As a district coordinator of gifted education for over two decades, I was continually surprised by the frequent exclamation, “I sure wouldn’t want your job!” Although the reasons given for this utterance varied, the underlying sentiment reflected the perception of the difficulty of the many demands that confront an administrator of a gifted program.
The administrator of the gifted program (AGP) could hold any one of several professional roles in a school system: it may be the designated coordinator of gifted education at the central office; it may be the superintendent or a principal; perhaps a “lead teacher,” or it may be the individual teacher who is the gifted resource specialist in a school.
Whatever the person’s position, the AGP has at least three identifiable roles to fill: advocate, manager, and leader. The degree to which an AGP recognizes these very different skill sets and operates effectively within each of them will determine to a large extent her overall success. Because these roles can approach being mutually exclusive in their purpose and function, significant turmoil if not outright conflict may be the result in the absence of a multitude of skill sets. Awareness of the distinctions of each role can lead to better understanding and result in a reduction of conflicts.
Advocate: One distinct role of the AGP is that of advocate: a person who argues for a cause, a supporter or defender who pleads on another’s behalf. Gifted education has grown through recent decades as a direct result of advocates who entered into the political arena to gain benefits for gifted students. AGP’s usually enter the field of gifted education because they perceive the unique needs of this population and work diligently to address them. Parents sometimes lose sight of the fact that the person across the desk from them might be their best ally and support as an advocate for the gifted, and the encounter becomes an adversarial one because the existing procedures and regulations do not permit what the parents want. This can be incredibly exasperating for one who becomes an AGP to help gifted students but is unable to improve things for them in the short run.
Manager: AGPs are managers because they direct, exert control, and supervise the implementation of a school’s gifted programs. In describing their managerial role, many AGPs identify the following requirements; they need to be:
- As familiar as the best psychologist about tests and assessments, their scores and interpretation
- As aware as the best guardian ad litem about eligibility, identification criteria, and placement decisions
- As accomplished as the best teacher at developing curriculum and leading instruction
- As capable as the best accountant in the developing a budget and distribution of resources
- As discerning as the best human services director in interviewing and hiring teachers for the program
- As skilled as the best journalist in writing procedural documents
- As informed as the best politician about the prevailing attitudes among various stakeholders
These attributes are all necessary components to gifted program management, and important to providing stability to the services it provides. A good manager does things right. Consistent and equitable decisions must be made regarding eligibility and placement, services, and resource allocation.
Leader: The successful AGP is not only a proficient manager, but must demonstrate leadership, as well. A leader is one who guides, directs, or shows the way by going in advance. Warren Bennes characterized the difference as, “Managers are people who do things right. Leaders are people who do the right thing.” Being a manager is about continuing to do the right things and maintain the status quo. Being a leader is about breaking through the quo after it has lost its status. This often means rocking the boat, looking for innovative ways to improve the current situation.
AGPs who are leaders have to constantly assess the current program structure with an eye toward what is needed to improve the program. AGPs must know the current research findings that can guide future program development, as well as emerging best practices in testing and assessment. They must guide the development of curriculum and evaluate the outcomes of learning experiences that prepare students for future careers and roles that do not yet even exist.
The chief difficulty of being an AGP lies in managing the dynamic tension between these two forces: that which compels change and that which seeks to maintain. The successful AGP is aware that every decision and every act supports either one or the other. Being aware enables the AGP to make a defensible choice – defensible in the sense that the reasons can be articulated in order to help all of the stakeholders understand the why behind the choice, so that even those who disagree will understand why that choice was made.
An advocate has to engage in the political process of crafting policy for gifted students. For the AGP however, the advocate’s desire to provoke change—the change that is the goal of the leader’s vision—must be balanced with the manager’s responsibility to implement the current policies as structured. At least, that is, until that change can be brought about.