Hey, Teacher, Get Help Somewhere Else: Gifted Kids as Perpetual Tutors

Hello, readers,

Thanks for joining us for the second in a series of posts on students who are gifted, their education, and their experiences. This particular topic is especially important to me because growing up, I was a “gifted” student. I was also classified as twice-exceptional, but that’s a topic for the next post.

This post might be a little shorter than others, but it addresses a topic I think parents, educators, and students should be aware of: the trap of making the student who is gifted a perpetual “teacher’s helper.” That’s pretty self-explanatory, but I do think we should talk about it, for a variety of reasons. These reasons include, but are not limited to:

  • The teacher’s helper syndrome happens so easily it sometimes goes unnoticed. That is, often, teachers see their “best” students, the ones with the highest grades, and think, there’s got to be a way to include these kids in everyday, general ed activities. (And there is–see the previous post). The problem is, these same teachers often have 25-30 kids to teach, nurture, and, let’s face it, ensure the physical well-being of. (The gentle way of saying, make sure the darlings don’t kill each other and themselves in the course of the school day). Out of that 25-30, only one or two might be gifted. And the teacher might not have the resources to make sure those one or two can work at their level consistently. So what happens? They think, “have them help the students who don’t ‘get’ a concept.” Boom–the students who are gifted stay involved, the other students understand concepts better, and everyone benefits. This can also be the setup if a teacher has several different learning styles and levels in one classroom. That is, he or she might conclude, through simple math, that the kids doing the best in a subject should always be the leaders or the tutors. And yes, the students who are gifted need to learn to help others so they don’t fall into the pattern of feeling and acting superior. But the tutoring solution is a “quick fix.” Why? Because:
  • Teacher’s helper may = social stigma.I’d venture to say that teachers and parents fear their child who is gifted feeling superior, and thus becoming–might as well say it–an arrogant little genius nobody wants to play with. It’s a legitimate fear; even the most well-mannered kids can do it, if for no other reason than self-protection. I know; I sometimes used my knowledge of big words or correct grammar to try to shut up kids who already teased me for other reasons. And it doesn’t work. But the solution is NOT to make the student who is gifted a permanent “teacher’s helper” and say, “They’ll learn to socialize that way.” Uh, no. Now, don’t get me wrong; friendships can be formed from that kind of alliance. But what can also happen is, the other kids see the “tutor” and start to think, “Wow. Julia really is better than me” or “Wow, now I REALLY hate Faith. She’s a teacher’s pet.” So the student who’s gifted ends up alone not because of his or her own attitude, but because of perceived arrogance that doesn’t exist, or because other kids are intimidated.
  • Where there’s a tutor, there’s a tut-ee, and they’re usually the same kids. (Yeah, I know “tut-ee” is not technically a word, but it kinda fits, so forgive me this once). 🙂 Ahem. Back to the topic. If you see a classroom where a few students are picked out to “help” other students “understand” material, all the time, you’ll probably also find a lot of the same kids need the help. This may not be a stict one-to-one relationship; the kids who need help in English might turn around and become the “experts” when it’s time for science. And in that kind of situation, study buddy systems may work better than usual. But even then, teachers run the risk of seeing kids in the same pairings all the time. Or, more disturbingly, they run the risk of having group A always be the, ahem, A-list group, while group B always needs extra help. The result? The kids who need help may start feeling like they’re singled out as “bad” or “dumb,” while the A-list group gets superior or gets tired of helping. (Remember, these kids are kids, not junior teachers). And even in the best study buddy situation, if the pairs are not changed up, teachers may hear kids complaining that they always have to work with the same people. This may cause animosity; the kids may not even like each other. Or it could cause cliques; if your study buddy becomes your best friend, he or she could quickly become your only one.
  • “Perpetual tutor” situations means kids in the middle get lost.Somewhere along the line, I think we got the idea that to be average–say, the B’s and C’s student who stood out in other ways–was somehow not good. The kids with straight A’s, or the “special” kids who needed help with the basics, deserved all the attention. (I think we got that idea once kids stopped going outside to find their friends, and stopped eating cupcakes because of obesity concerns). Understand that yes, kids on either end of the spectrum do need attention, and sometimes, it’s more attention than the “middle kids” get. But the danger here is that our “middles” get lost. Their standout characteristics aren’t nurtured as much, if at all, because they don’t need “special” education, but they haven’t got the grades to be teacher’s helper. So they just sort of float. And then we look up and wonder, “Whatever happened to Fred?” We shouldn’t have to ask.
  • Junior teachers have a fuller plate than regular old kids. I’m not saying for one minute that this always happens. But if a kid who makes straight A’s or shows “gifts” is placed in the permanent role of junior teacher, he or she may be expected to act grown-up in other ways, whether he or she is ready to or not. (Believe me, there are plenty of elementary-age kids who’ve skipped grades, but come home from middle or high school and still play with Hot Wheels or Barbies). Kids who are gifted run the risk of having expectations dumped on them from day one (just as kids with disabilities run the risk of having no expectations given to them from day one). Neither case is fair.
  • When only a few teachers exist, no one really learns the way they could. I’ve said it before and will keep saying it. There has never been and will never be such a thing as an ideal classroom. We can try, but we won’t get there. That being said, we should try. And what that means is letting kids of all levels–severe disabilities all the way up to highly gited–work together in a naturalized setting and in natural ways. That is, instead of one-to-one relationships of gifted/”special” teams, throw a couple of the “middle kids” into a group and let EVERYONE learn together. Let the kids who are gifted experience the worlds of peers who may not be geniuses, but all have other, just as valuable, skills and talents. And allow everyone to be a teacher in his or her own way, every day. As a saying on one of my favorite teacher’s walls used to say:

None of us is as smart as ALL of us.



  1. I have taught the gifted and have two gifted children of my own. I have used the teacher helper approach very effectively. First, it’s voluntary and a student does not “have” to help. They can read, finish other work, or work on an ongoing list of obj. in a Math program if they finish early. Interestingly the brightest can make the worst tutors. They have little patience with people who don’t “get it” quickly. That goes for adult teachers as well. It’s been sport lately to point out that teachers are not always from the top third or in some cases half of a high school graduating class. That’s not by accident. Ever tried to get computer help from an expert and come away with the feeling you’re a moron? Well that’s why the Kagan cooperative teaching model groups the medium bright with the lowest and the brightest with the second lowest. Natural social intelligence paired with a reasonable intellect can make a great teacher. Just like everything else there is a varying degree of giftedness. Highly gifted kids may show no interest in helping others or may not have the patience. So, using all resources in a class is essential for success which does include the students helping one another. I just make sure it’s used in a variety of ways and utilize Kagan Strategies to keep things fair and moving along.

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