Professional Learning

The Challenges of Teaching Honors Students

June 16, 2010

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.

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  • Professional Learning
  • K-2 Primary
  • 6-8 Middle School

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