Your Gifted Student isn’t a Substitute Teacher

My wife and I were talking the other day about a conversation she had with some of her colleagues during a staff meeting. One of the teachers she was talking to was complaining about getting through their content at a slower pace due to the fact they had very few gifted students in their class, and more students who were regular and Special Ed. This staff member went on to say that at times they have to go over material faster he uses his few gifted students who get the material to tutor the other students.

I have very strong opinions when it comes to using gifted students to teach classes. I was proud when my wife told me she told her staff member that they were not helping their gifted students.

I don’t have a problem when gifted students can use their ability to learn and retain material quickly to help other students. I believe students should be team players in a sense, but they should not be placed in the role of a teacher. Here are a few aspects of why I believe this shouldn’t happen:

  • Places undue pressure and stress on gifted child to teach their peers;
  • Places the gifted student above all the other students, which could be a negative if the student being tutored doesn’t do well;
  • The relationships between peers can be strained;
  • Gifted student is seen as the “teacher’s pet”;
  • Not all gifted students work well with others;
  • Gifted students can get resentful of peers for not getting the material quick enough;

What I am stressing it is one thing to have gifted students help other students, and another to be placed in the role of a teacher. Every student needs to be taught by a skilled professional teacher, who has their best educational interests. Teachers need to continually learn new strategies to help all students.

Gifted students are very smart, but that doesn’t mean they are meant to be a teacher. They are not a substitute for a real teacher. If you see this going on in a classroom, please talk to the teacher and explain it is not healthy for gifted students to be substitute teachers. They have needs that need to be met. Gifted students also need interventions to help them be successful in school.


8 thoughts on “Your Gifted Student isn’t a Substitute Teacher

  1. Aslaug

    One of the worst things my teachers taught me is that everytime someone else gets a wrong answer, it’s MY fault. If someone ever felt like they were stupid (or do feel like they’re stupid in my presence), it was my fault because I raised my hand and showed that I knew it “in a flash”. Being smart means you always have to consider everyone elses feelings before your own, /always/ (except remember you’re not half as clever as you think you are, don’t go thinking you’re any special!). And that is something no-one should be forced to learn by the system.

    My small rant over. I really enjoy reading your blog, it gives me hope that if I ever have children, and they turn out to be gifted (a concern as I come from a family with a lot of gifted people, my three sisters and I all scored in the 1%, our parents are gifted and quite a few cousins), there are teachers willing to teach them as they are. This argument “Just have them help the other students, it’s good for them!” is one of those that really gets me going on the subject of gifted children in schools and how they are being treated (in Norway we don’t even exist).

    1. Kathy U

      I agree with the article and your reply. Teachers always had me help other students. They even had me write the tests for the rest of the students in the class. The other students always thought I was the teacher’s pet. It affected me negatively socially. The other students resented me because it was so easy for me. None of this helped me reach my potential, it just helped the teacher’s teach the class and keep me occupied. I absolutely hated working in groups because the other students automatically assumed that I would do all the work; that they were just along for the ride. Gifted education needs to change, the gifted child’s learning needs should be met.

  2. Often times, gifted students are REALLY BAD teachers. The material was easy for them; they got it almost from the start. They have NO IDEA why the other students don’t get it. So, they will simply repeat the answers over and over again for the students who don’t understand. This frustrates both students and makes the student who doesn’t understand give up entirely on really understanding. S/he thinks that just writing down and repeating the answer means that is as good as it gets.

    Yes, it can be good for gifted students to break it down problem solving (in different subjects, not just math) into smaller steps, in order to explain the whole process, but this is work that needs to be guided by a teacher.

    1. Kathy U

      You are so correct. I was not a good teacher for the other students. It frustrated me to help them, because I couldn’t understand how they could NOT get it. It was so obvious. That did not help them like me, either.

  3. You have only to think of the teachers and college professors you’ve had who were brilliant and knew their subject inside and out, but were completely unable to teach it to anyone. Understanding something and being able to teach it are different skills. The second depends heavily on the first, but not vice-versa.

    Also, gifted students don’t learn much by teaching something they already understand well. The “learn by attempting to teach” model only works if what you’re attempting to learn is in your Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). In a heterogeneous class, the content that the gifted student is being asked to teach the other students is probably way below the gifted student’s ZPD.

    A real problem is that teachers are being forced by education pundits to offer heterogeneous classes, because “It’s unfair to poor Edgar that he got stuck in the mid-level class and the honors class moved faster and he can no longer switch into it because he’d be behind.” Never mind that Suzy is bored out of her mind because she’s learning next-to-nothing and wasting 180 days sitting in the heterogeneous class.

    A real problem is that schools are punished for every minus-two-sigma student who fails the high-stakes tests, but there is no consequence for ignoring the gifted students and letting them “figure it out for themselves” while schools divert all of their resources to the kids who are just barely below passing. And most of society agrees with this–“Why should we spend our limited money on kids who don’t need it?”

    A real problem is that it’s very hard for anyone but a gifted teacher to teach gifted students effectively, and teaching is not a profession that attracts or rewards gifted people. Sure there are a few gifted teachers who teach because they love it, but much of the time they stay in spite of their districts and administrators rather than because of them.

  4. adarc

    Beyond placing a student above their peers which causes a host of social problems, using gifted students to teach leaves the gifted student without a curriculum. They aren’t learning anything. Nothing. If a gifted student grapsed the material immediately, it is likely they had already been exposed to it in some fashion, so in effect what they learn is that other people’s educational needs are more important than theirs are, and that school is a place to teach, not a place to learn. My gifted daughter spent 3 years being a teacher’s aide in school, and her fourth year ( 3rd grade) she had a a teacher who did not want to use her in that way ( I was thrilled) but it was too late, the other kids were used to going to my daughter for help, and continued to do so. My daughter would stand up for students with learning issues to explain to the teacher ho to better tecah to them ( she had been doing it for 3 years) and the teacher got angry because she thought my daughter was criticizing her and trying to usurp her authority. My daughter was confused, hurt and upset, because she didn’t understand what she was doing wrong, and the teacher actively despised her. What’s more, she learned virtually nothing in 4 years. .

  5. Cheryl B

    Great comments Jeff. As a gifted and talented educator myself, it is so important that we advocate for our students’ learning and well-being. I agree that on occasion, it is okay to have the advanced learners help others or explain a concept another way to students who are having difficulty. This can be beneficial for both of students in this type of situation.
    This past Spring, a regular classroom first grade teacher that I work with had three exceptionally high gifted students in her class. She requested that the three students work with our district technology integration specialist to create e-books on the Apple App “Book Creator”. The students worked on this project during a three week pull-out session. At the end of the sessions, the students showed their e-books to the class. In addition, the teacher and tech. specialist had the three GT kids teach the rest of the class how to use the app. The kids seemed proud of this task, and I felt this was a case that educating other students could work as it was not regular curriculum that the GT students were teaching.

    The gifted do have a right to their own learning at material that is geared for their level when in comes to accomplishing regular curriculum. Also, I really feel strongly about guided reading groups. It is important for the higher level students have teacher contact close to everyday with their group. Meeting once or twice a week is not sufficient for their learning.

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