Advocacy versus Curriculum


This post is part of the New Zealand Gifted Awareness Week Blog Tour.

When it comes to getting schools to do something for gifted children, the problem is sometimes not the teacher but the curriculum.

The use of the term ‘advocacy’ outside of legal circles is a fairly new one in Ireland.  The rise of social entrepreneurship, single-issue politics and singularly devoted campaigners has brought the term into common parlance. You can find advocates all over the place nowadays and that’s  a good thing. However, in an ideal world we wouldn’t need advocates. Sadly, this is not an ideal world. Many parents of school children now ‘forced’ to call themselves ‘advocates’. In times past, they were ‘simply’ mum or dad and schools got on with their business as usual. For parents of gifted children however, business as usual  was not an option. If their child’s needs were not being met within the education system, they invariably sought support and in doing so, automatically became advocates whether or not they liked it. All well a good. But there are many different kinds of advocates.

The most effective advocates are those who realise that the system is as it is and that it has to be worked with. This doesn’t mean they don’t want to change it nor that it can’t be changed.  They realise the limitations of the education system but nonetheless work to change it in a structured way. They use the system to change the system.

Another type of advocate is what I call the ‘selfish advocate’. I realise this may be a controversial term but hear me out. The selfish advocate is the one most likely to be accused of being a pushy parent. The sad thing is its not that they are pushy that is the problem, it is how they go about pushing to have their child’d needs met. I have never met a teacher who did not want to do all they could for each of their students. There are times when arguments, complaints or differences of opinion arise, but most teachers are concerned with the welfare of each child in their care. But there can be up to 30 children in a classroom. So when a parent approaches a teacher or school and creates (even if false) the impression their child is the only one that matters, teachers and schools switch off.

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This is not to say a parent should not advocate; they should. A parent’s first duty is always towards their own children. This works well at home. In school, where there are many more competing demands and responsibilities, something has to give a little.

 

So what is the problem?

Even if we solved the obvious problems such as pervading myths about gifted chldren and lack of training, there is still the issue of the curriculum to consider. And a curriculum can take a very long time to change.

All teachers are constrained in what they do by a curriculum. The No Child Left Behind policy in the US just happened to explicitly name what happens in most school systems. Teachers are under pressure from principals and parents to make sure they ‘cover the course’. In Ireland, if the curriculum is not taught to completion, it has a knock on effect down the line on a child’s chance of getting into university (I’m deliberately ignoring functional literacy and numeracy here for the purposes of this argument). Of course, the need to teach all of the curriculum is really driven by the examinations system which awards points for university entrance based on how well a student has learned the curriculum. The point system doesn’t look like it is going to change radically anytime soon so the importance of Leaving Certificate exams (end of high school) will remain.

And so too will the demand that teachers ensure every child has been exposed to all parts of the fixed curriculum. So when the gifted child parent is asking for more of everything, teachers are still trying to ensure everyone has gotten the minimum required.

I am somewhat fortunate because as both a very experienced teacher of both gifted students and average students, I can see how the gifted child’s needs can be addressed in the mixed ability classroom while covering the curriculum and not disadvantaging other students. But teachers, with no explicit experience of gifted children and, as in the case of Ireland, no formal Initial Teacher Training in giftedness, are harder to ‘sell’ to.

In this context, it is better for advocates to try change the system from within rather than going (in some cases, storming) into parent-teacher meeting to make all sorts of demands that their gifted child knows the school is not in a position to do anything about. However sad that is.

I don’t expect that that makes for comfortable reading. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be there to read. However, schools are conservative institutions with relatively fixed systems of doing business. This has many advantages, except when one wants to introduce something new, and in particular something that looks like more work. However, teachers aren’t afraid of more work; they usually afraid that they don’t know what to do with a child for whom they had no training. But once they are aware, in my experience, they usually go looking for guidance and support.

What can parents do?

Getting on the PTA, a Board of Management or a Governing Body is one way to begin to approach recognition of gifted children in school. Joining your energies with other advocates (in Ireland) or in the case of New Zealand which work to develop gifted awareness also yields dividends.

But the most important thing to do is to develop a positive relationship with your child’s teacher right from the beginning. That’s what you would do anyway but it is worth saying. Often parents only hear from a teacher when there is a problem. Teachers are often too busy to make regular contact (it is easier at primary level). But there is no reason why a parent can not contact the teacher with something positive to say. Even better, contact the principal. The importance of positive contact cannot be underestimated. The dreaded ‘confrontation’ that I have heard so many parents speak about is not a confrontation if there is a positive relationship. That sounds simple and individuals realities will be similarblogtour2 but will still have failed. But unless you try, you never know what might have been done.

I will return to this topic another time. It was interesting to hear that while the education systems in New Zealand generally recongises gifted children, parents there have similar issues to Ireland. New Zealand has had gifted awareness events for several years now and while no one event is a magic wand, collectively they add up. Certainly this has been the experience in Ireland over the last 3 years. So, here’s to New Zealand Gifted Awareness Week!

by Peter Lydon