Turning Teaching Theory into Practice #1 – Fostering Leadership in the Gifted Classroom

Todd Stanley

Welcome to the first in a series of blogs that will seek to take an educational theory and show you how to turn it into practice. A lot of times in educational discussion we can get bogged down in the theory, and it simply is not user-friendly for teachers practicing in the field. This blog will seek to translate some of the theory surrounding gifted education and show how to use it practically in your classroom.

In the article “A Longitudinal Case Study of Exceptional Leadership Talent” by Thomas P. Hébert published in the January 2019 edition of Gifted Child Quarterly, Hébert followed a single student from his elementary years thru entering the workforce and witnessed the development of his leadership skills. Hébert saw four factors that were responsible for shaping this person into a dynamic leader. They were:

  1. Family factors and support
  2. Emotional intelligence
  3. Practical intelligence
  4. Internal motivation

The question becomes, what can you as a teacher do to foster and develop leadership in your classroom? This can be tricky because leadership is one of those soft skills that in this day and age of data and standardized testing, often gets pushed to the side. But, there are definitely things that you can do in your classroom that will allow those students with giftedness in leadership to develop.

The beginning of the article makes an argument for nature versus nurture; are people born leaders or is it something they learn? The truth of course is somewhere in the middle. Of course, there is not much as a teacher you can do concerning the first of these--family factors and support. Our gifted students come from all sorts of family dynamics. Short of adopting a student, you have no control over how a family supports this child or sets a good example. For instance, Hébert’s subject, L.J., had a father who acted as a role model for successful leadership. You, as the teacher, can have a modest influence. As teachers, we are often the leaders in our classrooms and modeling leadership for our students. We do this by being organized, having confidence in our subject areas, and managing our classrooms well.

Here are five things you can practice with your students to help develop their leadership skills.

  1. Put them in authentic, high pressure situations

As much as possible, provide performance assessment for students where they have to either publically speak or present. The number two fear people have (number one being spiders) is public speaking. Like anything, the more students get the opportunity to do this, the more comfortable they are going to be. Whenever you have an assessment that calls for students to present, this should not just be to other classmates, but rather to authentic audiences. If students are making a pitch to change school lunches, they should do so in front of the superintendent or school board. If students are presenting a capstone of what they learned for the year, having a public forum where the community is invited will make this activity more valuable. Figure out ways to make your performance assessments more authentic by inviting outside audience members who might be experts in the field.

  1. Involve them in collaborative activities

I know, I know. Group work can be awful for a teacher. Especially when you have a lot of gifted students in the classroom who may feel they know everything and are not really keen on listening or working with others. However, this is a skill every child should leave school with because they will be collaborating with people the rest of their lives. It is a skill sought out by many employers, so if you really want to get your students prepared for the real world, teach them to collaborate.

The most important lesson students should get from working in groups is that if each member puts their skills to good use, the group should be able to produce something a lot better than if an individual student had worked on it. How do you accomplish this though? By letting go of the notion that all students must work on the same thing equally at the same time. Instead, have specific roles for students to follow. By having students take on specific roles in their group, roles that lie within their skillset, this will make them accountable for their individual contribution to the group.

One of these roles can actually be the leader. The description might look like this:

Leader: Makes sure everyone is on task and encourages people to produce high quality work

      The student is expected to lead his group, while at the same time allowing everyone to perform their own role. Leadership at its finest.

  1. Give them chances to show initiative

Leaders don’t have to be told what to do. They simply gravitate toward taking action on their own. How do we create students who take initiative in a school system where compliance and following directions is the protocol? By giving them opportunities to show initiative. What this can look like is the following:

Bonus Opportunity: Design the building/make a model of where the Hall of Fame will be housed based on Renaissance architecture and/or influence of other Renaissance ideas.

When I presented this to my students, I made it very clear it was not for a grade. It was simply a chance to be creative and put to practical use what they had learned. Students then chose whether they were going to participate in the bonus opportunity. Some did, and some didn’t.

By providing bonus opportunities you are doing a couple of things. First, you are inviting students to show initiative. If you make it a requirement, there is no initiative. But if it is presented as an option and students take it on, they have shown initiative. The second thing it does is differentiates and allows gifted students to take lessons to the next level. They can challenge themselves instead of leaving it up to the teacher.

  1. Have them engage in activities that require adaptability

One of the characteristics of practical intelligence, according to Hébert, is adaptability. It is defined as being able to change in mid-course when things do not go as planned. A lot of gifted students have difficulty with this, especially those who tend toward perfectionism. If things do not go exactly as planned, it can cause a lot of stress and anxiety.

But a leader can adapt to any situation, and figure out how to change direction and move in one that will be more productive. How you can foster this with students is by having activities that require them to adapt. An example would be having them work on STEM design challenges. Choose ones where the best laid plans will likely go awry and a new solution has to be figured out. For instance, if the STEM challenge looks like this:

Challenge your kids to build a paper bridge that spans the gap between two stacks of books. Their only materials are sheets of paper and a couple of pieces of tape. Test the weight of the bridge with various items such as pennies or toy cars. When it breaks, challenge them to rebuild it to be stronger.

Now, add natural disaster challenges such as using a fan to simulate high winds, shaking the stacks of books to reenact an earthquake, or using wax paper on its surface to represent ice. These will force students to have to adapt and change their design to meet these challenges.

Even within your regular lessons you can challenge students to adapt. If students are in the middle of a math problem, change a number or the operation and have students figure out the new answer. When students are writing a persuasive essay, once they finish, have them write it from another perspective. In science, you can have students working on an experiment and then change a variable, challenging them to predict how this will affect the outcome.

  1. Develop grit in students

Angela Duckworth lauds the benefits of grit. It is certainly a skill that good leaders possess. How many times did Steve Jobs fail before coming up with the IPad? Lincoln was losing the Civil War in the beginning, but was willing to stick with it, changing generals several times before arriving at Ulysses S. Grant who turned the tide of the war. Martin Luther King Jr. had several setbacks in his journey to civil rights, facing danger, prison, and eventually an assassin’s bullet, but his dream lived on.

How do you teach this skill in kids though? Especially in gifted kids who early in their schooling career may find that things come easy to them. This causes issues later when they finally begin to struggle, but have not developed coping mechanisms to overcome these difficulties.

One of the best ways to teach students grit it to set them up to fail. I do not mean fail as in getting an F. I mean give them a chance to swing big and miss, and when they miss, work with them to try again with adjustments. This requires creating a classroom environment where it is not only OK to fail, it is encouraged. This is especially important with gifted children who are often afraid to take risks. But when they are willing to take them, they are able to accomplish amazing things.

Examples of this in the classroom would be giving them math problems that you know are above what they are capable of and seeing what they can do with them. Or having them try to solve difficult global problems such as inadequate water supplies, hunger, or war. Teach Shakespeare to elementary students or have them try to figure out how a piece of advanced technology works.

In order for this environment to work, the teacher has to let go of the notion of grading everything. If students think that by taking a risk it will affect their grade, they will be hesitant to do so. Students need to feel as though it is safe to take chances without the punishment of a bad grade.

There is no test students can take or book they can read to become accomplished leaders. They have to be given opportunities to actually lead. It is something that cannot be forced, however. Keep in mind, just as not all students are gifted, not all students are leaders. In fact, having a classroom with too many leaders can sometimes make things challenging in that no one wants to follow. It is important to identify those who show the skills of leadership and encourage them. Even if all of your students are not going to be leaders, the aforementioned skills will benefit them in other ways.

The author of the longitudinal case specifically points to L.J.’s participation in extracurricular activities and athletics helping him greatly in his development as a leader. He cites several examples including playing soccer and being elected to student government. The thing is, we cannot rely on these to provide leadership skills for our gifted students. Much like reading and writing, leadership is a skill we should be teaching across the curriculum. What can you do in your classroom to help with this?

Todd Stanley is the author of many teacher-education books. He served as a classroom teacher for 18 years and is currently the gifted services coordinator for Pickerington Local Schools (OH). You can follow Todd on Twitter @the_gifted_guy or visit his website at thegiftedguy.com where you can access blogs, resources, and view presentations he has given concerning gifted education.

The views expressed herein represent the opinion of the authors and are not necessarily the National Association for Gifted Children.