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That Annoying Student in your Class May Actually be Gifted

So many children have to hide their gifts to be acceptable to the world. I’m not talking about those stellar learners who make their teachers’ and parents’ eyes shine, the ones who have learned the game of school and who dot every “i” and cross every “t” to get the grades that will move them through to meet their goals.

I’m talking about children who annoy teachers and challenge parents, whose gifts run through their bodies like fire, making them leap out of their seats to share an insight or confer with a classmate about a matter that seems urgent to them.

Once while visiting a classroom, I saw a teacher’s eyes narrow and say:

“No child looks at me that way! Assume the position and read your book right now!”

“What did I do?” the child protested, surprised.

“No talking back! If you keep it up, I’ll have to call security!”

And so, he slunk back into his daily drudgery, finally compliant.

I’ve felt like that teacher on days when I cared more about the success of a carefully planned activity than how it affected the students. I’ve ignored potholes in the road to lesson goals, forged ahead when things weren’t going well, and felt aggravated at my students when they didn’t conform to my plan for them.

And, I have not enjoyed listening to that smarty pants who thought that he had better ideas than I did.

It isn’t about me, I finally realized. This class belongs to all of them.

Students with gifts come in all kinds of packages. In the incredibly useful matrix, “Six Profiles of the Gifted” by Neihart & Betts (2010), we can see that children with gifts are not alike. Neihart and Betts offer six profiles to help us all understand the many ways aptitudes may present in a child. When I look at the profiles, I can recall students I’ve taught and ways my colleagues and I have tried to help them learn.

Type 1 -“The successful”student profile reminds me of Nicole, a girl with glittering eyes whom every teacher loved. Even though Nicole produced beautiful assignments that fulfilled all requirements, when we got into deep discussions in class, she would raise her hand and ask, “Is this on the test?” I often wished that Nicole would take on some of the challenges I knew she could handle if she weren’t so worried about being perfect.

Type 2 - “The Challenging” makes me think of Rodney, a student who took pleasure in correcting his teachers and brushing  away praise, as if he were allergic. One of my colleagues was successful with Rodney because he discovered that writing was an outlet for Rodney’s rebellious streak and that calling out injustice was his special strength.

Type 3 - “The Underground” student was Mary, that bright star of an elementary school student who suddenly stopped bringing her big fat books to school to devour at recess. Mary’s peers were not as interested in school as she was, so she just started to conform to their styles, attitudes, and hobbies. I noticed the changes in Mary and tried to gently help her imagine a future where she could use her gifts while keeping an active social life.

Type 4 - “The At Risk” student makes me think of Pepé, a student who would spend time chatting after class about history or writing, but who did not care about grades or other opportunities in school. Good thing the math teacher noticed his extraordinary ability and convinced him to join the math team because he began winning local competitions. A few of us worked to share what we knew about Pepé with his future teachers in order to create a system of support.

Type 5 - “The Twice or Multi-Exceptional”  student was Anastasia. She was like a Ferrari engine in a V.W. body, with needs and gifts living in the same human. Her desk was a hot mess, but her design for the new cafeteria was the best one in the school. We found that Anastasia needed both extensions in areas of strength and support in areas of challenge. Her school counselor made sure that conversations in meetings built awareness of her aptitudes and challenges.

Type 6 - “The Autonomous Learner” was Sofi. Sofi finished her work quickly and was happy with a grade of “B.” After school, however, Sofi went home and threw herself into playing the guitar and singing in a local rock band. Her songs were deep and hauntingly mature. Sofi understood how school worked and decided to focus on her music and on a rich network of friends who shared her interests.

Though no student fits neatly into any one profile, I have found that it helps to think about young people I know as complex arrays of gifts and needs. So often, I’ve noticed that we spend so much time worrying about what’s wrong with students that we miss having the important conversations about how best to develop their aptitudes. Maybe the difficult child who glares at the teacher or makes life miserable for parents is someone who will broker peace in times of war, design a more sustainable future, or help heal our hearts. We need to ask ourselves what aptitudes are hidden in plain sight because we are looking at lack, not at assets.


Maryann Woods-Murphy is an international Talent Development consultant who taught for 38 years in New Jersey schools. She is also the 2010 New Jersey Teacher of the Year, the winner of the Martin Luther King Birthday Celebration Award, a 2011-2012 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow, an America Achieves Fellow (2011-2015), a member of the Board of Directors of the National Education Association Foundation and a former Director of the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Woods-Murphy earned her Ed.D. in Teacher Leadership at Walden University in 2016 with a study on the way New Jersey teachers improve schools. She has co-chaired Teens Talk about Racism for 21 years with retired science teacher and Civil Rights Icon, Theadora Lacey. In her free time, she writes, travels, and spends time with family, especially her grandchildren, Olvyia, Victorya and Joseph.





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