In this article, I hope to shed some light on the teaching style I’ve found to be most effective with gifted learners. Authoritative teaching is a classroom management style that provides firm, realistic boundaries for your child in a compassionate way. An authoritative teacher focuses on maintaining high standards and projecting genuine warmth. While this style of teaching is likely effective for many (if not all) learners, it is especially critical for those that are gifted, as gifted learners are often characterized by their high needs for engagement and empathy.
In the programs I facilitate, we start every day with a meeting. It’s a time for my students to share with our community what is important to them. They share their deepest hopes and worries as well as what happened on the last episode of “Dr. Who.” Then we go to math. No child is expected to come into the classroom and immediately start producing. First, I want to know where their heads are at. I want to know how I can help them feel at ease so they can do their best. My students want to feel contributed to by a teacher who understands that it’s a complicated life being gifted.
Teaching style can be seen as a continuum, with permissive teaching on the left, authoritarian teaching on the right, and authoritative teaching in the middle. When a teacher is too permissive she has no boundaries and no expectations for her students. I’ve been in gifted classrooms like this; it’s a toxic garden of meltdowns. If a teacher is too authoritarian, the boundaries and expectations are immovable and set in place without taking a child’s needs into account. These teachers aren’t long for the gifted world. An authoritative teacher does her best to stay somewhere in the middle – remaining flexible and kind while communicating why she has high standards for her students. This is no easy task: there are days when I find myself leaning more to the left or right. I gently course correct, trying not to be too hard on my gifted, perfectionistic self, and do better.
An authoritative teacher is warm to her students because she knows the challenges of being gifted. More often than not it’s the student versus themselves. Living with overexcitabilities and perfectionistic tendencies can easily lead a child to become his or her own harshest critic. Gifted children spend a lot of time feeling misunderstood, mainly because they are. In that, they are often misdiagnosed with ADHD or Oppositional Defiance. Or they are judged as overly sensitive and bratty. I offer lots of hugs to my students, and I respond with an accepting smile when those hugs are turned down.
I request the best from my students so they may develop the tools they need for a fulfilled, meaningful life. A lack of expectation for a gifted learner communicates that it is okay for the child to give in to his or her sensitivities and perfectionistic tendencies and not try. This same lack of expectation can be misinterpreted as a demand for blind production of straight-A work. Heck, we don’t even have grades in my programs. As an educator, I’m looking for a student’s best work.
A student’s best work plays on their strengths while challenging their areas of growth. When a teacher has a real relationship with their student, they know what that level of work looks like and they know it doesn’t always come in the form of an essay or data table. Most of the time it’s demonstrated during the process of creating that essay or data table. A letter grade doesn’t pay tribute to that level of effort at all.
I’d like all the gifted educators reading this, homeschoolers too, to ask themselves where they lie on the continuum. When was the last time you communicated high standards to your students that were backed up with words of encouragement and a hug? How did it work for you?