Teachers and Smart Kids

Note: This was originally the opening of a larger essay I abandoned. I published the draft in The Things I Don’t Write and someone mentioned it was a nice anecdote, which it was. So I’m just republishing the anecdote with some other thoughts.

Last summer’s Gifted, with just a few scenes set in a public school, really got the teacher right. Other things were off–I don’t think the principal would have acted as she did, and the first grade class was just a little too quiet for real life. And sure, Mary’s teacher Bonnie was the romantic lead, so she wouldn’t be obnoxious or clueless.

But on her second day, after Mary finishes a math quiz in 30 seconds and shouts “DONE!” in a genuinely obnoxious tone, Bonnie comes over quietly and says “I thought you’d finish that quickly, so I made you a second test” and hands her a college-level test. Mary jumps on it like a starved wolf, working through it with focus and intensity. (A very nice touch, that.) When she’s finished, she says “Done!” and puts her head down on the desk. And smiles at the teacher. She’d been tested.

If I’m to go by blog comments, public schools are teeming with jealous teachers who seek out brilliant kids to insult and mistreat. I’ve lost count of the folks whining about how much their teachers hated them for being smarter. The same meme runs through movies and books–public teachers treating exceptionally bright children with resentment, suspicion, or simply utter hamhandedness.

That’s never been my experience as either a student or, most recently, as a parent of an extremely large, effortlessly bright, ferociously intense son. The middle attribute wasn’t noticed much in public schools, but I have very clear memories of the one teacher who did.

The memory is the only distinct recollection I have of any parent teacher conference, in an elementary school my son only attended for three months back in second grade. His teacher, a petite brunette, seemed friendly enough, but soon exceeded my wildest expectations.

“His reading level is astounding. I’ve never had a student read as well with as much understanding.  He’s testing in the 99th percentile, at nearly high school level. But…there’s something wrong with his writing ability that concerns me.”

I nodded. “Yeah, dysgraphia runs in my family and I’m nearly certain he has it.”

She instantly wrote down the word. “Dysgraphia–like dyslexia? I’ve never heard of that.”

“Yeah, from what I’ve read, there’s no real fix for it.  I’m only aware of it because my brother and father have it. There are different forms. My son’s is restricted to writing. He just isn’t reaching fluency with letter formation, so writing each word takes forever.”

She smacked the table “I KNEW it. I KNEW there had to be something particular wrong. I never thought to check with special ed, because it’s pretty normal for boys to have terrible handwriting and be less expressive. But I’d never seen it in conjunction with this level of intellectual ability.” She rummaged through some papers and came out with my son’s, a paragraph of four short sentences with no capitalization, barely keeping within the lines. One laboriously written sentence went something like this.

and then……a weird thing happened!

“Look at that. Ellipses! He’s using extremely advanced grammar structures. He spelled ‘weird’ right! but writing these four sentences took him half an hour. I have other students producing a page or more in the same amount of time but with nowhere near the complexity. No sense of building to a story like he has. And terrible spelling.”

I still remember her pleasure–not in his disability, but in her having spotted both his intellect and his struggle. And without prompting, she’d created her own accomodation. “As you may know, a major learning objective in second grade is cursive writing, but there’s no way he can manage that. So I’ve been creating simple little rules for him to check on. Is everything capitalized? Does he have sentence endings–periods, exclamation points? Simple things he can do to feel a sense of achievement, to keep him from getting discouraged. I hope you can keep him aware of his tremendous intellect until he figures out writing.”

And indeed, I did. With the exception of those three months, when I was working out of town, I paid for a tiny, private school for idiosyncratic kids (not exclusive at all) for three years. But by fourth grade–long before I became a teacher–I decided to try public schools, because of the memory of that second grade teacher he’d had so briefly.

I’m not one of those public school “boosters”. I oppose charters and vouchers, yes, but that’s because those parents are demanding private school choice at public school prices. I do think, though, that parents need to be active advocates for their kids, particularly if they don’t quite fit the mold. That said, my son did far better than I did in public school, in part because he had me looking out for him. By 4th grade, he understood the gap between what he could easily write and what his thoughts were, and once he grasped that, his writing improved dramatically. He grew up a friendly giant, managing his intensity far better than I did (or do!), graduated an AP Honors student with 99th percentile ACT and subject test scores and a respectable 3.9 weighted GPA. He was accepted into top 50 schools, but chose a nearby top 70 school he’d always dreamed of going to. He was less successful in college, although he took a lot of demanding courses. It took him close to seven years to graduate, but while I angsted over this at the time, he was completely self-supporting for the final three of those years, living on his own and paying all his own bills. A month short of 30, he’s now making a nice living in sales, supporting a wife, two kids, and a mortgage. I can only assume that seventeen Baby Boomers are stuck with their thirty-something kids in their old bedrooms to make up for my good fortune while still keeping those millennial generation stats looking dreary.

Is he a nuclear physicist? No, but then he didn’t want to be. Prestigious jobs these days require connections, lots of money, or burning desire–he, like me, was 0 for 3. But he’s done well, and he uses his intellect in part (as I did), to make good money at a job he enjoys, but isn’t inspired by. He tells me he wants to wait until his forties to find his passion in life–just like I did, working in tech until I stumbled onto teaching, my real love.

My life course was different. I had a generally mediocre high school experience because I never really learned how to learn. English was my saving grace, where I benefited from outstanding teachers and developed my analytical skills. I grew up working class; my son grew up on the outer edges of upper-middle. Both of us have gifts that run verbal, which means we couldn’t do impressive tricks like solve integrals at the age of six. So I was a smart-ass, while he was a large, looming, usually sullen presence in many honors classrooms.

But never once did I get the sense that a teacher resented my intelligence.  Quite the contrary, many teachers who I thought hadn’t noticed me at all pulled me aside, telling me to get it together and use my considerable intellect for something other than reading science fiction or watching old movies. It took me decades to act on their advice,  but that’s because my working-class parents were unsure of the best way to help.  My son, on the other hand, rarely had teachers who realized he was exceptional–one of my son’s favorite high school graduation memories is the number of teachers who did a double take at his AP Honors gold cord. But he had me, and one of my proudest achievements is….not his success, which is his, but the easier time he had getting there, in part because I was there to guide him.

Bu my son’s second grade teacher, Bonnie in Gifted, and all those teachers who admonished me to get it together are much more typical of teacher reaction to kids whose intellect is way ahead of the class than sneers, contempt, and hostility. So next time someone tells you a tale of woe about how his teachers were jealous of his tremendous intellect and treated him with petty malice, allow for the possibility that maybe he’s just obnoxious. Sure, there are mean, petty teachers. Just not all that many.

One of the reasons this piece sat for months in drafts is because I originally wanted to move on to discuss what to do, if anything, with “gifted” kids. But it’s complicated. So I’ll leave that for another day.

But until then, please check out this very old piece, written before the new GRE finally eliminated that embarrassing gap. This is still a problem. Kids with exceptional verbal gifts have no clear career outlet, nor are there easy, largely fake, academic solutions like acceleration. Before we can really address gifted education, we have to address the fact that we don’t know how to educate or hire them.

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15 responses to “Teachers and Smart Kids

  • sigsawyer

    I remember that most of my teachers loved me for my intelligence, except for the classes where I was clearly talented but slacked off because I thought they were boring (math). And then there were cases when I told my 9th grade English teacher, who was more or less whining about Gilgamesh objectifying women, that the old king of Uruk was a huge playa and that he was living the dream.

    I think that people complaining about teachers picking on them for being smart is the fakest of news. More likely than not, they weren’t as smart as they thought they were, or they were smug little picks about it, in which case the teacher was doing the rest of the class a favor.

  • Anthony

    Teachers generally like smart kids, but they don’t like smartass kids.

    My kids have not had any problems with their teachers disliking them for being smart, and I had very little, and that was more from the teachers not really knowing what to do with me, than with disliking me, or from getting annoyed that I would finish tests so fast. Or because I was too lazy to do homework much.

    The only real problem we’ve had with a teacher for the kids so far is the teacher who was just phoning it in, and that wasn’t about my kid. In fact, she actually put in a little extra effort for my kid because my kid was so smart.

    My wife has had a couple of experiences where she was showing knowledge or ability beyond grade level and got smacked down for it. But it wasn’t pervasive for her, either.

  • amj

    I’m sure this has occurred to you. But I hope you’ve attempted to share this story with his second grade teacher, if she’s still around. It inspired me, and I wasn’t even the subject.

  • Roger Sweeny

    My son, on the other hand, rarely had teachers who realized he was exceptional–one of my son’s favorite high school graduation memories is the number of teachers who did a double take at his AP Honors gold cord. But he had me, and one of my proudest achievements is….not his success, which is his, but the easier time he had getting there, in part because I was there to guide him.

    So much good in that last sentence.

  • benjamin

    In my experience, there is a large rise in teachers who think it is amoral to offer differentiation or worse accelerated tracks.

    So no teachers don’t hate gifted kids for being smart but they do seem to think they are “privileged” and don’t deserve anything different than the norm in the name of equity.

    That’s the larger atmosphere around how to handle gifted or just advanced academics at least here in my district.

  • Peter Gerdes

    Two points:

    First, while occasionally smart kids are particularly obnoxious more commonly they behave no differently than any of their peers at similar ages in expressing joy at their accomplishments and not having an adult understanding of the fact that they always finish first or know the answer transforms the same eagerness that is encouraged in other students into something that inspires resentment.

    Often the smart kid is displaying far less competitiveness or glee at success than their peers of the same age do in athletic contests or other competitions so should be regarded as no more obnoxious.

    Second, often its not that the kid is obnoxious *or* that the teacher resents them for being smart but simply that the student’s intelligence causes problems for the teacher which exasperates them. For instance, I remember constantly butting heads with my Physics teacher in high school because he would be annoyed with me for being smart and quickly solving quiz problems.

    After having taught myself I know exactly why he was exasperated with me. He was trying to use group quizes and problem sets as a learning activity for the whole class and the fact that I was so good at the problems frustrated this goal. My fellow students on group quizes naturally wanted the easy A and I *would* have been obnoxious if I’d insisted on trying to teach them rather than just solving the problem the way they knew I could but this effect was surely quite frustrating to the teacher since it totally undermined his educational aims. (Eventually in the AP classes he was able to just group all the smart kids together so we would argue with each other rather and it worked out better).

    I know this teacher didn’t actually hold anything against me and indeed was very supportive when I later qualified for the physics olympiad but I can easily understand how this kind of frustration and exasperation can be misread as antagonism and resentment. However, one needs to keep in mind that the smart student can’t be held responsible or called obnoxious because they don’t fit into the teacher’s lesson plan….they are the student and its not their job to be the teacher.

    • Roger Sweeny

      Interesting that in K-12, tracking is a bad thing but AP is a good thing.

      • Momof4

        APs are seen as a particularly good thing when unprepared kids are dumped into the class, even if they are unable to read the texts. Somehow, it was all ok for white and Asian kids to be required to take, and succeed, in the prerequisite courses but not for others. Schools have often said that APs are the only way to challenge all kids, which I see as a serious indictment of the school. Good curriculum and instruction exists at all levels, so HS kids functioning at a 6th grade level can and should be challenged at that level.

  • Gringo

    I wasn’t intentionally a smart-ass kid, but when a teacher made a mistake I did point it out. In looking back, my teachers were very gracious in their responses to having their mistakes corrected.

    The one exception came when in junior high I corrected a student teacher. His supervising teacher- my regular teacher told me I was obnoxious. I resented that for years. Now, I see that as a gentle reminder: if you keep showing off how much you know, you will be resented. Tone it down.

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