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What’s it Like to Be a Gifted Student in a Rigid Classroom?

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Rigid ClassroomI was speaking with a mother of a gifted son who was lamenting that her son was not allowed to draw, doodle, or read in class when he had finished an assignment or was bored. The teacher was afraid he would not be paying attention. It made me think of when I was a child and the only way I could attend to what a teacher was saying was to be drawing while listening. That thought made me recall this letter that I have saved in my old files that had been used as an example of what some gifted children experience in rigid classrooms. I saved it because I think it is very poignant and gives us pause to be more sensitive to what such students have to endure.

Dear Teacher,

Yesterday you got really, really, mad at me in class. I didn’t argue with you because that just makes you madder and being yelled at makes my stomach feel funny and I can’t think. But I want to say what happened. Maybe you will understand why it looks like I don’t pay attention in class.

You told us to open our books to chapter 4 and read silently. Then you asked everyone to put your hand up if we had finished the third page and Sean didn’t. You waited for him to finish the page. Then you told us to take turns reading out loud. When you got to me, I asked you what paragraph to start on, and you started yelling at me. You asked me a lot of questions but you didn’t let me answer any of them. You answered them yourself but the things you said weren’t true answers!

This is what happened. I started reading when you said. I finished the chapter and stopped because you get mad if I read any more. I didn’t get out another book because that makes you mad too. I didn’t doodle or do math or talk to Sarah or get up or walk around because those things make you mad. So I worked on my Greek in my head until you called on me. I tried to keep track of where the other kids were when they were reading. And I had the right page. I just didn’t hear where Kim stopped. Her voice is soooo quiet and the verb I was saying was too loud in my head! So it’s not true that I was daydreaming! And I’m not stuck up or arrogant or insolent or any of the things you said I was! I TRY to follow along but I CAN’T read that slowly!

You said you got mad because I was wasting everybody’s time. But I just asked “which paragraph”? Look at your watch and say it too. It takes 2 seconds. You could have said “the third paragraph.” That takes 2 seconds. I timed it too. Then Sarah and Amy R and Amy B would have 6 minutes to read aloud. Instead you yelled at ME for 6 minutes and they did not get to read anything!

Peter takes almost a whole minute to read “Ben heard the bear cough behind him.” I timed him. It’s a game I made up to pay attention instead of doing Greek or making up poems in my head. If I ask you what paragraph and you tell me, it still takes me less than half a minute for me to read a whole paragraph. So I guess I don’t understand why you are mad or why you used 6 minutes to tell the class what a bad stupid mean person I am because I wasted their time for 4 seconds. I think YOU wasted their time!! And I think YOU were mean to call me those names in front of everybody!

I want to do what you tell me! I don’t understand why I can’t keep reading at the end of a chapter. Or get out my other books or study my Greek. Or draw or doodle or write in my journal. But you don’t want me to do that so I don’t. But I can’t sit and stare at the wall. If I try to do that I just start thinking about something else! I don’t know HOW to not think! I don’t know HOW to read slowly! Please tell me what to do so it won’t make you mad at me all the time. And PLEASE don’t yell at me in class.


Your sad student,


If you have a sad story similar to Anne’s, with hopefully a good ending, share it with us. Otherwise please be aware, if you are educating gifted students, that they are functioning at a different level than most, that they are often forced to deny who they are in favor of fitting into an uncomfortable expectation, and that options that allow for choice and different paces will usually be of benefit to everyone involved.

All the best,

Dr. Barbara Swicord, Ed.D.
Executive Director, National Society for the Gifted and Talented (NSGT)
President, Summer Institute for the Gifted (SIG)

9 responses to “What’s it Like to Be a Gifted Student in a Rigid Classroom?”

  1. Meg says:

    When my daughter was in 1st grade, she started to tune out- writing notes on her homework about how it was all boring. Kids were learning how to read and she was reading Tale of Despereaux on her own. Her teacher asked why she wasn’t listening and instead of getting upset, her teacher decided to read the book on her own and every couple of days they stayed in together at recess and talked about the book. Her teacher loved the book as much as my daughter and the teacher decided to read it to the class so they could all talk about it. All the kids enjoyed the book. When they were done, they read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane and cried over it together. It was a magical year for my daughter, finding an adult who respected and shared her interest at school for the first time. She was also allowed to bring a math curriculum from home and her teacher let her do her own math while the class worked on their math. Because her teacher was so accepting, her classmates were too.

  2. Such a poignant, meaningful description of the torture these children go through, enduring boring class after boring class, and sometimes encountering incredibly insensitive teachers. Thanks for writing this.

  3. Danielle Fox says:

    This sounds just like my 11 yr old. Her dr recommended she doodle, write, draw, etc as well, but its not easy for others to accept. She will “daydream” as the teachers call it. I tried talking to her guidance counselor but she didn’t understand. So now we don’t tell anyone. That is sad. I wish she had a support system at school. I wish I could explain her “fast processing brain” and someone would understand and find ways to help her. Articles like this help me know we aren’t alone. Thanks.

  4. D says:

    This is heartbreaking and all too real. If you haven’t experienced it through being or raising a gifted child, I could see how people might not realize how truly damaging this is. This starts a huge snowball of negative events from the classroom, to the playground, to the parents of other children. All the negativity ending on the child’s shoulders who most likely already felt misunderstood, alone and out of place to begin with. I truly feel for anyone who is going through this right now.

  5. Ha, I’m an adult, and I am writing these types of letters (but with more advanced vocabulary to show off yet with crazy grammar and a lack of meaningful structure because that’s how gifted students are made to feel in rigid environments) to my old graduate school, Relay Graduate School of Education.

    On a positive note, sending them to camps similar to SIG (I’m a former alumni), does help a little. Too bad it was only the summer I had some freedom, but then I also consistently felt miserable year round because I was raised to work so much and get little support. Now I am barely working because, why bother? People will keep taking from me to the point of burn out.

    Luckily, websites/societies like this, do help me brainstorm–school’s schedules ought to be adjusted to reflect each individual’s pace–the afternoon could be more like “free or advanced play time” and study subjects like Science or Art or Health (e.g. Gym) where you get to apply concepts from Math and Communication. There’d be nothing wrong with students that needed to stay in their morning classes for some extra more individualized help with the basics.

  6. Marlo says:

    This was exactly my own experience in grade school. I spent most of my time in the hallway being punished. Fast forward to today in meetings at work. Same little girl is grown up trying to figure out how to pay attention and be polite to endless draw… It feels like swimming in molasses and my mind has to do other things waiting to be able to contribute unless I am unlucky enough to work for Someone who finds my compelling desire to contribute intimidating.
    When I was tested repeatedly in elementary and qualified for gifted – we had this discussion every year – my family didn’t want me to be isolated and labeled a “weirdo” because being a nerd wasn’t cool back then and wasn’t cool to my family who valued social relationships more. Please consider that your child is already isolated in their own mind and to not allow them to experience the freedom of full potential is as detrimental as being put in a “special” program. I hope we all continue to evolve from that thinking!!

  7. Barbara Swicord, Ed.D. says:

    It’s so wonderful that many of you have responded and shared your personal experiences about being or knowing a gifted person who has had to suffer through educational systems that just don’t understand how much damage is caused through a lack of understanding about how fast-paced and efficient minds work. I empathize with all of you and hope that by sharing your stories, you are helping to raise the much needed awareness that school’s need to increase their teaching empathy. I believe that understanding students from this human point of view, valuing their differences, and allowing them to be who they are will help in creating the empathy that is needed to ease the frustration on both sides of the struggle and, therefore, create schools that are improved environments where bright minds can not only endure, but excel. Keep sharing!

  8. Jens Lyon says:

    I can’t imagine what it must be like for gifted kids stuck in today’s rigid, drill-and-kill classrooms. They can’t read? Or draw? Or write? That’s pretty much how I spent my school days when I was a kid! If I were young today, I’d probably go nuts like that woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

  9. Lisa says:

    I have a sad story to share about a gifted teacher who lost her autonomy and ended up in a rigid school. It meant the end of my teacher career because I couldn’t stand what I was forced to do to my students all in the name of test scores.

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