While special education is in the limelight, there’s another area of specialized teaching and administration for a small group of students that can bring just as many unique challenges.
That is the field of teaching exceptional and gifted students. Unchallenged by conventional coursework, often held back by traditional curriculum, these students often present as simply bored and dismissive of school. They may be totally disengaged in class and refuse to complete schoolwork that’s so far beneath their capabilities. But in far too many cases, they may not land on the radar of administrators who are overwhelmed with issues from the other end of the spectrum.
Yet cultivating their talents can be just as important as making sure that disadvantaged students receive an equal education.
Every student deserves the opportunity to reach their full potential. While for some that means special attention and remedial support, for others it means pushing their capabilities with newer and harder challenges.
Working with gifted kids can be both just as frustrating and just as rewarding as working in special education. An exceptionally bright pupil is the one that teachers find themselves remembering and keeping track of over the years. Their success, after all, reflects well on their teachers.
As a gifted education administrator, you can find yourself sharing in that success not just for a handful of students, but for hundreds or even thousands over the course of your career.
How Gifted and Talented Administrators Put Together Programs to Challenge the Brightest Students
Recognizing that this class of exceptionally bright and talented students exist is just the first step in a longer process: figuring out how to challenge them and help them reach the limits of their advanced academic abilities.
Regular teachers don’t have the time or the training to develop such advanced training for a handful of students. So in many districts, specific gifted and talented teaching programs exist.
These may consist of a completely different course track, with dedicated classes that are more advanced in every subject. More frequently, they consist of a handful of accelerated classes that students take in addition to their regular course load.
Some gifted programs exist as summer school or extracurricular options outside the regular public school system.
Those classes are taught by specially educated and qualified teachers. But the overall organization of those teachers, the design of the program, and the ongoing administration overhead is dealt with by a gifted and talented program administrator.
The position may be called:
The jobs can exist at either the individual school level, reporting to a principal, or at the district level. District coordinators typically oversee programs in all the schools in the district and report to the superintendent. Only large schools are likely to have a separate coordinator for gifted and talented programs, so these positions are quite rare.
When You Pack a Whole School with Gifted Kids, the Leaders Had Better Be the Best
While most schools and districts confine themselves to a few tracks or even just a handful of classes for gifted students, there is another model that some private schools or large districts follow. With a critical mass of advanced students, they sometimes create entire schools that are dedicated to gifted and talented education.
In these special cases, gifted and talented leadership falls on the principal and the entire staff. The scope of advanced learning becomes a school-wide effort. That requires both the specific training and knowledge of gifted education leaders and the standard administrative and management skills of any building-level leader.
In these cases, a full principal license is typically required, just as with any position in a similar school. The district or school operators, however, are highly likely to require candidates for the job to have the same full range of preparation in gifted and talented program leadership as a director or coordinator would have.
On the other end of the scale, smaller districts may combine the position of coordinator with teacher, in a sort of teacher leadership role.
In the past, it was common for districts to put both special education and gifted education under one senior administrator, sometimes called a director of exceptional students. You may still find that in some places, particularly with staff shortages, but as the skillsets for each of those areas have become more specialized over the past years, it’s less and less common.
Refining Your Leadership Skills for Dealing with Gifted and Talented Administration Challenges
Every teacher at some point has been faced with an exceptionally bright student in their classroom. So you know from experience that it takes a special skillset to deal with this population.
But working as an administrator in gifted and talented programs is different from just being a teacher for gifted students. While you’ve already cultivated some of the expertise you need for dealing with students and parents in this area, there are some extra capacities needed to support teachers and deal with higher level administrators.
One of the biggest needs is in problem-solving and change management. There will absolutely be problems that come up with kids in these programs—being more capable in general also means being more capable of getting into trouble. Exceptional skills students can also generate exceptional problems. Administrators need to be able to think on their feet and deal with unusual issues quickly and effectively.
Communications skills are also at a premium in these positions. You must be able to forge connections with students, parents, and senior leaders in your district to get everyone on the same page. In an era where school budgets are perpetually under pressure, you’ll find gifted programs on the chopping block again and again. Justifying why already smart kids also need extra help is a task you’ll face repeatedly as a gifted and talented coordinator.
Your ability to analyze the program and plan effectively to keep students engaged and involved will also be critical. You’ll need to be able to marshal evidence of effectiveness and innovate to stay within budgets.
Finally, you’ll need vision and inspiration. Creativity is stressed in gifted and talented programs. It’s a value that must start at the top. Working with a population of kids who have rarely been challenged by school and are on the verge of writing it off takes infectious leadership with clear goals and motivational skills.
As with all types of school leadership jobs, there are significant differences between the kind of work you find at different grade levels. Typically, a district-level coordinator for gifted and talented programs will have to be well-versed in advanced education at every grade level. In some cases, though, specialists are hired to work exclusively overseeing elementary, middle school, or high-school gifted programs.
Gifted and Talented Program Leaders Are Equipped for the Job Through Graduate Degrees
Professional educators are always learning. Usually, they are building college credits along the way. For gifted and talented program administrators, those need to add up into a master’s degree.
It only makes sense that it takes a high level of education and training to be able to come up with the kind of curriculum and programs that truly challenge the brightest students. So challenging master’s degrees are part of the package, typically a Master of Education in Educational Leadership, or a Master of Science in Educational Administration.
But you will also find specific concentration areas in gifted and talented administration or leadership, such as a Master of Science in Education with a concentration in Gifted Education, a Master of Education in Gifted, Creative, and Talented Studies, or a Master of Education in Gifted and Talented Education.
These come with standard educational leadership coursework including subjects such as:
Those are all valuable for the administrative and leadership skills they offer. You come away with the kind of team building and project management abilities that it takes to organize a department full of extremely bright and motivated teachers.
But in a gifted and talented specialization, you’ll typically get a second helping of coursework in areas such as:
This coursework should also include the mandated EPP (Educator Preparation Program) credits that you state requires for issuing credentials to gifted program administrators.
If it happens that you’ve already picked up a master’s degree along the way during your teaching years, you can also find many post-graduate certificates that will cover the EPP requirements for gifted and talented administrator licensing in states that offer it.
In both cases, degrees that cover EPP requirements will usually also have the necessary practicum coursework that gives you the hours of on-the-job experience required for state licensure.
Earning the Credentials to Serve as a Gifted Program Administrator
Every state certifies school administrators just as they do teachers. Gifted and talented program directors are no exception. To fill the role, you’ll need a specific and separate credential.
But although each state requires a license for performing this role, not all of them license it specifically as a gifted and talented administration job. Instead, you’ll find that the job fits in with more general categories such as program administration.
States that do have licensed positions for gifted education directors usually have requirements that are fairly similar to other administrative program management roles:
The exam may be one specific to the state, but in most states that rely on Praxis exams from ETS (the Educational Testing Service), you’re likely to be looking at one of these exams:
The Gifted Education test, typically used for teaching endorsements in the field, is one you’ve likely already passed, but it may be a component of licensing as an administrator as well.
Some states will offer endorsements in teaching gifted and talented students but may not have a separate administrator license for the category.
In states with an educational leadership license specific to gifted programs, you’ll only need a generic educational administrator’s credential to serve as a program administrator. The major difference in qualifying for such roles will simply be that there isn’t any specific gifted and talented education or qualification requirements, just a general background in teaching and passing suitable administrative exams. However, it’s very likely that individual school districts will be looking at candidates who hold that teaching endorsement.
What Kind of Salary Can Gifted and Talented Program Administrators Expect?
Educational administrators for gifted programs deal with issues that are more challenging than most educators, so it only stands to reason that they will generally be paid higher salaries.
Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the agency that keeps track of official salary and employment levels for American jobs, doesn’t have any separate data for gifted program administrators. The closest they come is the more general category of Education Administrators for Kindergarten through Secondary.
In 2021, the category of positions that includes gifted and talented program administrators showed a median salary of $98,420.
The top ten percent of administrators earned more than $153,520 per year. While the leaders falling into that upper end of the field are most likely to be superintendents and principals with greater responsibilities overall, there’s also substantial variation based on location and often school size. So an administrator dealing with a larger gifted program and in big, high cost-of-living areas can still push the upper end of the salary envelope.
Gifted and talented coordinators get all the other benefits that typically come with jobs in education as well:
Depending on the specific position, you may or may not still get your prized summer vacation time, however. Many administrative jobs don’t, but combined teacher/coordinator positions are likely to keep the traditional school year schedule rather than going to year-round employment.
In any case, the work that gifted and talented education leaders do comes with many of the same benefits as being a teacher in the field. There’s a special kind of joy and accomplishment that comes from giving kids with the highest potential the boost they need to meet it.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Education Administrators, Kindergarten through Secondary reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2023.