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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Challenges of Teaching Honors Students

It's hard to compartmentalize middle schoolers. I mean there's just so many levels, cliques, shapes, and sizes. It's almost as if each kid is their own species for this brief time in their lives, bubbling in this brew of tween-ness until they all settle down and come together one day as sophomores.

And having taught them all, I know that each of the groups has their own blessings and challenges.

But there is a misconception in the civilian world that teaching the honors students must be somehow a more desirable gig than teaching the mainstream, or struggling students.

Now, I've taught many a subgroup in my time and I will say this: teaching honors and gifted kids does not an easier job necessarily make. It's great, don't get me wrong, but it's got it's own challenges and responsibilities. After all, if you're teaching classes designated as honors, you better also be teaching compassion, because elitism is a struggle. Taking criticism can be a struggle. Collaborating can be a struggle. If you're teaching honors students, you better be teaching them to keep things in proportion because that little tiny fraction of a percentage grade is enough to send them over the edge. And you better teach time management skills too, because in the world of standardized tests, there's no room for a ten-page epic novella.

I'm not going to belittle the great things about teaching the upper academic echelon in education. After all, you can tackle higher-level content, their product can be stunning, and their level of discourse can be exciting.

However, I will say this: a teacher should always hold the bar high for any student. For instance, I've taught Shakespeare to kindergarteners all the way up to adults. And I'm not talking about the "in their own words" Shakespeare. I'm talking about the Bard and his language. And you know who translates Old English the quickest? English Learners.

The fact is, many honors kids exist deeply emerged in their academic world, while other kids bring in both the academic world and real life. Some honors kids must have the right color pen to perfectly shade that icon. This works in the educational universe as an academic skill, but does it work in real life as a critical thinking skill?

And, yes, precision is a real-world virtue, but does it require critical thinking? I was pondering that very question when this incident occurred at my school:

My colleague, who teaches eighth grade Language Arts, tripped on a cord, flew to the corner of a table and was momentarily knocked unconscious behind her desk. It was during her honors class.

Apparently, the class sat stunned. Finally, and we're talking after a long "finally", one student, and I mean only one, crept around the teacher's desk, looked at the floor, and announced, "Um, guys, she's not moving."

The teacher opened an eye with a groan, whispered for the student to go to the office, and the teacher, bleeding from the head, had to sit up by herself and ask for a paper towel.

So my question is this: would you rather be hit on the head in a room of A students stunned by a spontaneous turn of events that would never be covered on a standardized test, or a room of struggling latch-key kids who have to juggle their own nightly homework with the added responsibility of taking care of their three younger cousins?

I admit that these are wide generalizations. I've taught enterprising honors students, and I've taught mainstream kids who wouldn't know what to do to get out a splinter much less how to handle a true emergency situation.

But my point is there are great things about every class and every student. And just as we shouldn't generalize the negative, so shouldn't we generalize the positive. No class is one or the other, and each class has things we must celebrate and things that we must work on.

Greatness comes in any form.

This nation's future leaders could come from any classroom. Treat each classroom like it's full of honors kids, and you'll find that you will have helped to raise honorable people.

Comments (17)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Darleen Saunders's picture

While I agree wholeheartedly that teaching the honors students comes with as many challenges as it does rewards, I caution you to not assume they are all devoid of common sense either. That too, is a common myth.

And while we are on the subject, not all honors students are gifted. Their are many hardworking students out their who earn their way into the honors classes, and just as many, if not more gifted under achievers who are just making it in the general classes. Giftedness has way more to do with how they think than how they perform.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture
Blogger 2014

You are absolutely right about the need not to overgeneralize. This is why I believe deeply (as I say in my article) that we must treat all classes as if there are smart, capable students in every group. I also, frankly, continue to waver in my belief that we should be segregating these kids at all. I see the benefits, but I also see the drawbacks. After all, lower kids, given the right guidence and ratio, rise closer to the level of those around them just as much as gifted students could use lessons that other students can teach them.

You are also right that gifted is different than honors. Most importantly, that a student always has a choice in how they use their gifts.

Thanks so much for your comments and for visiting Edutopia!
-Heather WG

Donna B VanSickle's picture

I have taught all levels of students in my 27 years of teaching. The expectations I have of my students are the same, whether the class is gifted or support. The path that each class takes to achieve their goals, however, is different. All the students have to master the same standards--the test they must pass to graduate does not differentiate between "gifted", "regular", or "support".
I personally prefer to teach the support level students. I always know where I stand with them. As a group, they are much more open and honest about everything.


Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

What I find challenging is the parents of these kids. Particularly when they are administrators.

Carolyn Dixon's picture

I find this article quite interesting since for the past seven years of teaching kindergarten, I have been given the students who are the most challenging to teach. Occasionally, I may have one or two in the bunch who some may say is gifted, but I prefer to say just bright or smart. Anyway, I have high expectations of all students. If one student seems brighter than the other, I allow that student to share his/her experience or knowledge with all to motivate all my students to be bright or smart.

Dr. Mike Todd's picture
Dr. Mike Todd
Chief Learning Officer

Where it gets interesting is when you are in a small rural school and they have place students in the class for regular credit and honors credit. Many teachers faced with this can not make the connection to doing much different with the honors leve that they are doing with all of the students. Small schools face this more than people may realize and there is a need for teachers in this situation to get more support for developing their skills in differentiated instruction.

Susan Nichols's picture

I'm just getting ready to say goodbye to a wonderful, compassionate, energetic group of gifted students and am already very sad about that. This year's class definitely would have gotten help if I had cracked my head open. Maybe not at the beginning of the school year when we didn't know each other, but certainly by now they would act if something happened to me.

Gifted or not, I think much of what happens in a classroom throughout the school year depends on the relationship a teacher develops with his or her students. I think through humor and lightheartedness the bond we have created this year is stronger than usual. They "get" me and I "get" them.

We may not win our school's sports competitions, but I'd still rather be teaching my class of eccentrics and bookworms (and my other "regular" students as well) to be interested in and care about the world around them, and to act on its behalf.

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