Gifted Awareness Week New Zealand

This week coming New Zealand is hosting its annual Gifted Awareness Week – a time when we hope to reach more eyes and ears in an effort to alert the general population to this special group of people in our community – the “gifted”. In many ways they have been prone to losing the use of their gifts or having their uniqueness shunned through general ignorance of those around them. I once told my course supervisor in post-graduate Gifted Education, Tracy Riley – “I will never really feel like I have passed this course (despite the A’s she gave me in some projects) until I have learnt to live with my husband! He is creative-gifted; he didn’t know ‘why’ he was different until I came along when he was 43 and recognised all the traits from my studies, and then life began to take off in a new direction for him! His culture around him had always been in putdown mode, but now he was in a position to fly.

I never fully understood the term “culture” until I landed smack in the middle of a Samoan village three months ago and had to deal with differences in language, food, clothes, weather, housing and just about every other thing I had taken for granted back in New Zealand. I think many gifted children must have a similar experience upon entering school. What they knew as normal – nurturing one-to-one, questions promptly answered, inquiring into the “whys?” and “hows?” of nearly everything they saw, and parents with the time (even if stretched) to nurture their search for knowledge, suddenly replaced with a single teacher amongst a myriad of chattering kids who don’t seem to know nearly as much in their five short years of life!

Just the same as I can’t expect a young Samoan boy to understand what I am doing or saying in English (and sometimes I have to put up with the sniggers at the ‘palagi’) so we can’t expect the gifted child to fit in to a neat box called a ‘mainstream classroom’. I must learn a little Samoan language to gain some respect of the locals (Manuia le aso, “Have a good day” has worked wonders for me!) The gifted child needs to understand how a regular classroom differs from ‘home’ and what to expect when they enter school. And please, the teachers need to know what to expect from their new ‘bundles of energy’ so they don’t take things the wrong way (from parent or child alike)!

Just as the Samoan boy will start to see, understand, and accept my ‘palagi’ ways with the guidance and help of his parents, so will the peer group in the classroom will start to see, understand, and accept the child who thinks differently to them, with the help of their teacher.

When we talk of equal opportunity for the “gifted” in schools, we do not mean equal inputs for all. This equity is based on the individual’s starting points and looks at equality in ability to advance for all. This will mean a different type of input for all – depending on their speed of learning, their most beneficial style of learning, and the outcomes expected. All cultures have their ways of ‘knowing’ and ‘behaving’ and the decision on what inputs are needed rests with those who know the individual cultures best. Parents are an immediate resource in this area, and should not be overlooked, especially in minority cultures where specialist expertise might be rather thin.

Many South Pacific Island cultures favour ‘giftedness’ not as an individual trait but as a talent that should be used for the benefit of the community. They see all members associated with the ‘gifted individual’ as having helped that person reach their goals, and in their culture of sharing, they share in the success as well. Individualistic talents are rarely highlighted, except maybe if you make the Manu Samoa Rugby Team – then you are ‘the man!’ Even the awarding of matai titles (hierarchical leadership titles) is for the benefit of the family as a whole.

Programmes aimed at raising leaders can be far more acceptable than individual acceleration in personal interest subjects. Traditions need to be passed down from one generation to the next, and it is often seen that a village that possesses a unique skill will ensure the children learn it to keep it alive. This can be seen most emphatically in the bowl-carving village of Uafato – where bowl carvers work tirelessly from Monday to Friday ready to take their bowls or weapons to the Saturday markets in Apia, to sell. Children at a young age can be seen copying their parent’s skills with a chisel. One day, when they are old enough, and their carving is refined, it too will sell at the markets.

Sometimes it is not until we move out of our own comfort zone that we are willing to accept there can be another way of doing things. Teachers have the responsibility to grow and nurture all sorts of individuals in their care, so they need to be the most well informed people. Not until teachers have met, discovered and understood gifted students will they be able to beneficially help them in a mainstream classroom to reach their capabilities. Gifted Awareness Week to me needs to address the lack of awareness among our front line teaching staff first. Yes, funding is an issue, but funding without teachers willing to implement the programmes is uneconomic. Once the teachers are on board, then they too will raise their voices for funding as well, and the swollen effect should make a bigger statement. Only when they are on board will there be a difference made for the benefit of our gifted kids in the classroom.

I had to learn to live with my creative-gifted husband whom many had misunderstood, and written off, before we could truly flourish together and became all that we could be as a married couple! I am pleased I pushed through the barriers – it has given me life up in a tropical paradise, trail-blazing many roads to assist a third-world country, post-tsunami.