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With the Eyes of a Teacher (THP Fall 05)

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With the Eyes of a Teacher

Mary Ruth Coleman, Ph.D.
Director, Projects U-STARS and ACCESS
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Teachers are special people - there is no doubt about it. Every day we have the lives of our students in our hands. Every day we have an opportunity to help our students grow and thrive. Every day we have a chance to nurture the potential of our students, helping them to be their best. Potential, "existing in possibility: capable of developing into actuality" (Webster's 9th, 1987), is both strong and fragile. An acorn has the potential to become an oak tree, but it can also become squirrel food. Potential is not a guarantee of success, rather a promise of hope. As you look at your students this year, think of your role and how their possibilities can become realities.

The eyes of a teacher are so important because teachers are often the first to spot the potential in their students. Teachers also provide the nurturing support and advocacy needed to ensure that this potential grows. Recognizing and nurturing a student's high potential is the first step to identifying giftedness, and thereby providing access to services and guiding educational planning for the gifted learner. The identification of a student as gifted is a means, not an end (Coleman, 2003). It is a means of ensuring that students receive the support needed to help them thrive in school and beyond. It is also a means of measuring and documenting specific needs to guide your planning and programming for individuals and groups of students. But identification can be a tricky business. Here are some reminders to help us make sure our identification processes reflect best practice.

 Does the identification process . . .

  • Factor in multiple types of information about the student (e.g. cognitive abilities, academic achievement, performance, creativity, interests, motivation, etc.)?

  • Incorporate information from multiple sources (e.g. teachers, parents, the student, and others that know her/him well in addition to assessments and work samples)?

  • Include a review of all relevant data and information about the student's needs (both cognitive and affective), the student's strengths and weaknesses, and her/his background and experiences?

  • Gain information across multiple time periods to look at growth and progress;

  • Use an inclusive process for screening and referral that focuses on a proactive "talent search"
    approach vs. an "elimination" or "sorting" approach?

  • Result in placement decisions that reflect an appropriate educational match for the student?

Effective Teachers See What Others Miss
Teacher referrals are often the first formal point of entry for the identification process and so the teacher's perceptions are critical. With a teacher's eye, we see our students every day and through our observations we come to know them. We also learn about their family situations, their interests, and their habits. Because our knowledge of our students is often deep and comprehensive, we are likely to be able to recognize the indicators of potential that others may miss. We may recognize the "hints and clues" that show that a student has hidden potential (CEC/TAG, 2001). Being able to see these hints and clues is particularly important in the recognition of gifted children who are underrepresented in our programming - those who perhaps do not test well, or do not show consistent patterns of high performance. Students from culturally and linguistically diverse families, those from economically disadvantaged families, and students with disabilities are often missed when we employ strictly traditional methods of identification (Castellano, 2003; National Research Council, 2002). The complexities of these students and their circumstances can make it harder to see their gifts and talents, and this is why the teacher's eyes are the key.

Be On the Lookout
What kinds of signs should we look for that a student has outstanding potential that is latent and must be nurtured? We might see

  • Uneven performance with outstanding performance in some areas, under some circumstances, and at some time periods;

  • Interesting or unusual questions being asked;

  • Creative or unexpected responses to questions or tasks;

  • Strong engagement with areas of high interest;

  • Outstanding achievement on tests with little or no performance in classwork or homework (or the opposite pattern, with strong daily performance and weak performance on tests!);

  • Other students seeking this individual out for help, and/or seeming to follow her/his lead;

  • Strong involvement in activities that occur in the community or outside of the school setting; and

  • Advanced reasoning or problem solving, especially when activities are presented with a "hands on" approach.

The students whose gifts are the hardest to recognize are often underachieving in school, and this underachievement further masks their gifts (Siegle & McCoach, in press). The only hope for them is that a teacher will see their potential in spite of all the student has done to hide it.
The identification of giftedness starts with the recognition of potential and progresses to the formal assessment of the student strengths and needs. Identification is a dynamic process and should be reviewed frequently to ensure that students, particularly those who are vulnerable to being overlooked, have the opportunity to be considered and included. Appropriate identification is essential, because it is through the identification process that students are matched with services to help their potential move from possibility to reality. As we begin this school year, all things are possible if we start with an open heart, with an open mind, and with open eyes to help us see the potential of our students for success.


Castellano, J. A. (2003). Special populations in gifted education: Working with diverse gifted learners. Boston: Pearson Education.

Coleman, M. R. (2003). The Identification of Students Who are Gifted. (ERIC Digest #E644) The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. Retrieved June 15, 2005, from

Council for Exceptional Children. The Association for the Gifted. (2001, April). Diversity and developing gifts and talents: A national action plan. Reston, VA: Author.

National Research Council. (2002). Minority students in special and gifted education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Siegle, D., & McCoach, D. B. (in press). Making a difference motivating gifted students who are not achieving. Teaching Exceptional Children.

Standards Icon ColorThe information contained in this article aligns with the following Gifted Program Standards:

Program Design 6
Student Identification 1, 2, 3, 4

Click here for a complete copy of the Standards (PDF).


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