If you don’t lead, how can they follow?

May 2014


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If you don’t lead, how can they follow?

It still happens at least once a year. I visit a principal, often one I have professionally admired in the past, and they say to me, “We don’t have any gifted kids at our school”, or alternatively, “All of our kids are gifted”. Where to start?!

Considering I’ve worked now for 12 years in gifted education, the past three running a charitable trust solely devoted to gifted students and their learning needs, completed my Master’s in gifted education, helped to write a curriculum for gifted students, run professional development and learning sessions and presented at national and international conferences on gifted education, these statements could seriously make me wonder what I’ve been doing!

But what I do know is if these statements don’t stop being said and believed, then our gifted learners will continue to be an under-served and under-valued sector of the educational population.


Setting the scene

The gifted are a group of unique individuals who exist in our learning environments, yet struggle to have their learning strengths and interests appropriately recognised and responded to. If we looked conservatively at five per cent of the 5–18-year-old population there are at least 40,000 gifted students in our schools right now–before looking at early childhood. These students are in your classes, every day. They are a group of learners who think and learn differently from their peers. Often they already achieve, but not always; however, when they do, their achievement can come without any great input. When our Ministry of Education talks about progress and achievement, gifted kids educators counter with ‘what about engagement’?

Engagement is crucial for learning but many of our gifted students have already disconnected from the process and lack the skills or mindset to re-engage. Progress, on the other hand, is hugely under-rated with our gifted, so much so it’s often not measured. Some don’t even collect data at the ‘well-above’ national standards level. Yet these learners have the right to be taught and to have the opportunity for a year’s worth of growth each school year, the same as any other child.

Sadly, my past 12 years have shown me this just isn’t always the case. My six-year-old may be reading at 10 years of age but at the age of 10 may still be reading at 10, maybe 12 if home intervenes or they ‘do it’ themselves’. As a result our gifted students have the high possibility of being our greatest group of underachievers. We just don’t know what they’re capable of.


The ‘too hard basket’

Many myths prevail about gifted learners, and that’s what they are, ‘myths’. There are also many stereotypes, some of which are engagingly true, but many that are not.

Gifted learners are often unfairly judged as already having a perceived advantage over other learners. A value tends to be placed on giftedness when there is none. A belief persists that you cannot be both gifted and struggling. Many a gifted student will use the quote “if this is a gift, can I give it back?” All these students and their families want acknowledged is that they have different learning needs.

The barriers to understanding and supporting this group are many: no clear definition, differing views on identification, minimal access to pre-service teacher education, lack of understanding about learning needs, nominal government funding and no advisory support for schools are just a few examples. Maybe worst of all, giftedness is invisible and this makes it easy for our educators to miss it or ignore it. The ‘too hard basket’ for gifted learners is a very big container.

So what happens if we don’t meet their needs at school? Top of the list: possible under-achievement, hidden talents and unrealised potential. For some, disinterest and boredom which may lead to slowing down, unfinished or un-attempted tasks or possibly deliberate misbehaviour. For others, an increased lack of self-esteem and self-worth which may lead to more serious health concerns, psychological and physical.

These students have the potential to excel in their area of strength but meeting their needs goes way beyond the academic. Human beings are social beings; we have a huge need to get on with and interact with others and when we do both of those things, we share. We share our interests, our passions, our strengths, and our journey. The happier we are and the more comfortable we are, the more likely we are to feel relaxed enough to learn, to develop and to share. Gifted learners who don’t have their needs met frequently fail to find like-minds, fail to feel valued, fail to find appropriate audiences to share their strengths with.


Who can change this?

Change that is meaningful and lasting needs to come from the top. Our principals may look for leadership from the Ministry of Education but our gifted learners are not a current focus. Therefore, the responsibility of change is in the hands of our own principals and senior management. These students shouldn’t have to keep waiting for an equitable education. Our senior managers have the ability to lead change in their school by having honest discussions with staff and undertaking rigorous review about what is actually taking place in their schools regarding gifted learners. The greater the challenge, the more deliberate the need for planned and targeted leadership. Educators need to feel gifted students are valued throughout the school environment and will model their professional growth and practice from their managers.

Our Ministry promotes Manaakitanga, leading with moral purpose: “Having a sense of moral purpose and a commitment to improved learning and social outcomes is not just about supporting and guiding students, it also involves a commitment to the professional growth and support of other school leaders and teachers.”


  1. Lead Change - do your job, lead by example, develop an understanding of giftedness.
  2. Problem Solve - know the challenges and be proactive in working through them.
  3. Use School Culture - demonstrate your commitment to equity for all learners.
  4. Use Current Pedagogy - read, ask, listen and learn, there is actually a wealth of information about this group of students.
  5. Implement Systems - find strategies to identify, develop and deliver programmes, plus evaluate and celebrate.
  6. Create Partnerships and Networks - use the specialists in this field to help. Why would anyone do anything alone?

It is possible!

It takes a brave person to stand up for unsupported learners, but also a strong one to stand up for gifted learners. You need to buck the system as our gifted attend school in a country where tall poppy syndrome prevails, where the teacher is expected to do everything for everyone in the inclusive classroom, where reaching the National Standards or just above is OK, where they are easy to ignore. The challenge to our school leaders is to examine your personal philosophy of giftedness. Gifted education has taught us much in the past about education and will do in the future. Much of what we accept as best practice today originated in the field of gifted education!

We know change doesn’t happen without effective leadership. We also know effective leadership takes courage. Do you have the courage it takes to openly support a group of very obviously at-risk students or are you happy for yet another generation of gifted learners to accept mediocrity as their ceiling? If you don’t lead this process, who will? Yet if you do, how many will follow? In the words of Gandhi, “Be the change!” 


Deb Clark is the chief executive of Gifted Kids. Prior to Gifted Kids she worked within the state system teaching Year 1–8, as a senior teacher and then deputy principal. She has played an integral part in the development of the Gifted Kids curriculum, the Identification Process for students and the growth of the programme overall. Deb has a Master of Education degree, with a focus on gifted, through Massey University and has completed a Graduate Diploma in Not-For-Profit Management Business Management from Unitec.

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