Should gifted kids be unpaid teachers assistants?

The books say no.  There’s no value, it isn’t fair to the gifted kids… and often gifted kids are impatient with other students or don’t understand why other kids find thing so difficult.  (This was not a problem with me, but my sister definitely had a problem with this impatience.) (So did #2.)

#2 is bitter about this topic.

So, #1 is conflicted… well, not really conflicted in that she knows what she thinks, but it is nuanced.

I do think that there is value in teaching other people things.  Most teachers say, and I believe, that you really start understanding something once you teach it.  I know t-tests incredibly well after teaching them for umpteen years in a way I didn’t before I started teaching methods.  So there is value to teaching things, even for the gifted kid.  Especially if the kid being taught asks good questions that force deeper thinking.  That’s a reason I strongly encourage my (equal level) students to work together in groups and why I had study groups in high school and college math classes.  Another reason is the benefits to banging heads against a problem together.

I like teaching.  I’m good at it.  I did a lot of volunteer tutoring, especially in math, when I was in high school, college, and graduate school.  (I even got paid for some in college.)  One of my joys in life is destroying math phobia and building confidence, especially in girls who have always thought the problem was them instead of bad teaching or missing background.  It’s something I have been doing for decades and would do without being paid for it if I had the time.

(#2 thinks teaching is the WORST part of my job.   I would never call it a joy.  I do not like it, though I am pretty good at it.  It sucks my energy and life-force.  In this area, we don’t seem to be as united as we usually are on this blog.) (#1: It’s like mushrooms all over again!)


Being directed by the teacher to “teach” someone who is struggling is not a way to be treated as an equal by your peers.  Not if they are never in a million years going to be able to return the favor.  Seriously.  (#2 adds: It does a great disservice to gifted kids to ignore their education in favor of making them repeat the same concept they already know at a lower level.)

It’s one thing if you’re being taught by someone who has already had a class, as in a TA or tutor position, or by someone you help out when they get stuck, as in a study group.  It is not the same when the “teacher’s pet” is constantly acting in the role of teacher-in-training but is still expected to be treated as a fellow classmate.  That’s not a way for the sacrificial teacher-in-training to make friends, but it is a way to be resented, and to create resentment in the teacher’s pet as well!

Study groups chosen by students:  AWESOME

Volunteer tutoring:  AWESOME

Teaching younger students or students taking a class the kid has already finished:  Great if older/more experienced kid is fine with it.

Unpaid forced TA labor teaching your peers in your class:  Not cool.  SO.  NOT.  COOL.

And don’t get us started on cooperative learning groups… sure, that may be a reason we’re so great at leading discussion classes… but at what price?  We hate them.

What do you all think?  Yea?  Nay?  Any memories?

p.s.  #1 thanks #2 for not actually killing her with projectile pencils.

37 Responses to “Should gifted kids be unpaid teachers assistants?”

  1. 101 Centavos Says:

    Agreed. Conscription rarely motivates.
    I also suspect that getting schooled or tutored by a peer is not that motivating either for the youngster at the receiving end.

  2. Spanish Prof Says:

    Sounds unfair to me, specially in elementary school. When I was in high school in Argentina (there, you are with the same people for 5 years, taking the same classes), it was different. Somehow, we got to know each other so well, and so did the professors, that they knew who was good at what. So I “taught” a lot of my peers in math and history (my two strong subjects), and I received a lot of help by my classmates in the sciences (where I was a disaster).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Was the teaching voluntary, or directed by the teachers?

      • Spanish Prof Says:

        They would split us in groups, but always make sure there was at least one “good” student in each group. So although it wasn’t mandated, it wasn’t exactly voluntary either. Curiously enough, I enjoyed it in History, but resented it in math. In History, I felt that I was teaching my knowledge. In Math, I felt that I wasn’t being challenged as much as I should, and that I was being hold back. Maybe that’s why I ended in the humanities and not in Math.

  3. Everyday Tips Says:

    Where my kids go to school, there is an open resource room where kids go to that need help, and kids that want to tutor go to to help others. Age doesn’t matter, it is just a place to meet up to help each other, and everyone is a willing participant. It works out great because it is everyone’s choice. (There have been times that someone asked my daughter to show up on her free block to help a particular person once in a while, but they know my daughter loves to tutor.)

    However, if it is in a classroom setting, and a child almost becomes a ‘second teacher’, then that is wrong. It takes the child out of the peer group, and the teacher is taking advantage.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, that’s kind of my take on it. I’ve tutored math since age 16 both formally and informally, but there’s a big difference when it’s voluntary for both the tutor and tutee and when it’s in the classroom setting.

  4. Becky Says:

    I completely agree that the in-class tutoring creates resentment. I experienced this in elementary school as well, and because I went to a small school it followed me through high school. I don’t think I was especially gifted; I just picked up on things quickly, and I like to help people. But my classmates saw it as me being “the smart girl” and the teacher’s pet. Sometimes I wonder if I would have done better in college if I hadn’t been viewed that way. Not that I did poorly, but I could have done better. I just didn’t want to be that girl any more.

  5. Mr. BP Says:

    Man, our school systems really are in dire shape if we need students to teach other students. That said, based upon some of my elementary teachers they might actually be an improvement in quality (j/k…for the most part). Is this actually becoming a common occurrence?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Well… neither #1 nor #2 were skipped any grades and we are both untenured PhD assistant professors… and we both experienced this in our separate K-8 systems. So it’s been going on for decades at least.

      My preschooler is also in this situation (one reason we’ve pushed for early K). I don’t remember it starting that young for me… not until 3rd grade. (In 1st grade we actually learned things, in K and 2nd they had me separated from the rest of the class and taught separately for much of the day.)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        (#2 is jealous that #1 got a pull-out program, even temporarily. I wish I’d had SOMEONE that bothered to educate me.)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Pull-out program? Ha! No, in second grade I sat by myself at the table in the back and did worksheets. In K they had a 3rd grader come in and teach me separate from the rest of the class. Honest to God.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        #1 continues: I was just isolated, that’s all
        at least I didn’t get in trouble for reading novels
        I read a LOT of chapter books in second grade
        but other than that no learning
        I wasn’t in the Gifted class
        because it was full
        even though when I got there I got a perfect on their placement exam which they had never seen before
        so poor Mrs. C didn’t know what to do with me
        I already knew all the second grade material
        #2: I would’ve KILLED for permission to read novels during class time!
        #1: yes, that was a benefit
        one I sorely missed in 3rd, and 5-8 grades
        #2: sigh
        #1: they even made me stop knitting in 6th grade
        #2: I hate the public education system in this country
        #1: ME TOO

  6. Little House Says:

    I agree that the gifted kids shouldn’t be forced to help the others out on a constant basis – it bores them. However, I’m all for cooperative learning groups if they are all working on a problem together. Yes, the “smarter” kids will get it first, but if you make it a point that all kids in the group must explain how they solved the problem, then the kids who didn’t quite get it begin to understand through peer learning experiences.

    I used a lot of these types of groups last year and I think it benefited all of the students.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Even if it benefits the smart students in the long run, I still resented the hell out of it. (#2 speaking here) But then, I am an impatient person. I really wanted to learn new things. I saw no point in repeating something I already knew, when I had a hunger to learn that was mostly unsatisfied in my elementary school and junior high school career. Also, the other students hated me, and I thought they were all dim bulbs, and that didn’t help matters any. As they constantly teased me for being too smart, I don’t think me “helping” them helped anybody. I saw it as a cop-out on the part of the teachers. They weren’t teaching me! In fact, they wanted ME to do THEIR job and teach other students. I resented it a lot, and still do. (Sorry for ranting.)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Don’t make us go off on cooperative learning!

        Suffice to say that the (hard research) evidence is that cooperative learning (the kind with mixed ability groups) works very well when you siphon off the very high IQ kids first and doesn’t work so well when one member is highly gifted rather than just above average. If any one member of the group can do the project all by him or herself and no other member can come close, then the learning objectives are not improved across group members. Cooperative learning works well without the gifted and LD and works poorly with the gifted and LD. (And cooperative learning projects can work well when given to a group of gifted kids, even if they are not of differing abilities. That’s why clustering the gifted kids into groups is often recommended when doing in-class work based on cooperative learning.)

        My memory of cooperative learning projects was of telling people what to do– generally I had them do the art. Because there was ALWAYS art. Even though we never got any formal artistic training. Other gifted folks of my acquaintance usually just did the entire project themselves with negative help from group members and resented the hell out of it.

        Also when groups are assigned… always two reactions. “Oh, I don’t want to be in a group with #1 she’s [insert epithet of choice here]” or “Oh we’re going to get an A because #1 will do the work.” Cooperative learning in middle school was traumatic.

      • Tracey Says:

        Oh, “cooperative” learning: the gifted child’s grade hinges on the entire group’s grade. The rest of the group knows this and knows the gifted child doesn’t want to fail, so they sit back and let the gifted child do all the work. The gifted child resents the other group members, the other group members laugh up their sleeves because they don’t have to do any work.

  7. Suzita @ Says:

    The research says this is why oldest kids consistently have slightly higher IQs, the fact that they spend so much more time teaching their younger siblings. But I’m not sure having a higher IQ is the goal. I know that being in groups with “annoying kids who aren’t listening” is one of the things my middle schooler hates most about school. He also doesn’t like it that they never put him in groups with his friends, because teachers tend to stratify groups.

    As long was bright kids don’t get burned out by teaching other kids, I say do it. But it seems to me that it is only “energizing and exciting” to them perhaps 20-30% of the time.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      #2: my problem was that I got burnt out on it around 5th grade. But then I still had to attend 6th, 7th, 8th grade…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The research is actually divided as to why first borns are so awesome compared to their less cool younger sibs (guess what our birth orders are). Teaching younger sibs is one possibility, but that doesn’t explain why onlies perform as well or better than oldest kids on most of these measures. A competing explanation that has some traction is the amount of time spent with adults. Younger sibs spend more time with older sibs and less time with parents and other adults.

  8. MutantSupermodel Says:

    Forced “helping” or “teaching” sucks plain and simple. You’re doing nothing but setting the kid up to be labeled the teacher’s pet and harassed the rest of their time in that school. I speak from personal experience and like #2 am totally bitter. Hmph!

    P.S. I have no problem helping someone out if THEY ask me but if my teacher’s forcing me to fix her problems, that’s so suckage.

  9. Anandar Says:

    I had a social studies class in middle school in which I was very explicitly asked/assigned (I’m pretty sure I was asked, but I was not the type to ever say no to a teacher) the task of helping a struggling student (very, very struggling– almost illiterate) get something out of the class. In that case, I think it was a pretty savvy move on the teacher’s part– it kept me busy, and improved my relationship with the other girl, who I had originally found “scary.” I benefited by exercising different social skills and learning about challenges experienced by kids who were in a different place academically. Of course, I have no idea what if anything my partner got out of it.

    But if every class had been like that, it would not have been such a good deal…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Wow, that seems really unfair. Someone who is struggling extra hard needs the most well-trained, experienced, professional help possible — the very best teacher, not some bright kid trying her best. I salute you for getting something out of it, but I wouldn’t have. I didn’t at ALL want to learn about “challenges experienced by kids who were in a different place academically”. One bright kid is not a remediation program.

      I resent the attitude that a teacher needed to keep you *busy*, rather than keep you *educated*. I personally would’ve hated that situation with all my might. But then again, like I’ve said, I am kinda cranky.

      • Anandar Says:

        I didn’t resent the teacher at all– she was pretty awesome, actually, but it was a rough school generally, and that particular class was a super tough crowd.

        Definitely agree that those who are struggling need the most well-trained, experienced, professional help, but when those who are struggling are the majority of the class, and resources are very, very limited…

  10. Money Reasons Says:

    Sounds like the gifted kids are being taken advantage of to me! I would hate if my little girl would have to teach other kids and not be paid…

    Besides, that’s a good way to make enemies in grade school…

  11. First Gen American Says:

    I never much liked teacher’s pets in school, so yeah, if a teacher singles out a student to do things for them, that’s not at all fair.

    Of course, there are students who want to be teacher’s pets and that’s a different story.

    My kid is in kindergarten so I haven’t had to experience this much just yet.

  12. What Broke Professionals is Reading: February 5 through February 12 | BROKEPROFESSIONALS.COM Says:

    […]  Nicole and Maggie: Should Gifted Kids be forced to be Unpaid Teacher Assistants? – This post really got to me, because it is as always by this site a fun read and very well written, […]

  13. bardiac Says:

    When I was in an early grade (I think 1st, but not sure), I was set to read with a boy from the Dominican Republic. (I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember his name, though I can still picture him and where we were sitting in the back of the classroom.) It was the 60’s, and retrospectively, I’m guessing that was the teacher’s best way of handling trying to get the boy some second language help. I didn’t resent it; I probably felt an ego boost, in fact.

    But, while it probably didn’t hurt me (I was extremely privileged in terms of being read to, taken to the library, and encouraged to read), I sometimes wonder how horrible it must have been for the boy. I can’t have done him any good, because I had NO clue what I was doing, and I was just a little kid myself.

    I wonder what became of him? (My grammar school cohort was bussed to around a lot for several years.)

  14. Schooling update: Spring Semester « Grumpy rumblings of the untenured Says:

    […] (quite excellent) preschool had run out of things for hir to do.  They suggested that DC become a teacher’s helper the next year as hir main activity.  At home ze had whizzed through all the magic treehouse books […]

  15. OMDG Says:

    We had teacher assigned groups in 10th grade geometry. Our own grade was based on how the other students in the group did, and it was actually impossible to get an A unless everyone else in your group got a B. My group-mates consisted of one student who refused to do any homework ever, and was pulling a D. The other student just happened to stink at math and never got higher than a C no matter how hard he (or I) tried. Somehow I was responsible for their performance, and (obviously) I found it tremendously unfair. At the time the teacher was praised for her “revolutionary” teaching methods, but I really just think she was lazy.

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