Charter Schools at 30: A Conversation with Members of the Founding Generation

On June 10, 2021, five people joined me for a conversation about Charter Schools at 30: A Conversation with Members of the Founding Generation. My guests were Linda Brown, Founder of Building Excellent Schools; Yvonne Chan, Founder of the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Los Angeles, CA; Howard Fuller, Founder and Board Chair Emeritus of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University; James N. Goenner, President and CEO of the National Charter Schools Institute; and Ember Reichgott Junge, Former Minnesota State Senator and author of the nation’s First Charter School Law. Each panelist was invited to participate because he or she has rich experience working in the charter school profession. 

Our dialogue centered around the 30th anniversary of the enactment of the first charter school law in Minnesota, as well as its challenges and triumphs. To gain insights into where we are today, let’s review data published by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools to see how far charter schools have come since 1991 provided in the table below: 

1991: Minnesota 

2021: 45 states plus the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico (states without a charter law – Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Vermont)

1991: Fewer than 1,000 students  

2021: More than 3.3 million students

1991: Fewer than 1,000 teachers  

2021: 219,000 teachers

1991: Fewer than 100 schools  

2021: 7,500 charter schools and campuses

Here are some other facts worth highlighting:

  • 69% of all charter school students are students of color; 
  • 61% of all charter schools are freestanding (i.e., independent); 
  • 29% of all charter schools are managed by a nonprofit network; and 11% of all charter schools are managed by a profit organization;
  • 59% of all charter school students receive free or reduced priced lunch; and
  • 58% of all charter schools are located in an urban area; 
  • 30% are in the suburbs; and 12% are in rural areas or towns.

Here are some of the questions that I asked of each panelist:

Ember Reichgott Junge: You worked on education issues before, during, and after your time in the Minnesota legislature. Your state became the first in the nation to enact a charter school law, and your role in that work was essential. Why did you pursue a charter school law? Why was the time ripe for this type of reform? Who was on board? Who was not?

Yvonne Chan: California is the second state in the nation to enact a charter school law, and you opened one of the first charter school in Los Angeles. Tell us about the “ah ha” moment when you decided to open the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center. What were the early wins you experienced? What where the early challenges you experienced?

James N. Goenner: You have played a leadership role in nonprofit organizations that advance charter schools, be it in Michigan or nationally. What attracted you to charter schools in the first place? How has your organization moved the charter school conversation with lawmakers, advocates and the business community? What is the most important issue facing leaders of nonprofit charter organizations (other than money)?

Linda Brown: You work in Massachusetts, one of the early charter school states. Your contribution to charter schools is through building boards to produce excellent schools. Why did you take this approach? What are some of the successes and challenges you’ve seen over the years as it relates to board members and charter school leadership or governance?

Howard Fuller: You are a former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools who used that experience to lay the foundation for charter schools to gain ground in that city. At the national level, your work with the National Alliance for Public Charter School and BAEO did the same. Given your focus on the role of black people (and others) in the charter school movement, what have we done well? Where do we have room for growth? How is your charter school in Milwaukee playing a role to advance academic and leadership opportunities for black students and adults?

Group Question: Charter schools have provided numerous academic, social, and economic benefits to children, educators, families, and the communities that they call home. At the same time, charter schools are under attack—by some former friends as well as the usual suspects. Knowing what you do today with 30 years of experience and hindsight, what should the current generation of charter school founders, educators, board members, nonprofit leaders, philanthropists, and charter alumni do to ensure charter schools are alive and well for another 30 years?

To watch or listen to this informative conversation, click here:

Changing the Culture of Education During COVID and Beyond

On the surface, the COVID pandemic is accurately labeled an incredibly difficult year for teaching and learning in schools. Albeit true, these difficulties may have also forged indelible improvements, forever changing the landscape of education as we have come to know it. The scope of the challenges associated with learning during a pandemic reach far and wide. They permeate not only classrooms but also living rooms. In an instant, and for the first time in many people’s lives, learning environments were forced to change. COVID compelled policy makers to provide emergency funds for schools; teachers to embrace technology as never before; and parents to increase their understanding of best practices in order to educate children. None of these situations are wholly negative; rather they each leave a residue of change that many hope will remain well after COVID is no longer a crisis permeating our schools.

During COVID, as students remained in the living room learning beside parents who were also forced home, traditional education roles were shifted. Educators learned to provide lessons in a variety of formats; virtually, hybrid, and face-to-face. Effective communication between school and home was re-emphasized and embraced by parents and teachers as a critical element of student success. 

Educators expanded their toolbox of engagement strategies and grew to use technology in meaningful ways to deliver instruction, assess understanding, and differentiate the various needs of each scholar. Parents expanded their role as facilitator, particularly at the younger ages, and motivator for the older students. Much of that learning, for teachers and parents, will transfer into the classrooms this Fall and increase the capacity of each partner. This new awakening of possible learning environments and roles means that learning will not be lost due to inclement weather, school suspensions, family emergencies, or extracurricular activities when scholars are unable to attend school. We learned that parents can motivate and educators can facilitate in unique spaces and places. The new formats that teachers have mastered will provide an alternative to teaching when face-to-face is not an option.  

The culture of teaching during COVID required a thoughtful process of teaching academic standards with a stronger purpose to identify what scholars need to know and how they will demonstrate comprehension of identified learning targets. This best practice of teaching existed prior to COVID but became essential as teachers pivoted to and from the various environments of learning during the unpredictable pandemic. Instructional leaders learned how to guide teachers through intellectual preparation of curriculum with deliberate abandonment. There is a plethora of information in each lesson of adopted curriculums. It is nearly impossible to cover it all, especially during the pandemic-induced learning situations. This necessitated that teachers dig deeper into instructional materials to get to the “nitty-gritty” of learning because teaching with a sense of urgency became paramount when virtual learning limited their time in front of scholars.  

Adaptability and resilience were positive changes students experienced. They took more ownership of their learning during virtual learning and became highly skilled at navigating various Learning Management Systems (LMS). Many students, along with their parents, developed the competency of being self-aware and self-motivated due to the need of having a stronger awareness of their education responsibilities. This is another residual component of COVID one hopes remains in the altered landscape of education. 

Another area of reflection each of us was forced to face was the impact from lost social-emotional support systems for students. As students’ lives were suddenly and abruptly changed, their connections were severed, literally overnight. Many students who had benefited from strong adult and peer connections at school became disconnected, and further isolated due to the pandemic. The worldwide rate of self-harm and suicide further codified our belief for investments in social-emotional staff trained to counsel and support students who may not bounce back once face-to-face school resumes. This change will be a silver lining in what was a dark time in our students’ lives. Moving forward, schools that leverage available resources may realize that serious commitments to mental health will result in long-term improvements in teaching and learning. 

Never has one issue been a greater catalyst for transformative growth in education in our country than the Covid pandemic. It is time now to look at what this wildfire of change has taken from our educational landscape, and what remains. We not only can, but will rebuild, better and stronger. We will realize that some of the barriers facing us during the pandemic have now become stepping-stones for our collective regeneration of ideas, strategies, and practices for teaching and learning.


Nanette Merrill began her teaching career at Baker Elementary in Baker, Oregon. Nanette obtained a Master’s in Math Education and an Education Specialist Degree in Educational Leadership and Administration. After 8 years of teaching, Nanette became an administrator at Baker Elementary in 2015 and served as the Principal. In 2018, she moved to Idaho and became the founding principal for Gem Prep Meridian and is currently the founding principal for the second Gem Prep Meridian school, Gem Prep Meridian North. Nanette was recognized as the 2013 Oregon Teacher of the Year and continues to provide her leadership and educational insights at the local, state, and national levels. 

Lessons Learned about Teaching and Learning During the Pandemic 

At the end of the semester, my students completed a survey about their experiences in my high school math classroom. I wanted to understand what worked and what did not in an effort to become a better teacher. As I read their responses and reflected on this school year full of changes, four lessons resonated with me about the culture of teaching and learning during a pandemic and beyond.

One of the questions on the survey was, “What is your favorite memory from math class?” Overwhelmingly, the students wrote about our circle time. This is a segment of class that we engaged in almost every day at the beginning of the period. I would pose a question that had nothing to do with math. I called each student’s name individually and every student had the option to answer or to pass. 

Before the pandemic, I engaged in circle time with students only once per week. Yet during the 2020-2021 school year, I found that we all needed this chance to connect more often. My students agreed. One student wrote, “I love all of the circle time discussions we had. As an introvert, I was really happy to talk to people without all the pressure.” Another student explained, “I like how in the beginning of class we talk about what’s going on in our lives or how we feel.” A depiction from an additional student included, “My favorite memory was having circle time and getting to share things with you and my classmates.”

Lesson #1: Now more than ever students need to feel connected to themselves, to each other, and to their teachers. Circle time took at least 10 minutes each day, but, in the end, it was vital to ensuring that students felt a sense of belonging in our classroom.

One of the reasons for the need for connection was that teaching during the pandemic was full of policies that promoted separation. Virtual and hybrid learning meant that students were physically separate in their own homes. Even when we returned to in-person learning, students were separated by mask wearing, social distancing, and strict seating charts. All of these policies were meant to keep us safe and healthy, but separation can limit communication. 

Students need opportunities to talk about their learning. Students grow by justifying their reasoning and critiquing the thinking of others. They learn by listening to their peers during small group work and whole class discussions. They develop understanding by analyzing, comparing, and contrasting ideas. Knowing these principles, I was intentional about students having chances to communicate about math.

Lesson #2: Communication cultivates learning. We must overcome barriers to communication by allowing students to have time to think privately, providing students opportunities to work in small groups where they may feel more comfortable talking, and asking students open-ended questions such as what do you notice or wonder and what do you agree or disagree with and why.   

Connection and communication help to build bridges in teacher/student relationships. I remember when one of my students, Kayla, appeared at my classroom door in tears midway through the spring semester. She admitted to feeling lonely and depressed. She had reached her breaking point. I reminded her of how loved and valuable she was as I listened to her share her most personal feelings before accompanying her to meet with a school counselor. It’s a conversation not unlike many conversations that teachers have with students all the time. 

Lesson #3: The relationships that teachers and students develop impact students’ abilities to learn and thrive. Kayla and so many of my students feel comfortable talking to me about life’s twists and turns. That comfort level impacts students’ learning. In the end-of-the-semester survey, students shared this very connection between teacher/student relationships and learning. One student wrote, “You have a great personality, and it helps keep us ready for learning.” Another student encouraged, “Continue being really nice and personal with students. It helps the learning when you feel like the teacher knows you.” An inspirational thought from a different student included, “Continue being so warm and friendly.”

Connection and communication lead to positive teacher/student relationships that have a tremendous impact learning. But how do we get there? How can we be intentional about building positive, lasting relationships that make a difference?

Lesson #4: Students learn from teachers who show that they care about them and want to see them be successful. There are so many uncomplicated, effective ways to build positive relationships with students: being committed to learning and using the correct pronunciation of students’ names, consistent warm greetings at the classroom door, prompt responses to emails, patience and flexibility in the learning process, and simply looking students in the eyes, listening intently, as they talk.

Teaching and learning during the pandemic has been full of some inevitable changes, but so many lessons about the culture of teaching and learning remain as significant ideals that we should continue to elevate in classrooms. Students need connection, communication promotes learning, relationships matter, and students learn from teachers who truly care. 


Dr. Cicely Woodard is an experienced teacher leader who has taught secondary mathematics since 2003. She has spent most of her career teaching in middle schools in Tennessee. Currently, her passion for students learning math content through relevant, real-world contexts is evident in her classroom in Springfield, Missouri where she teaches high school mathematics. She is a 2017 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching Awardee, the 2018 Tennessee State Teacher of the Year, and a 2019 recipient of the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence. In 2019, she also earned the NEA Foundation’s top honor, the NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. Dr. Cicely Woodard earned a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from the University of Memphis, a Master of Education Degree from Vanderbilt University, and a Doctor of Education Degree from Lipscomb University.


Hafa adai! My name is Dora Borja Miura. I am Chamorro. I am a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a teacher. I have been a teacher in Saipan for over 21 years. I have taught at the elementary level and am currently teaching at Saipan Southern High School. This blog is told through my eyes. 

“Sungun ha” is a Chamorro word that encapsulates much of how we live our lives in Saipan. It means, “endure”. I often heard it growing up from parents and aunts and uncles whenever a tough situation arose. As a kid, I was told to endure the hardship. It was not said to encourage us to simply accept the hardship but to inspire us to accept problems and figure out a way to resolve them. I was never allowed to complain about a hardship. I see this way of thinking in the classroom and I feel fortunate to teach     here, where students don’t complain about their situation but instead use this situation to figure out a way to survive and thrive. We have great students.

Three years ago, Super Typhoon Yutu hit Saipan and devasted our island, especially the southern part of the island, where the students I serve and I live. Our homes were flooded, damaged, or destroyed. Some homes were left with nothing but 4 walls while others were left with nothing but a floor. 

A former student of ours (my husband is a teacher too) called us during the thick of the storm for comfort as their roof was literally being torn from the rest of their house. With sustained winds exceeding 180 mph it was not possible to rescue them so we advised them to gather all their mattresses and to hunker down in their bathtubs until the worst of the storm passed. Others shared their stories of their families huddling in the one place in their house that was made of concrete in hopes that the winds wouldn’t touch them in there. Cars were being overturned, power poles and trees were crashing down and debris was flying all over the place creating a dangerous situation outside. Many had to leave their homes to ride out the storm in a shelter.

About a month after the storm, we resumed school. Our school was fortunate because the damage it sustained was relatively mild compared to some other schools (one school had to have tents erected by FEMA for their classrooms because their school building  barely existed). Additionally, we were able to partner up with our community college: in exchange for use of our buildings in the evening for their classes, they supplied us with generators for power. For many, school was a haven. 

While most of the island had no power, our school had a generator for our school hours. Students came back with smiles on their face, despite their situations at home. One such student, I’ll call her Angela, bounced into school eager to see her friends, get back to her books, and join the efforts of bringing up the school spirit, especially during this time. 

Behind her bubbly smile was    a young lady who lived in the storage room in the restaurant where she worked (thanks to the generosity of her boss) or in the front seat of her car with her father because their home was completely devastated. She didn’t want anyone to know of her situation because  she believed she could “sungun” it. She spent weeks living in this situation before we found out. Her family’s personal belongings were being stored at a friend’s house but circumstances didn’t allow for that situation to last for too long, and at that point, it greatly affected Angela. My husband noticed a change in her demeanor and asked her about it. She then shared her situation. We helped her by storing her belongings until they were able to find a more permanent shelter. 

There are many stories like this that speak of the culture of resilience of our students, our families, our people. For many, this resilience was re-awakened and strengthened during Typhoons Yutu or Soudelor. So, when times get tough, as they are now during the recent pandemic, we only need remind ourselves and our students that we are Yutu-strong and that if we can survive Yutu, we can survive and thrive in any situation.


Dr. Dora Borja Miura, Ph.D. teaches Math at where she serves as the Math Department Chair. Dr. Miura is an AP Seminar Teachher, a 2015 Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, and the 2016 Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI, also known as Saipan) State Teacher of the Year.  

In the classroom, she aims to establish community and inspire her students to bring that sense of community outside school doors as far as they are willing to go. At home, she is a wife of an amazing educator, mother of 16-month old, and an avid pogo player. In the community, she works with a phenomenal team to promote and inspire a love of mathematics in the CNMI through MathCourt competitions.

awakened and strengthened during Yutu or Soudelor. So when times get tough, like they are now with the recent pandemic, we only need remind ourselves and our students that we are Yutu strong and that if we can survive Yutu, we can survive and thrive in any situation.

Teaching Differently: Your Story Matters

I was that child who crafted mental stories when on roller skates, when tossing Barbies into the oak tree, and when leaping down the length of backyard landscaping beams like the Olympic gymnast I knew I would be. I was also that child who was diagnosed with a rare eye disease that would erase my vision little by little, who left home at age eleven to live at a residential school for the blind, and who became an anorexic perfectionist believing that if I achieved enough, somehow I wouldn’t feel as if my spirit were being annihilated. Then I survived. And, then I became a teacher.

What draws someone to the classroom and what keeps someone there are not always the same thing, but I am a believer that those two narratives are each stronger when allowed to be interwoven. As a blind English teacher in a public high school classroom, I became a teacher because of my story, and I remained a teacher because of my story. The unchecked imagination that characterized my childhood pulled me deeply into reading and writing, so it was natural that English became the beloved subject that I wanted to unlock for my students. Similarly, a degenerative eye disease, my disrupted family structure when I departed for the blind school in sixth grade, and mental trauma leading to an eating disorder made me intensely empathetic concerning how much my students were experiencing outside of school. I could no more keep my story from influencing my educator identity than my students could set down what was theirs from outside my classroom.

My students never once cared about my differences as much as some adults. For my students, I was the dramatic, silly, compassionate, word-loving dreamer who led rambunctious games of “Blind Pictionary,” who typed a full single-spaced page of feedback for each creative writing story, and who visited them in the hospital when they were ill. Not every adult who surrounded me embraced that storyline, including the mother who stood up during my first open house and told me her child should not have to be exposed to my blindness, and the colleague who said that I won my first teaching award because of the judges’ pity for my disability.

What if we educators inventoried our life experiences the way we gather professional achievements on a resume and owned those life events as valuable pieces of our story? Could we not be better at meeting the needs of our students if we deliberately reflected about where we’ve been? Wouldn’t some of the unhealed debris left over from our past start to feel less like pain and more like practice for lifting up our students? Isn’t it possible that we ourselves might be happier, healthier, and more whole?

Here is the formula I envision: “Because I experienced this, I remember what it is like to feel this, so when my students experience this, I can be the teacher who does this.” “This” acknowledges that our stories are neither linear nor one-dimensional. “This” acknowledges our power to make our stories have meaning. “This” acknowledges that the next chapter awaits.

I didn’t become a good teacher because I am blind. Instead, because I am blind, I became a teacher who understood fear, loss, and hope, and that understanding these things is good. I became the teacher who could tout the value of noticing things because I knew how noticing leads to witnessing miracles, such as the melting sherbet colors of a summer sunset: I can still write about that sunset now, years after seeing it, and my students can do the same. I became the teacher who helped name a future guide dog puppy with the last name of a student who was the aspiring Olympian (swimmer, not gymnast) I never actually was, so I proudly honored her hard work by meshing it with soft puppy fur and a lasting legacy. Those things are part of me, so it seems natural to make them part of my teaching.

I wouldn’t be the teacher I am if I weren’t blind: it’s part of my story. It might be my super power. It isn’t inspiring, though, not any more inspiring than the stories of any educators who use who they’ve been to inform who they can become for their students. I don’t think that is teaching differently: I think that is teaching authentically, and I know it matters.


Kathy Nimmer is the 2015 Indiana Teacher of the Year and a finalist for 2015 National Teacher of the Year. She received the Dollywood Foundation’s Chasing Rainbows award, the NFB’s Blind Educator of the Year Award, and the Hasbrook Award, a lifetime achievement honor sponsored by Bosma Industries. Among other previous honors, she was named Sagamore of the Wabash in 2014, the highest civilian honor in Indiana. 

Through a Lilly Teacher Fellowship, Kathy wrote and published an anthology called Two Plus Four Equals One: Celebrating the Partnership of People with Disabilities and Their Assistance Dogs (2010). This followed a book of poetry called Minutes in the Dark, Eternity in the Light (2006). Kathy taught English at Harrison High School in West Lafayette for twenty-eight years and currently serves as the mentorship program leader for new educators in Tippecanoe School Corporation. She is also a frequent motivational speaker at local, state, and national events. Kathy earned her BA in English Education from Trinity Christian College in 1991 and her MA from Purdue University in 1992. Her life is grounded in faith, family, friendship, and creativity.


Creating a Culture of Professional Learning for Teachers of Special Needs Students

So often, being a special education teacher feels like you are teaching on an island. You are in a school with other teachers, but there is this sense of isolation that hangs over our profession. That isolation can impact not only our teaching, but our students as well.  I say this because it can also heavily impact our own culture of learning.

We teach in a world where our classrooms don’t fit the model of the model classroom and our students don’t have the needs of the average student.  What this also means is that we, as professional special education teachers, don’t have the same needs for our professional learning as the average teacher.

Our IEP-driven classrooms, created for the needs of our students, most often determines the professional learning we receive. My previous district was a county-level classroom for students with severe and multiple disabilities. A student only showed up in my classroom if the local district could not meet their particular needs.  It would be fair to say that we had some of the most complex students in the state. This meant that my professional learning was almost always tied to incoming students.

Because my classroom was home to some of the most medically fragile students in the city, my professional learning (PL) was targeted to strategies to teach students who were visually impaired, or who suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or brain damage.

When I look through the notebook where I kept track of my professional learning hours at that job, I see an isolating trend: hour after hour of district-provided PL, for seven years, and the bulk of it was focused on how to complete official paperwork.

Since I taught all subjects, where was the PL to make me a better Math teacher? Or Science educator? Or Art instructor? Why do the general educators have that kind of PL while I am excused to do paperwork?

At that job, my culture of learning was trapped inside a bubble. Though I expanded my skills and knowledge, it was often tied to a singular student who would eventually leave my classroom. I am extremely well-trained in how to teach and support my autistic student who is blind, but my need for those skills, and all those PL hours wrapped up in those skills, goes out the door when that student graduates.

If you need a parable, imagine you are the best Volkswagen mechanic in town, but you work at the Ford dealership. You can still change oil, rotate ties, but your intricate knowledge of how that precision Volkswagen engine works lies untapped.

That is the special education bubble that we educators often find ourselves trapped within. And, it is a bubble that can easily be burst in this day and age.

The Internet has given many teachers the ability to find their own professional learning. At the job I previously mentioned, I was not allowed to go to conferences. My classroom was so complex that it was difficult to find a substitute. On one occasion when I did attend a conference, I was called back to school by lunch time.

This modern era of communication can set a special education free. It is too easy for paperwork to dictate how we grow as teachers. I can do an IEP on three different systems, but the teacher who got to attend the conference on how to teach Math is a better Math teacher than me.

By nature, every teacher is conscious of creating a culture of learning both for their students and for themselves. Professional development providers had to take their offerings online during covid. For the art teacher in you, that means you can take an online course on elementary art. For the science teacher in you, you can find a how to adapt science for every learner in your desks. And just as important, you can grow your strengths in every area, not just on how to do paperwork.

NOTE: You may notice, in this piece I say “autistic student.” I do this because many autistic people see person-first language (“student with autism”) as demeaning. Here in the United States editors insist on person-first language so I use both in an effort to create a conversation around labels and how we use them.


Brett Bigham is the first special education teacher to be named Oregon State Teacher of the Year. He is a two-time National Education Association Foundation Global Fellow and was named one of their Educators of Excellence. Brett creates field trip supports called Ability Guidebooks. These books help autistic people visit cultural destinations. There are over 170 of these books in 40 countries and in six languages. 


Building a Culture of Learning with Gifted/Talented Students and Families

In schools, our most advanced learners know that we often value compliance more than meeting their needs. As a lifelong educator, who has spent years supporting students’ gifts and talents, I’ve seen and heard students talk about being bored out of their minds when they know the answers, but are never called on by their teachers. Early finishers tell me that they are criticized for failing to include a small detail in their assignments or are scolded for being jumpy and unfocused.  Persistent questioners are muted when their inquiry veers the class off of the lesson plan. Exhausted students spend their time listening to adult lectures about respecting others, sitting up straight and waiting their turns instead of learning exciting new things. We have to do better. We have to take on the challenge of building a culture of learning that allows our students’ gifts and talents to flower.

But most students who are advanced in a given area, when compared to their peers, learn to sail through school, by artfully complying with teachers or by pasting on a smile and nodding at teacher talk. They do what they need to do to survive in schools that are not built for their above-level learning. As educators, I’ve found that we are so focused on making sure our struggling students meet their proficiency goals, that we let our talented students slowly wilt on the vine, unseen and unheard.

Many parents realize that their own high ability child’s needs are woefully unmet in school so they do whatever they can to enrich their learning outside of school, but they also dream of a day when they can get more help. Other parents don’t even recognize that their children have an unmet need for advanced development because their child doesn’t come in the package of what one might see as a successful learner. Neihart and Betts (2010) offer us all help when they describe a series of six learner profiles in a matrix they called “Profiles of the Gifted and Talented”: The successful, the creative, the underground, the at-risk, the twice exceptional and the autonomous learner. Looking at and reflecting on these profiles is helpful to educators and parents alike because the matrix explodes the myth of the compliant and eager “gifted learner” and helps us all look at people we know in our own lives who fit into part or all of the profiles. It’s a useful tool to reflect on who needs help with advanced learning of many kinds and it may inspire us to plan for the development of services and support that fits diverse advanced learner needs.

The “successful” learner has learned the game of school and doesn’t cause any trouble for teachers, but they are often not pushed to their level or fully engaged. The “creative” student finds an outlet where they can express their surging gifts.  The “underground,” – frequently a middle school girl – is often in hiding, afraid of being seen for the gifts and talents they once enjoyed showing off. The “twice exceptional” student is a person who has multiple exceptionalities – great potential in a given area, but also learning needs that need remediation or support. The “at risk” student is one who may not even realize how much potential they have. I think of this student as a Ferrari engine in a VW body. This is a student who can become so invisible that they can fall right through the cracks or even burst out at the seams. The autonomous student is off building a computer in a garage or creating a track for a rock song. Their grades are the least of their concerns because teachers and school are not where they find affirmation.

If we take a moment and close our eyes, I am sure that parents and teachers can picture someone who fits these categories. Once we see these learners in our schools and homes, we must be called to action. The National Association for Gifted Children created a Gifted Children’s Bill of Rights that includes a child’s right to “learn something new every day,” to “make mistakes,” and to “not be gifted at everything.” In order to build a culture of learning for all of our students, we have to spend as much time thinking about how we develop their assets, as we do work together to remediate their deficits. We have the opportunity to ignite endless potential, if only we take the time to see, support and grow our childrens’ gifts.


Dr. Maryann Woods-Murphy is an educational consultant focused on the areas of talent development, equity and inter-cultural understanding within a deep context of social and emotional learning. In addition to being named the New Jersey Teacher of the Year in 2010, Maryann served in the U.S. Department of Education as a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow in the Obama administration. Maryann regularly presents sessions or keynotes at regional or national conferences, is an active educational blogger and has been named a leading educator in the Education Civil Rights Alliance inaugural cohort. For the past 21 years, Maryann has co-directed an anti-racism conference for high school students called: “Teens talk about Racism”. Maryann holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Spanish, an M.A. in Spanish Literature, a Diploma de Estudios Hispánicos and an Ed.D. in Teacher Leadership.