The student who immediately comes to mind whenever I am asked about the student who most impacted my teaching career is a young man I met when he was an 8th grader, and I was a substitute teacher. I spent a few months substituting before I got my first teaching job in the high school where this young man would later be on my special education case load and then later have a seat in my 11th grade classroom with me as his general education English teacher.
I tell this story often as I feel this experience was one of the reasons I decided I would actively pursue my teaching certificate. I was new to Georgia, an individual with a Master’s of Science in Psychology who had just begun the process of Florida state licensure when my then husband was transferred to Georgia. Our daughter was two, and I did not have the contacts in Georgia or the family who were always there to assist while I continued my studies and internships. I thought it might be a good time to begin my PhD, as I knew that being a 100% stay at home mom was not something I could do. In the meanwhile, I decided to substitute teach as my work in Florida had primarily been with adolescents.
I was called almost every day to work in the middle school close to my home. The middle school and high school were next door to one another. On one occasion I substituted for an English teacher of an 8th grade class. As I called roll I said each name clearly and asked that each child raise his or her hand so I could be sure of who was whom. I came to the name Derek C. within a few seconds.
There was no response. I called the name again, and I noticed some of the students snickering and pointing to a shaggy haired boy sitting next to the wall with his head down. I walked over to him and gently asked, “Why didn’t you answer when I called your name?” There was no answer. The other students began to laugh and began talking all at once:
“Don’t mess with him, he’s crazy.”
“Yeah, he just got out of the crazy house.”
“Look at his arms, he tried to kill himself.”
I looked at these students in alarm and motioned for them to stop talking.
I stooped down beside the boy and asked again very quietly, “Why did you not answer when I called your name?”
He looked up briefly and said, “Because my name is Dirk.”
I looked at the roster to confirm the spelling of his name and stated still quietly from my stooped position, “I am sorry, the spelling of your name is different on the roster. How do you spell Dirk?
He raised his head and was eye level with me. He spelled his name and watched curiously as I crossed out the name Derek and wrote Dirk beside it.
The other students started howling at this point and said, “That is not really his name, he is just crazy.”
I looked pointedly at the one I had already identified as the ring-leader and said, “I am quite sure that Dirk knows his own name better than you.”
Others said, “Look, he only comes to school when they make him. He’s in the crazy house all the time. When he’s here the teacher just lets him keep his head down so she can teach.”
Still from my stooped position I directed my voice to Dirk again whose head was down once more and I said, “Dirk, I am very glad to meet you. You do not have to keep your head down in class for me to teach, but even if you do, I see you. I know you are here.”
I patted the place beside his head and stood. I then began the lesson which just so happened to be on a short story by Edgar Allen Poe. At that moment inspired and feeling on a mission I asked if the students knew anything about Mr. Poe. Some did and some did not. So I talked about his childhood and how misunderstood he always was as a boy and even as a young adult. I talked about how creative he was and how difficult it was for him to connect with others.
I had all the students’ attention, but I noticed above all, I had Dirk’s attention. The look in his eyes was one I will never forget. It was a look of a child who felt for the first time someone had actually seen him.
Later that same year, I was offered a job teaching at the high school next door to that middle school. I would begin on a provisional certificate and would take my special education certification course work through the University of Georgia. This was February of 2004, and I was replacing a resource science teacher who had been dismissed for sexual misconduct with a student. I was not a science teacher, but it was physical science and I decided to make a go of it. After all, physical science is logic based. All my boys- yes, it was a class full of boys – passed the class and their EOCT (this was the first year for the GA EOCT).
Even though I was largely successful with these boys and in this class, I wanted to team teach in the English department as this was a subject I knew well and loved. In the Fall of 2004, I met was given my new case load. The first name I noticed was Derek C. I smiled, crossed out Derek and wrote Dirk. Somehow the universe had placed this young man and me together, and I knew I had made the right choice.
I took my job as a special education teacher seriously, as I did my job as a general education teacher. I was not satisfied with managing my cases from afar. I used my planning period to check on these students to get to know them initially, and to communicate with their classroom teachers and parents.
When it came time for Dirk’s first IEP, I made sure that all his teachers were there and that we made a plan that he would be successful in high school. I was convinced that in spite of a specific learning disability that Dirk was extremely gifted. Yes, he was strange. Yes, he had dark thoughts. Yes, he was difficult to reach, but these were all my first clues to his giftedness, not an impediment to his learning. Fortunately, he had some phenomenal teachers that year that would form strong relationships with him and who later agreed with my assessment.
When Dirk was at the end of 10th grade year I knew that the next year I would not be his case manager anymore, as I was moving into general education as an English teacher. We held his IEP. Dirk was passing all of his classes with mostly Bs and Cs, but he was passing. He had really begun to work hard in high school and I felt he needed to be released from the stigma of special education in order for him to really shine. His mother was frightened by the idea as he had been served in special education since elementary school. Dirk was very enthused with the idea. All of his general education teachers and his team teachers agreed that he had made extraordinary progress. So we decided to allow him to fly solo in his English and history classes, but that for math, science and then later his senior government/economics class he should be in a team taught class, just for additional support even if he was not receiving direct services.
In the fall of 2006 I would have my first general education American Literature class, 11th grade. Dirk C. was on my roster, and it was not a team taught class. Dirk was very shy, very quiet, he always had been. He stood out with his shaggy hair, his dark eyes and pale skin. I made sure he sat in direct view of my podium and not in the back as he was wont to do.
As the school year progressed Dirk did begin to shine. His verbal responses in class were not on the level of other students, they were above. He thought on a much deeper level and when we began to read the works of the transcendentalists that is when he really began to connect with the literature, it brought him out of the dark and into the light. He needed to know that there had been and are others who question the universe and what has simply been accepted. He was another brilliant mind that had been crippled with Bible Belt education. He had been deemed weird, mentally unstable, and learning disabled because he thought differently, because he saw the world in different terms than others. His existence had been lonely. No wonder he had made attempts on his life. He is not the first brilliant mind to have done so.
That would be my last year in this school and district. I had decided to move onto a new district that I felt at the time would be a bit more progressive. I hated leaving Dirk, and all my students, but it was time. However, I remained in contact with Dirk through his teachers. He received the award for most unique senior project his senior year. He made all As and Bs, and he was planning to go to college, not a major four-year university, but to learn something that could allow him entry into the adult world where he really could make his own decisions. This worried me. I encouraged him to take creative writing and art courses.
I attended Dirk’s graduation and was warmly hugged by his mother and of course Dirk. His mother thanked me for my faith in her son. Nothing from a book or a class, just simple open eyed faith in the potential of a boy everyone thought weird, and dangerous.
Dirk would over the next couple of years send me his papers for review and talk to me of his plans, of girls, his worries over his best friend. I would later help Dirk in his grief over the untimely death of his longest and dearest friend. Today, he is married to a lovely young woman and is doing very well in his career. We recently met for coffee and he told me he would always be grateful to me for all I had done for him. I told him I would always be grateful we had been placed somehow in one another’s path, that each of us needed what the other had to give.
Dirk is in his mid 20s. He has not founded a mega corporation, he has not invented anything that will change the course of human history, or written a Pulitzer prize winning novel. However, he survived school and is a happy and productive member of society. He is happy with who he is and judging by his posts on Facebook, totally comfortable marching to the beat of a different drummer.
So in a nutshell, without ever having read a book on gifted education, while not even enrolled in my first education course, I did what all teachers should be capable of doing: Seeing a child and recognizing that child’s uniqueness. Recognizing that there has to be a more significant reason than “badness” that a child wishes himself harm, and does not engage with the world around him or her.
I advocated for Dirk from the moment I crossed out the name he had disowned and he saw me write the name he claimed. All it takes is one teacher who then engages other teachers in the effort. Any teacher who does not want to join in the effort to bring a child to his or her potential is in the wrong profession. Any teacher that dismisses a child based upon what others say of that child without looking into his or her eyes, without attempting to reach that child on some level, does not need to be in the profession.
I took a risk as his case manager in suggesting that we remove him from special education services. This label had been a yoke around this young man’s neck for his entire educational career. It was a risk worth taking. Teachers must be prepared to take risks for their students and on their behalf. This shows faith in the child and in ourselves as educators.
When I began formally learning how to identify and teach gifted students, I found that much of what I have done has been right, and it has also caused me to reflect on various ways I could have done things differently. It has caused me to be a better parent to my own gifted child, for as Baily (2007) states, parents, teachers, and counselors must think about and communicate with the gifted child in a different manner in which they would an ungifted child.
I did not take the gifted course as a teacher to teach “gifted classes”. I took it to make me a better teacher to all my students. Taking the class on gifted education aided me in understanding my own child and students I taught, it helped me to understand much of what I underwent as a child, and even now as an adult who is different. It also has validated what I have long suspected; I am drawn to and have an intuition about students like Dirk, because I see so much of myself in them. Gifted children who come from ordinary or impoverished families often find themselves lost and struggling to connect with others. This may lead to anger, depression, and simply dropping out (Baily, 2009). I was there… but I found myself and my own giftedness and am still striving to reach my fullest potential… to become as Maslow taught, self-actualized. My way there was to lead my students to their own level of actualization.
Bailey, C. L. (2007, October). Social and emotional needs of gifted students: What school counselors need to know to most effectively serve this diverse student population.
Paper based on a program presented at the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision Conference, Columbus, OH.
Dr. Burnett-Brown left teaching in Dec. 2016 due to irresolvable conflict with Cobb County School District. She is now a Supreme Court Approved Mediator with the Georgia Office of Dispute Resolution and a Diversity and Inclusion consultant.
This is not a new career for Dr. Burnett-Brown, but rather a return to one she began in Florida as a Guardian ad Litem as well as a family and adolescent counselor and mediator.
Dr. Burnett-Brown is committed to fairness and justice. In her role as a mediator she must serve as a neutral, and will in her role facilitate negotiations between parties that bring about the most equitable resolution for all parties involved. When children are involved in either education or domestic disputes, the best interest of the child will always be recognized and served.
Note: This story is posted with speical permission from “the boy named Dirk.”
Part Two in the Series: The Gifted Child Twice Exceptional Students and a Need to Raise the Standards of Teaching
When I think of those who are gifted, I do not think of students who are “smart” and make straight As. I think of students who are different, students who indeed march to the beat of a different drummer. I think of the Lord Byrons, Mary Shellys, Einsteins, Disneys, Thoreaus, Dickinsons, Poes, Oscar Wildes, Thomas Hardys, Galileos, and others who in one regard or the other were seen as social outcasts, oddballs, or perhaps even insane. In our more modern times, I think of the Robin Williams, the Martin Lawrences, the Robert Downy, Jr.s, Curt Cobains, Jim Morrisons, Jimmy Hendricks, Janice Joplins; individuals whose minds were/are so bright, so different, so busy they use(d) and abuse(d) substances to curtail their mental activity- to feel normal.
I often told my high school students that the mind of a brilliant individual is like a Ferrari, if not taught the dangers as well as the thrills, it can become deadly to the individual and even those around him or her. There has often been stated a fine line between genius and insanity. Hitler, Manson, Stalin, and others come to mind. If we continue as educators only to see those who are as researcher Renzulli (2012) notes, “school house” gifted as our brightest and best, we might find we are losing great minds, or either allowing them to run amuck.
I also feel that in order for these students to be identified and nurtured that our teachers need to, as I have stated before, not just be gifted certified teachers, but gifted teachers themselves. Too many teachers obtain gifted certification because they, “…cannot teach ‘these’ kids another year.” These kids being on-level students. That is not a very reliable prerequisite for obtaining a certification to teach students how to operate their Ferraris.
I find that in a standardized world teachers are not equipped or supported in the teaching of truly gifted students to color outside the lines. Teachers who become gifted certified so that they do not have to deal with discipline problems or have to differentiate the curriculum to meet the needs of students who need more support than others are generally rudely awakened. These teachers are ill-prepared for the emotional intensity of the truly gifted child, and may find themselves, as suggested by Grant & Piechowski ( as cited in Sword, 2001), unwittingly damaging the child by fueling anxiety in the child’s need for perfection. How does one perfectly color outside the lines? As a teacher of on-level students, I was often chastised, threatened, and cajoled due to my “unorthodox” teaching methods. They were considered unorthodox because I challenged my students to question everything, everyone. Even those considered off limits.
One of the statements I made often in conversations with administration is that we cannot expect to teach our students to think critically if we lead them to believe either by commission or omission that there are certain tenets that are to never be questioned. Recent researchers (Corriveau, Chen, & Harris, 2015)studied the performance of students who have been taught Bible stories as fact vs. those students brought up in non-religious homes and found that students who are taught such stories as the creation story, Noah and the Flood, the Tower of Babel, Samson and the Philistines, have difficulty distinguishing between fact and fiction. If we want our students to fully develop their intellectual gifts, we must first stop insulting their intelligence.
The most important action I could take as a teacher of students identified as special education or non-identified at all, was to lead them in the direction of finding their talent, their gift and to develop it. The hardest part of that for any teacher is breaking through all the scar tissue formed over the years to protect the child’s esteem.
Some ways in which I help my students find their gifts. If a child is good at art, some assignments should be tailored to draw (pardon the pun) upon that talent, and it can still meet the standards. If a child is talented in music, that child can create a composition that identifies the mood, tone, theme, and action of a work of literature. If a child has a flair for the dramatics, then he or she should be given the task of creating a skit or a one man/woman show to demonstrate mastery of a concept.
One of the ways I differentiated was through tiered assignments. Each tier was worth a different point value, so each student has an opportunity to make an A. 250/250; 150/150; 75/75, for example. Students perform better when given choices that allow them to draw upon their talents, interests, ability (Beckley, 1998) and yes, even to some degree work ethic. These projects each have a rubric and students are given that rubric with the minimum expectations stated, and that to meet these means a C for that project. When given these clear expectations – with Ds and Fs not even offered, students seem to naturally strive towards the A. Imagine that.
Teachers need to unlock their own Ferraris and get back in the driver’s seat when it comes to educating students. Administrators need to break down this word and do what literally translated it means. It does not mean to rule or govern, it means to provide care. Care and nurture to teachers, means they in turn can care for and nurture their students.
Beckley, D. (1998). Gifted and Learning Disabled: Twice Exceptional Students. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED424711
Corriveau, K. H. ., Chen, E. E. ., & Harris, P. L. . (2015). Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds. Cognitive Science, 39(2), 353–382. https://doi.org/10.1111/cogs.12138
Renzulli, J. S. (2012). Reexamining the Role of Gifted Education and Talent Development for the 21st Century: A Four-Part Theoretical Approach. Gifted Child Quarterly, 56(3), 150–159. https://doi.org/10.1177/0016986212444901
Sword, L. (2001). Psycho-social needs: Understanding the emotional, intellectual and social uniqueness of growing up gifted. Victoria, Australia: Gifted and Creative Services. Retrieved from http://www.darshana-ganatra.com/files/Psycho_social_Needs_of_Gifted_Children_Kopie.pdf
Many GA school districts have magnet and advanced placement schools. These programs primarily focus on science, math, and technology with little to no focus on the arts, languages, social sciences, and humanities. Many of the schools present a large draw for families who live outside the zoned school areas who do not care for the schools in their residential zones. Cobb County School District, which is the second largest school district in the Metro Atlanta area, has eighteen high schools each with at least two elementary schools and one middle school that are considered feeder schools. To the family looking for the right fit for their children, there appears to be much from which to choose; however, for students that are gifted or talented in areas other than science, technology, or math, the selections are limited to one performing arts magnet school.
There is a tremendous amount of funding that flows into the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) programs. A few schools have added A for all, and do strive to offer opportunities to students who are identified as gifted in other areas. However, there is at this point not a great focus on these extra programs and the district does not appear to place a heavy focus on drawing teachers who excel in other academic or extracurricular areas such as English Language Arts, Social Studies, or Performing or Visual Arts. There are some students within these STEM programs that were identified as gifted in elementary school, however, by the time they reach high school they are only making average grades in math and science. A great deal of this may have to do with the much researched shift that occurs between fifth and eighth grade. It is during this time that students tend to falter, and sometimes even fail. It is during this time that that they are beginning to actually narrow their focus on what they really enjoy and for what they actually hold a talent. This makes a great deal of sense as most children in their formative years are very interested in how things work. Science helps to satisfy that curiosity, as does math. Those students who maintain that interest are the ones who are probably most talented in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math. Children who are offered a broad range of opportunities during their formative years will have an easier time of narrowing their field of vision than students who are pegged as the next Madame Currie in third grade after winning the science fair for growing the most impressive mold farm.
There has also been such a push for reading programs to improve literacy skills that many children who have a talent for reading comprehension, drawing inferences, and using advanced critical thinking skills, actually lose their desire to read. If science and math had been pushed on students to the degree that AR (advanced reading) programs and summer reading programs have been done in many Cobb County Schools, there might have been a decline in the number of students wishing to apply to these magnet programs.
Cobb County School District does have clear guidelines for entering into their gifted program. The means of identification and placement range from early testing, to teacher recommendation, to parent request, and wavers. According to the majority of Cobb County high school gifted teachers, they have very few students who are actually gifted. Many are waivered in by parents due to the fact they do not wish their children to be in on-level classes with students who are either a-motivational, or otherwise present disciplinary issues. In fact, in conversations with many teachers from different schools, most agree that AP is the new honors, honors is the new on-level, and on-level is actually remedial. The disturbing part of this is that truly gifted students are not receiving what they need in order to feel challenged, and teachers are becoming so jaded that they do not feel inspired to challenge. Alternatively, many students actually feel their classes are “easy,” with the classes they view as difficult being so not due to the rigor, but to the amount of homework. Where is the challenge in juggling homework assignments, and projects with extra-curricular programs, family, and social activities? With the exception of preparing high school students for adulthood, there is none.
This is a total call out. So, read up!
Teachers need the support of parents and the community in the districts in which they teach. In the past week since a Cobb County School District, GA assistant principal of a local school filed a law suit against CCSD’s Superintendent Ragsdale and named others, there has been an outcry… and pardon my pun… to shush this and put it to bed to protect the District’s reputation.
Faculty and other staff who stand up to their districts are to be applauded. I understand why other teachers do not offer out loud support to their colleagues. They are afraid of losing their jobs. I appreciated all the shock, dismay, and even tears my colleagues shared with me. The words of support whispered in my room, the pats on the back, the hugs. Sure, those were great. But where was the anger? Where was the moral outrage at seeing a fellow teacher so blatantly targeted? Nowhere. Teachers have mouths to feed. I can entirely understand and forgive their silence. Even if I would have pulled my ever-ready soapbox out and shouted the roof tops off in their defense.
However, when something tragic like the death of a child occurs, or for those once in a blue moon instances where an educator or parent files suit against the county, there are those who want it all shut up to protect the reputation of the county. The ones who have the problem with bad PR are generally of the White Status Quo.
Let me be clear. You are not representative of the 85% and counting students of color, other languages, and national origins in this county. You have not walked in their shoes. Those of you who live in nice large homes with manicured lawns… what do you know of poverty? What do you know of not having the means to feed your children, let alone fight a large powerful district with a WSQ Board to back it on all fronts.
As a mediator, I will see to it that justice is served fairly.
For GA teachers, teacher associations like PAGE and GAE can only do so much, and only to the extent of protecting your job and certificate; sometimes, that is not enough.
You need someone who can help negotiate the best terms in disciplinary matters.
For families with children whose civil liberties and educational rights have been violated, you also need someone who is there to see that justice is served for the best interest of the child.
You have a right to ask for mediation. Know and exercise your rights!
Teachers who work the hardest for their students of color are often under appreciated, more often than not, harassed and bullied out of education. These are the stories that make good non-fiction.
School systems that expect teachers and students to march to the drumbeat of the White Status Quo are killing creativity in both teachers and students.
Learning begins with building relationships. A teacher cannot expect students to be attuned to concepts and principles of the curriculum if they do not feel there is a purpose for their being in the classroom. Passing the course is not an objective, nor is it a purpose. Students should look forward to entering the classroom whether it is a subject excelled in or one in which they have had previous failures. The teacher at the podium makes that distinction.
A teacher who effectively builds meaningful and lasting relationships with students is the teacher who sees the best work ethic, attitudes, and performance of each student. Students can sense when a teacher is excited about the art of teaching, and the empowerment of learning. This dynamic combination is experienced fully when students know the individual at the podium has a stake in student outcomes, personal as well as academic. Even in larger instructional environments, the teacher who is well-versed in the skill of relationship building can generate a positive and personal force with students, thus engaging them on both the personal and academic levels. When students see the investment of self on the part of their teacher, then they are more likely to invest themselves.
The academic success of students is predicated upon many factors. The level of education and teaching skills of the teacher is never to be minimized; however, individuals who leave the halls of academia for their prospective professions do not remember the teacher whose students had the highest test scores, they remember the teacher who had the ability to make each student feel seen and heard.
This involves: Seeing color. When well-meaning teachers tell their students they do not see color, they are saying, “I do not see you.”
When Crickets Chirp
CCSD has still not responded to my Diversity & Inclusion Plan. An AP is suing for religious discrimination, I was railroaded out for the same reason, 90% of the kids in ISS/OSS are of color. What Gives CCSD?