The sun is shining and a new day has begun. The teacher centers herself before the students arrive, preparing her body, mind, and spirit for the day ahead. She has a keen awareness of herself and realizes each day must begin with a specific routine; otherwise she feels disconcerted. She begins by assessing her energy level to determine what she needs before the day begins. She prepares her material prior to class, but uses the morning to prepare mentally for the day ahead. She also takes a quiet moment before the students arrive to consider what their needs may be and how she may come alongside and serve them. She is the servant teacher.
She was hired to teach the pullout program for her neighborhood gifted program. The students in her gifted classroom spend one full day a week with her for enrichment opportunities. She has both an educational background and experience in serving gifted students. Thanks to her education, her experience, and the wisdom of her Personal Learning Network made up of gifted educators, she realizes that best practices in gifted education can benefit all students. Her school provides her with instructional support, but she wants the school to adopt her ideas throughout the district because she wholeheartedly believes an educational revolution is needed to change the hearts and minds of both teachers and students. She believes that continuing to plant seeds with hope and intention will cause other teachers to notice she is doing something differently and ask how they can do the same in their classrooms.
She knows the students as she knows herself, and she is in tune with their individual needs. She keeps detailed notes on each child are in her computer, and they are accessible to her from anywhere. She has data on the students’ unique interests and aptitudes, strengths and weaknesses, and learning and personality profiles. This allows her to conceptualize the learners in order to meet them where they are in the learning process. She has been with this particular group for several years now and has built a relationship with their families. She has a history with these families based on mutual trust and respect. Parents trust her as a steward of their child's time, space, and resources; she takes this responsibility to heart. She is the families’ ally in the educational journey.
The teacher moves through the space in her classroom. Like an architect, she has designed each space with a different purpose in mind. As she passes through the classroom, she makes sure to flip on the power stations to make sure that all of her computer and audio-visual equipment is ready to go. Next, she visits each unique area to be sure the proper tools are in their places so students have the materials they need in order to do their work. She notices that the printer needs to be refilled and that the art supply station could use more construction paper. Like most students, gifted students thrive on order in their environment, and she is mindful of that when she “zens” the classroom, her way of purposefully preparing the space so everything is in its place. The classroom space speaks volumes, and she wants to be sure it is free of distractions when students arrive. She adds a few apples and oranges to the fruit bowl, and the room is ready for the day.
She is aware that she must create spaces to meet the wide variety of learning styles within her classroom. There are formal learning areas with conference-style seating as well as informal learning areas with soft, movable spaces that students can enjoy alone or with others. The spaces are suited to meet individual learning styles, projects requirements, and moods. The teacher realizes that gifted students, especially students in the profoundly gifted range, tend to be introverted and need quiet spaces to rejuvenate, and that they sometimes just prefer to work alone.
The teacher prepares the content prior to the students’ arrival in class. She is aware of each student’s learning contract, and she aggregates content that she will either push out to the students or offer as direct instruction. She trusts that students will also pull in their own information as their independent study projects move forward. Students have the necessary training to find the resources they need in order to move through the independent study process systematically. The teacher has a large personal learning network she can access when a student’s needs move beyond her own expertise. She is masterful in her ability to connect her students with passion-area experts.
Although students arrive at different times throughout the morning, the teacher builds community by greets each student by name with warmth and enthusiasm. Students are valued for who they are, not for what they can offer the classroom. The teacher knows her students better than she knows her own content area. She recognizes the tired looks on the faces of the students who are night owls and worked late into the night on their projects; she sees those early risers who probably made progress before arriving at school this morning. She understands their strengths and weaknesses, and teaches to their strengths whenever possible. She knows that gifted students flourish when they are encouraged to focus on their strength areas. She empathizes with the self doubt of one young man and offers encouragement and reminds him of past successes as he prepares to seek reelection in the upcoming assembly later that day. “Ren, remember when you conquered your public speaking fear and presented your findings to the school board? That is evidence that you have what it takes to present your campaign materials confidently at the upcoming assembly.” Her students trust her to believe in them, even when they do not always believe in themselves.
The teacher understands her own weaknesses and humbly asks students to help her grow in those areas. “Riley, could you please show me how you are using Tumblr for your blog? You are using it in creative ways that I have experienced before.” She learns as much from her students as they learn from her, and they appreciate her noticing their unique skills and abilities.
Students enter the secure space and prepare for the day by choosing their work, deciding what goals they would like to set for themselves based on their individualized learning contract, and choosing the tools they need to reach those goals. The teacher provides a high level of autonomy in the classroom. Students are energized by the choices before them. For some, this might mean firing up their Mac and working on their iMovie. Others might be gathered around a surface computing device, learning anatomy by pulling back the layers of skin on the virtual cadaver they are controlling with the touch screen. Small groups of students might be storyboarding an idea on the wall-to-wall whiteboard space, capturing their ideas in both words and pictures. Individual students may be reading from a book or an e-reader, or listening to the latest podcast by an expert who shares their passion. Students may access a variety of tools based on their individual learning styles, the learning requirements, or their mood when they walk through the classroom doors. For all students, the resources aggregated by the teacher and brought forward to the students, means unrestricted access and complete autonomy within the learning architecture the teacher has built.
As the students work, the servant teacher seamlessly glides around the classroom, quietly listening to needs expressed through both words and actions. She checks in with students about where they are on the learning continuum, because many of them have moved further along in the project between the time they left school and arrived back again this morning. This empathetic presence demonstrates a deep understanding of the gifted child and expresses appreciation for the curiosity and wonder they bring to every learning experience. “Grace, you are on the right track. Your layout is visually pleasing, the content is easy to follow, and the graphics in your invitation pop. You may want to add some vocal spice by adding a sound bite to your invitation. You have a beautiful voice and it might add that extra something that you feel is missing. Let me know if I can help.” The teacher is fully present when students need her, offering specific feedback on their work. Her presence is calming and her encouragement authentic.
She is masterful at guiding students to the appropriate tool for the job. Like a builder, she realizes that a framing hammer would be a better option than a sledgehammer in situations that require more precision. She gently persuades students to consider the best tool for the job at hand — which may or may not involve the use of technology.
By mid-morning all of the students have arrived, and they gather for a morning meeting. This generally takes place in one of the soft spaces around the classroom. The meeting consists of the group members’ reconnecting with one another and sharing any particular needs, challenges, or successes they have. This sacred time is a chance for the group to build community.
At times, the morning meetings become a place of healing because classroom culture promotes authenticity, genuine caring, and respect for every student. The teacher encourages the healing process, perhaps healing brokenness in students caused by years of feeling alienated and radically different from their age-appropriate peers. The students know when to speak and when to listen. They are trained in the art of listening from a young age; that knowledge comes from a shared commitment to active listening that is promoted both at school and at home. The students value this process because it is through listening that they truly understand those around them, and they are truly understood.
The teacher listens to the students’ words as well as their body language. When the students are ready, she shifts the conversation from one of healing to one of action. Students share their action plans and commit to their accountability partners for check-in time later that day. The volume in the classroom during the morning meeting is like a wave, and when the wave hits the crest, the maximum point of positive energy before it comes crashing down, she celebrates their time together with high-fives all around and turns on a familiar song that signals to the class that they are ready to move back into independent study.
Gifted students are more different from one another than they are alike, but in their gifted class, they can likely find an intellectual peer with a shared affinity. Students are independent workers, but they are also interdependent with others within the classroom community. The more experienced students help the less experienced students, and that interchange is different from project to project. These interchanges are evident during the work time. The gifted scientist may help the struggling artist when they are studying anatomy, but the artist might become the mentor when they create sketches of the various organs. Every member of the community, including the teacher, contributes their unique gifts and talents to others within their sphere of influence. They are committed to each other’s growth.
Not only does the teacher see the big picture, but she also has the foresight to be mindful of where children are on their learning continuum and where they need to go. She offers wisdom to move them along the learning journey toward greatness by encouraging them to build on their unique strengths, rather than focusing on their weaknesses. She notices a younger boy needs inspiration to take a difficult step required to move his project to the next level. She gently touches his shoulder and points up to the banner on the wall above them. “Talon, look up and reflect on the quote by Harriet Tubman as I read it to you. ‘Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.’ I know you can do this.” While nurturing the student’s gifts, the servant teacher encourages the child to dream great dreams and begins to help conceptualize the picture of unrealized potential.
Throughout the day, the teacher manages the content delivery to her students. If direct instruction is needed on a particular topic area, students have choices, so they can pull the information in a form that best supports their learning style. For instance, Grace needs to know how to mail merge her invitation and send it to her audience. As a visual learner, she can access the screencast her teacher recorded last week with step-by-step directions on how to complete the mail merge.
The teacher also has the capability of pushing the information to individual or small groups of students based on student needs. For instance, Ren and Riley both need to know how to capture their audiences’ attention with a strong opening paragraph. Their teacher realizes that their projects are completely different, but at this moment they both need exactly the same content.
The boys are encouraged to move to a space in the classroom where they can interact with one another comfortably, and the teacher pushes to their mobile device a podcast outlining how to grab a reader’s attention, followed by practice scenarios for mastering the skill. Directly following the podcast, the boys practice together using the scenarios provided. Finally, they craft their opening paragraphs for the content areas they are working on. The teacher understands that hands-on learners need a safe place to practice before creating their content. Once they are confident, Ren writes his opening lines on his notecard, and Riley transfers his ideas directly into his blog with the option of turning his content into a podcast of his own.
Finally, the teacher would like to push a live lesson to the entire group. “Class, I realize that all of you have plans for posting your projects to the class wiki. There is no need to move; please just take out your personal device or move to an area where you are connected, and I will walk us through the process.” For students out of earshot due to illness or travel, this message comes in a text format over their mobile devices. The servant teacher understands that her learners may need to access this content again when it is time for them to upload their projects. She uploads the content from today’s lesson into an online library of resources that are housed in a permanent location in the cloud.
The servant teacher understands the needs for frequent breaks and is adaptable based on the needs of her students. Although there is not an established time for rest in the classroom, students can take breaks when they need them. Some students take a much-needed break from their work to enjoy lunch, while others prefer a working lunch. The schedule is based on each student’s individual needs, which change from day to day, month to month, and grade to grade.
The afternoon continues in much the same way it began, with the teacher managing the ebb and flow of content and the students driving the learning based on their skill, ability, and energy level. The teacher realizes that for a short time, she has been tasked with the great honor and responsibility of stewarding these gifts and helping each child reach his or her full potential. This teacher pushes students to practice critical and creative thinking, uses higher-order thinking skills to solve problems, and seeks out information through inquiry. She encourages students to take risks, make mistakes, and seek innovative solutions to problems. The students are ultimately responsible for the learning, while the servant teacher is responsive to every student.
Like a train engineer, a wise teacher realizes it is very difficult to stop a moving train, and a lot of energy is required to get it moving again. It is much more effective to slow it down or speed it up when needed. Ultimately, keeping this type of learning train at a constant speed requires the least amount of energy. Keeping students at a constant speed throughout the day requires a fluid connectedness between the content areas and the elimination of distractions. Hard stops, like breaks between classes or long periods of teacher-driven instruction, can disrupt the students’ state of flow. Flow is present when a student is free of distraction and has ample time to work on an area of passion in an environment conducive to learning. Flow is the state of learning the servant teacher strives to create for each student.
Students say their goodbyes throughout the course of the afternoon, and the school day is over. The teacher feels rejuvenated even though her day was full because the school provides her with trained educational support personnel supporting her throughout the day by joining her in the classroom and enabling her to rest when needed. She understands that in order to give to her students fully, she must take care of herself first.
With another day behind her, she takes a few moments to reflect on her day, jot down important notes about where students are in the learning process and what the next steps may look like, and note the things she is grateful for: her students and their families, her school, and her ability to serve. These are all precious gifts to the servant teacher.
This classroom is far from traditional. Students are not bound by time, as is evidenced in the structure of the beginning and the end of the day, which is based on the needs of the students. The content is student-driven, and projects are chosen by the students. Students are encouraged to work on real-world problems that require critical and creative thinking. Rather than discussing an imminent collision of Train A and Train B both leaving the station at 3:15 p.m. and traveling at 60MPH, students are on a collision course for autonomous learning and are served up by a teacher who listens, heals, empathizes, understands, conceptualizes, plans, stewards, commits, builds a community, and provides tools and training that empower students to arrive at their desired destination — on time and ready for the next leg of the journey of life. This is the life of a servant teacher.