicious son immediately warmed up to her. She showed him a project that required students to measure objects and he said, “My old teacher said calculating area and perimeter is for older kids.” She immediately replied, “No way, we do middle school math here!”
I will never forget the look on his face. Though he’d always struggled with change, he was instantly excited to start second grade at this new school and said repeatedly, “I’m going to love it there.”
It turned out he was right — he loved school. The next two years in Mrs. Devora-McNabb’s class were life-changing for our son. The work was challenging, the environment was positive, and he connected with other kids like him. Perhaps most important, he felt appreciated, understood, and loved by his teacher. He never once missed a day of school by choice.
Lynn: Developing My Classroom Culture and Program
I was cautiously excited when I was asked to come in for an interview for the gifted education classroom, but I was ecstatic when they called me later that afternoon to offer me the teaching position. My answer was an enthusiastic yes! It wasn’t until later that I began to question how I was going to create a classroom program to meet the needs of gifted students ranging from 6 to 9 years old.
Luckily, I love a good challenge! I knew from my research that gifted individuals share many traits: a strong intellectual curiosity, a high interest in problem-solving, an unusual emotional depth and intensity, an intense focus on personal passions, creativeness and inventiveness, boundless enthusiasm, high expectations of self and others (which can lead to frustration), and a heightened self-awareness with a sense of being different.
I began developing the framework for my classroom to accommodate as many universal gifted traits as possible. I created my classroom structure to include a strong growth mindset attitude. My students often struggle when faced with challenges, for fear of failure. Every year, we begin with a growth mindset project. We don’t fear failure in our classroom; we embrace it, because failure often becomes a new learning opportunity. My students quickly make the shift from saying, “I can’t do this” to “I can’t do this yet!”
In designing my classroom setting, I took into account the high energy that many gifted children display. They need space and the ability to move. When you walk into our classroom, you will see a variety of seating choices, movement, and active learning. We have a living room area with a couch and chairs, sitting and standing tables, wobble stools, and bean bags. My students are allowed to work where they are most comfortable.
Creating a safe learning environment for students is important. I want all of them to know that there is nothing wrong with being or feeling different. So, we support one another and work together. We value our differences in our classroom.
It is essential to allow students to have a say in their learning, because they are diverse in their interests and abilities. My students are curious and always ask questions––questions you wouldn’t expect from children so young. I tell them there’s only one of me and many more of you, so don’t ever wait for me (or any other adult) to teach you what you desire to know. Learning how to research answers to our questions is very important in our classroom.
I also knew from my research the importance of passion-based learning for gifted children. Every year, I build our learning activities based on student interest. Consequently, each year is different. I use our state standards as my curriculum and a variety of resources when creating our learning projects. Our projects are varied and in-depth, and they incorporate reading, writing, math, science, social studies, and technology.
We also take our learning outside our classroom on educational field trips. Students are able to rapidly increase and retain knowledge on a subject when they experience concepts in a real-world setting. There is nothing better than watching a student’s face light up with excitement when they are fully immersed in a learning experience!
I’ve now been teaching the multi-age gifted classroom for five years and can honestly say that I am the luckiest teacher ever! I am thankful I applied for and accepted my teaching position. I did what I always encourage my students to do: “Step outside your comfort zone and try something new.”
Kim: Working Together for Our Gifted Children
While we both found our way into the gifted world through different avenues, we have developed a strong passion for the education of gifted children.
A parent and a teacher can make for the strongest advocates and, as a team, we are twice as powerful. We understand the importance of nurturing the minds and respecting the unique needs of these amazing children. Gifted education is a crucial component of public education, and a high-quality program can change a child’s life.
Kim Hildenbrand is a writer and editor who lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family. She enjoys hiking, reading, and spending time at the beach. She is a passionate advocate for gifted children.
Lynn Devora-McNabb is an educator and writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest with her spouse and two dachshunds. When she's not teaching, you can find her reading, writing, or at the beach collecting heart rocks. Her role as an educator is to create memorable learning experiences for her students.
As for Kim’s son, his two years in Lynn’s classroom are over, and he will move into the grade 4-5 gifted classroom next fall. His love of learning has been reignited. In his spare time, he enjoys competitive chess, sports, and video games. He is fortunate to have a mentor as well as access to social and academic enrichment opportunities. He and his mom still see Mrs. Devora-McNabb frequently, and they know she will always be an important person in his life.