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Among the students we teach are many who demonstrate special talents. Some students possess talents they fail to develop, while others may have yet undiscovered talents that could propel them to success. Each of these students deserves our attention and support. However, despite the best of intentions, we can make mistakes, misinterpret situations, and misstep in our relationship with them.  

For some students, having a special talent can feel like a burden. For others, their talent can feel like their entire identity. Still other students may possess talent that is of limited interest to them. Our approach and support for these students can make a crucial difference in their learning experience and their relationship to their talent. Here are five potential missteps to which we can fall victim as we work with talented or seemingly talented students and accompanying “sidesteps” to avoid slip-ups. 

Misstep #1: Conflating a student’s talent with their identity. When students exhibit talent in an unusual or high-profile area, it can be tempting to see these students through the lens of their talent. In too many cases, the student’s talent becomes intertwined with their identity. Consider high-profile athletes who are seen as having physical talent but may not be assumed to have artistic interests or academic potential. Similarly, students with an aptitude for technology are often assumed to be introverted or singularly focused on coding, video games, and other technology-related activities, yet they may be outgoing, interpersonally engaging, and masterful communicators.  

Sidestep: We need to recognize the obvious talents these students possess while remaining attentive to other areas in which they may be talented or capable of developing new areas of interest, growth, and performance. At the same time, we need to encourage each student to resist accepting an identify that is defined by their talent. 

Misstep #2: Coaching and nurturing a student to develop a single, narrow talent. When we know a student has a talent in one area, we can make the mistake of assuming it is their primary—or only—talent. Students can have multiple talents, including those of which we are unaware or that the student has yet to discover. While a recognized talent may be a significant contributor to a student’s success, it may be one of many potential talents that the student can develop.  

Sidestep: We might encourage students, regardless of currently visible talents, to continue to explore areas in which they are interested and show ability. Not every talent is immediately visible or obviously present. Commitment, effort, and persistence can lead to an area of interest and aptitude becoming a unique talent. 

Misstep #3: Assuming possession of talent equals interest and commitment. Some students may possess a special aptitude but have little interest in pursuing its development or application. As much as we might desire that the student treasure and build the talent, the talent is owned by the student, and the student should be allowed to decide what to do—or not do—with it.  

Sidestep: We might encourage the student to build and apply the talent they possess. However, we accomplish little if we continue to press the issue. Once we have had our say, we need to step back and allow the student to determine where they will put their effort and whether they will pursue the talent we recognize. 

Misstep #4: Generalizing the presence of talent from a single instance or action. We may witness a behavior, hear an insight, or observe something that leads us to conclude that a student has a particular talent. However, what we see or hear may be a misinterpretation of what the student did or the talent they possess. Attempting to reinforce what we perceive can lead to confusion and stress as the student does not see the talent in themselves and may not have an interest in developing it.  

Sidestep: We might discuss with the student what we observed or heard and explore whether they might possess or could develop a talent in the noted area. Of course, we might be correct and help the student uncover and develop a talent they had not recognized in themself. However, we need to be careful not to push and press if the student does not respond accordingly.  

Misstep #5: Projecting our hopes and wishes for talent on a student. Sometimes we see ourselves in students, and we may want them to succeed in an area we wish we had developed. Or we may confuse our goals with the interests of the student. For example, a talented student might make us look good and even lead to praise and awards for us.  

Sidestep: We can step back and ask ourselves whose interests we are making a priority. While we want to do all that we can to have our students be successful, we also need to give them space to learn, grow, and succeed on their own. They need to make their own choices. We cannot live vicariously through them.  

Talent can be a magical, but confusing, aspect of a student’s life. It can feel like an incredible blessing or a regretful curse. Our challenge is to help students appreciate the gifts they have while respecting and supporting them to maintain a healthy perspective, make wise decisions, and build their talent in ways that work best for them.  

Thought for the Week

In response to the uncertainty and disruption in which we find ourselves, researchers and experts say that the number one skill for survival and success in today’s environment is adaptability.

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