As the chief executive officer of the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education, Deborah Walker leads a team of specialists dedicated to delivering opportunities for gifted learners they otherwise cannot access.
NZCGE also supports gifted students’ mainstream teachers and their parents, as well as advocacy in general for this cohort of learners.
Walker started out in the education sector teaching in the mainstream arena during the 1980s, in NZ, the United Kingdom and Canada.
“I was a deputy principal at an Intermediate for many years and won a New Zealand Multi-Serve Education Service Award for services to the school,” Walker shares.
“I was a jack of all trades with a passion for performing arts and sports and a bent for behaviour management and remedial intervention strategies.”
The majority of Walker’s teaching was in low socio-economic communities and while looking for her own diversification, she worked part time for three years in a Kura Kaupapa and also as a consultant for an educational resource making company.
“Delving into gifted education in 2002 was the first time I formerly specialised in any area and it was a huge and exciting learning curve, one I haven’t been able to look back from," she says.
Walker taught gifted children from 2002-2010, before stepping into the CEO role at Gifted Kids and then NZCGE.
With the Ministry of Education’s Professional Learning and Development (PLD) priorities changing over time, Walker says there is a need for a national organisation which keeps gifted learners as its main priority to ensure their requirements continue to be met.
“Conservatively there would be at least 40,000 gifted learners in our schools and preschools - they need a voice,” Walker says.
“There is minimal pre-service education around gifted learners and so school staff turnover inevitably means teachers are being replaced with new educators with minimal knowledge about understanding and meeting the needs of gifted learners in their classes.”
There is an ongoing need for PLD and advocacy and each school is expected to implement appropriate programmes for their gifted students, but their ability to do this depends very much on the training and capability of their staff.
NZCGE provides and continually updates its services to students based on up to date international best evidence practice and it has become an educational resource for our professional community.
As one of the 40,000-odd gifted students in NZ, navigating an education system that does not seem interested enough to create the kind of flexibility needed to cater for you can be difficult, Walker says.
“As a gifted child you are likely to experience the majority of your learning at a level not commensurate to your abilities and you will be forever compared to same age peers and therefore easily develop a sense of ‘better than’ and an awareness that minimal effort is needed.
“You probably will receive little new learning and little academic challenge in your strength areas and may fail to develop the ability to take risks and to overcome future failure.”
Schooling can be frustrating for gifted learners with its emphasis on part to whole approach to learning with minimal challenge.
Many teachers misunderstand gifted students’ learning, social and emotional needs, although occasionally there are teachers who will make learning appropriate and interesting, Walker says.
“Occasionally you will be put with peers who may be similar and this will feel like you’ve come home, unfortunately this is unlikely to last as others needs come before your own.”
Gifted students have the potential to achieve and some do because of who they are, but others will become our systems greatest underachievers – lost talent, Walker says.
Some gifted students are identified by high achievement, but there are many who are underachieving for their ability in NZ schools, and they are not engaged well enough with learning to demonstrate high performance.
Gifted children need to be able to be recognised by their behavioural characteristics rather than just by achievement results, and in the identification of students for NZCGE programmes, both performance and potential indicators are collected.
Research states the majority of parents, who identify their child as gifted, are correct so schools who listen to their parent community will have a head start of identifying gifted learners.
“Schools who undertake PLD in gifted education, who look at definitions and identification processes are far better able to identify gifted learners in general and misidentified gifted learners such as those who are underachieving, twice exceptional or from minority ethnicities.”
Collaborating closely with schools in NZ, NZCGE is working closely with seven clusters of schools as they establish and operate their own Centre of Professional Practice, delivering the NZCGE curriculum and involving their teachers in gifted education focused PLD.
These clusters have teachers who have been trained and mentored by NZCGE specialists and their own schoolwide PLD tailored to meet their needs and focus areas.
Communities operate in Invercargill, Dunedin, mid-Canterbury, Lincoln, Masterton, New Plymouth and on Waiheke Island and each community has purposely made a dedicated commitment to improving opportunities for their gifted learners.
Schools can refer students to MindPlus or Gifted Online and can become membership schools with access to specialist knowledge, experience and support, as well as reduced cost PLD – approximately 250 primary and intermediate schools nationwide have children attending either a MindPlus or Gifted Online classroom.
There are some simple measure teachers can take to assist gifted children (and their parents) at school, including listening to them, Walker says.
“Make room for children to learn at a different pace, providing access to accelerated provisions; ensure regular opportunities for strength-based learning and talent development; ensure new learning occurs and that there is rigour, depth and complexity in lessons; teachers can educate themselves about the continuum of provisions for gifted children and be brave enough to seek out appropriate provisions for individual children, including understanding the place and value of withdrawal programmes for like-minded learners; and be open to difference and to learning - gifted kids are diverse learners, no two are alike but there are similarities.”
NZCGE operates one-day-a-week specialist education programmes for year 2-8 students, MindPlus, Small Poppies for early childhood children, Gifted Online for those who can’t access a face-to-face alternative, consultancy of tailored services for education organisations and communities and a library of resources, which currently reach close to 1000 children and 250 schools.
There are three charities – NZCGE along with New Zealand Association for Gifted Children (NZAGC) and giftEDnz, the Professional Association for Gifted Education involved in national advocacy for gifted students in NZ.
These organisations work together for the benefit of the country’s gifted children and the adults who support them.
A highlight of this collaboration each year is Gifted Awareness Week, this year from June 13-19 – this year’s theme is Belonging.
“These children have a right, a need and a desire to belong, to fit in and to be acknowledged as having learning needs,” Walker says.
During this week, parents and teachers are invited to take part in a survey regarding gifted education in NZ.
Visit nzcge.co.nz for more information.
Support systems in NZ for gifted children
- Assessments through education psychological services
- NZAGC local branches with family events
- Local clubs and organisations that focus on particular talent development
- The Ministry of Education teachers’ manual (2012) and parents’ handbook (2008)