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On April 14, at Mack Littleton’s annual auction, Mr. Joe Pausback spoke about his twenty years at Mackintosh Academy, his gratitude to former Heads of School Trip and Whitney Mackintosh, and what he has learned over his two decades as a Mackintosh teacher. Below is the text of his speech, but to get the full impact, please watch the video and absorb Joe’s inimitable humor and style.
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I’m Joe Pausback, and I have taught the fifth and sixth grade students at Mackintosh Academy for the last 20 years. My wife, Lara, teaches the first and second grade class. My son Samuel, started in the Pre-K and graduated last spring. He is currently a freshman at Littleton High School. My other son, Henry, is in the sixth grade at Mack, having started in Pre-K as well. From these overlapping roles and relationships, I have garnered a few insights about the nature of gifted education.
It is amazing to me that I would be up here talking to you about the essence of gifted education. You see, I was that child – the youngest of a large family, the one who tried to slip between the cracks. My grades were all over the place, more a barometer of my interest in a particular subject than a measure of my actual aptitude. The late 70’s and early 80’s in Aspen, Colorado was not a time or a place where people discussed attentional issues. For me, medication was outside the classroom, in the forests, mountains, snow-fields, rivers, and canyons of western Colorado and Utah.
But somehow I persisted in school, developed a knack for getting things done on my own timetable, earned a college degree, got a teaching license and in the fall of 1998 wound up in the office of Trip Mackintosh to interview for a fifth and sixth grade teaching position. In that moment, I lacked both the experience to accurately portray the true sense of confidence necessary to land a job or the improv skills to project a fake sense of confidence. Together Trip and I paged through my student teaching portfolio. Offhandedly he remarked, “You look like a duck, but you do not yet quack like a duck.” I should have been offended, but the truth of this statement was too much to deny. Last fall, when Trip and Whitney were back on campus for the 40th anniversary, the three of us laughed about this interview and Trip’s comment. In the interview, Trip had asked me to describe what I knew about gifted education. At the time, I had no answer. I knew nothing.
So, true to my own humble calling, after 20 years at Mackintosh, with two gifted children of my own, I finally have an answer to Mr. Mackintosh’s question. And here, tonight, in this room, I will finally complete my Mackintosh interview by answering that question.
Mr. Mackintosh, there are five things I know about gifted education.
Gifted children are a lot like normal kids, but gifted kids arrive at false and incorrect conclusions more quickly, more confidently, and more frequently than normal. The impacts of these false conclusions can be far more entrenched and devastating. But the corollary is also true. Gifted students also arrive at correct conclusions quickly. When Samuel was in the second grade, he was approached by a group of the cool and popular boys in the class who wanted to form a “club” to harass the smallest girl in the class. Sam took them to the mat refusing to join them and obstructing their efforts. After a day, the teachers finally caught wind of what was going on. Sam was vindicated. The other boys got to endure the fruits of their self-selected teachable moment.
Gifted children are very sensitive.
Ms. Kates compares the challenges of costuming your children to the experience of costuming the other casts she works with. Mackintosh students invariably complain about the fit, the smell, the texture of the costumes. My son Sam, still needs the tags taken out of all of his shirts, shorts, and swim trunks. Gifted children are also sensitive to any perceived slight toward themselves and toward others. This makes the at a tender age, more globally minded, and introspective, than a more typical population. At the age of 5, Henry could not talk about heaven, hell, the universe, the speed of light, or black holes, supernovas without a week of sleepless nights.
Gifted children need the opportunity to engage with struggle and sometimes not be successful.
Both of my children earned multiple C’s in their fifth grade year. I did not rush to their rescue and found myself, the parent/teacher entering this grade onto their report card. A year ago, when Henry was done going through his report card, he said, “Dad, I think I did pretty well.” I said, “Really? What can you tell me about that C in Unit of Inquiry?” He said, “I know why I got it and I am very confident that I can raise it next unit to at least a B-.” What could I say? The boy has emotional resilience and a growth mindset. His next U of I grade was a solid B. Similarly Sam’s grades in the fifth and sixth grade were all over the place, but in the middle of his eighth grade year we were all caught off guard when he earned his way onto the honor roll. He has emerged from Mackintosh and entered Littleton High School with a deep confidence in his ability to take on any academic challenge and succeed
If you want to save the world, focusing on quality gifted education is a pretty good place to start.
Think of an oil tanker. It has a huge mass. But the rudder, the very object that determines which way the entire vessel goes has a mass that is less than one half of 1% of the mass of the entire ship. At Mackintosh we are helping craft the rudder that will steer humanity in the 21st century. When Sam was five, we took him to see Horton Hears A Who, the Dr. Seuss environmental parable. On the way home, Sam sat quietly in the back of the car. As we were nearing our street, he remarked, “I get that movie.” “Really?” we asked. “Yes,” he said, “We all live on that speck. And if we are going to survive as a planet, we all have to work together like the Who’s in Whoville.”
The final thing I know about gifted education comes from a little purposeful word-play.
Gifted has the root of “gift” and a gift is something you get unexpectedly, might not have asked for, and might not quite know what to do with. At Mackintosh we build human beings by taking those talents and helping to shape them. If you further parse the word “gift” by removing the “g” and the “t” you are left with the word “if”. There are no guarantees in any education. In the general population there is an attitude that gifted kids will figure everything out on their own. But this is not necessarily the case. Gifted students are highly likely to drop out of school, struggle with emotional issues, and under-achieve. Talent is distributed equally across humanity, but seats in public school gifted programs are not. The majority of these seats are in affluent neighborhoods, leaving students in impacted neighborhoods to “figure things out on their own.” Together we can provide opportunities to satisfy “if” for more students. As any farmer can tell you, “if” is an important word: If the wind blows the right direction, if the seeds fall into fertile soil, if the rains come at the right time and last a good amount of time, if weeds and pests can be kept at bay. Then maybe just maybe, there will be a harvest in the fall.
Trip did not offer me a job as a fifth and sixth grade teacher. Instead he offered me a job as a third and fourth grade co-teacher. Six weeks later, he had to fire the teacher who he had hired in my place. That night, he and Whitney called me up. They said that they wanted me to take over that job, but not until the following year as I was still growing in my skill set. This was the most compassionate thing they could have done. The following fall, I took over the fifth and sixth grade class, and together Trip and Whitney nurtured me through my first two years teaching.
I am grateful to Trip and Whitney for giving me this opportunity. In fact everyone in this room owes them a debt of gratitude. They took over Mackintosh at a moment when it was about to go under. This was a big sacrifice to them personally and to their immediate family. But they got the school on stable financial footing and put it on track to be what it is today. If your child has ever had a PE class with Patty Weston, you should know that they hired her. If your child has ever completed a unit of inquiry that was designed by Sharon Muench, they hired her too. If you child ever took a “shaving cream spelling test” or shared a piece of cheese with Mindy Lambert at recess, know that they hired her as well.
In my interview, Trip said, “I want Mackintosh to be the best school for gifted children in the world. Period.” We live that vision every single day. Thank you for your time tonight.