Fort Riley teacher inspires students inside, outside classroom

Jessica Gladden is the gifted education facilitator for grades six through eight at Fort Riley Middle School. (Hallie Lucas | The Collegian)

Jessica Gladden’s gifted program at Fort Riley Middle School is as intelligent as it is tight-knit.

Gladden said the eighth-grade program consists of just five students, the perfect setting for permanent friendships to develop among a largely transient student body.

Fort Riley Gifted Program

Gladden said when students are admitted to Fort Riley Middle School, they’re not always accepted into the school’s gifted program. Certain state standards have to be met, which means the program is constantly testing new students.

It can be difficult for those who don’t reach the benchmarks, especially if they were in similar programs in other states, according to Gladden.

“‘So, ‘I’m gifted, but not in Kansas,’” Gladden said. “That’s a challenging thing that we definitely have to deal with very regularly here.”

Gladden said she has worked with gifted children throughout her entire career in both smaller, specialized groups as well as with gifted students who are a part of a larger general education class.

Janet Parrish, gifted educator for the five elementary schools on Fort Riley, said Gladden skillfully adjusts her lessons not only on student cognitive levels, but also their interests.

“She’s not about limiting the students, saying this is what we’re going to do,” Parrish said. “She’s opening the door, saying ‘Let me go and find something you’re willing to do and that will get you excited about learning.’”

When educating her students, Gladden said she focuses on developing critical thinking. Some gifted students aren’t challenged until late middle school or high school. Material comes as inherently easy to them their entire lives, then when they’re finally challenged with upper-level math or complex literature, they’re lost.

“I try to put them in situations where they don’t know all the answers, so when they’re in that situation in a class, they have strategies for working through their thinking and not just getting frustrated,” Gladden said.

Gladden said she does this through a series of puzzles and games, including one similar to the breakout room escape games that are trending throughout the country. Students must solve a series of clues, using logic and problem-solving skills, to open a lockbox that contains a prize.

Throughout these activities, Gladden acts as a guide, not a lecturer. She pushes students to find solutions on their own, subtly nudging them in the right direction when they stray off track, which according to the students themselves, is a lot. Their enrichment sessions are punctuated with SpongeBob references, quotes from viral videos and spontaneous song and dance routines.

“All the stuff that we do, I don’t think I could handle us (if I were Gladden),” Chalice Carter, eighth-grade gifted student, said.

Inconsistencies of teaching on post

Every week, Gladden said she meets with other school leaders as part of Fort Riley Middle School’s academic assistance team. The group reviews two lists: incoming students for admission and outgoing students for dismissal.

“Hardly a week goes by where we don’t have kids on both lists,” Gladden said.

The average military family moves about once every three years, according to the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity website.

Gladden said Fort Riley Middle School’s student body is composed almost entirely of students from military families. Because military families move around a lot, what a student is learning at one school doesn’t always match up with the progress that’s being made at the student’s new school after moving.

Gladden said this inconsistency creates headaches for administrators and teachers when curriculum continuity doesn’t cross state lines.

Eighth-grader Connor Dettloff, Gladden’s son, has said goodbye to many friends and peers over his three years attending Fort Riley Middle School.

“I made a lot of friends in sixth grade, and the majority of them moved over the summer,” Dettloff said. “And the same thing happened in seventh grade.”

Most of the students, especially those who have moved frequently, are accustomed to the constant flow of changing faces in their classes.

Emily Waggoner, eighth-grade gifted student, said adapting to new students, schools and teachers is as necessary as the most basic human function.

“It’s like breathing,” Waggoner said. “You have to.”

Teaching as a career

“I knew I wasn’t doing enough for those kids early in my career, so I started researching how to work with gifted kids,” Gladden said. “I ended up getting an endorsement in it and being a gifted teacher in general.”

Gladden said this endorsement was a turning point, even a lifeline, in her career as an educator.

“The first few years of teaching are really hard,” Gladden said. “They say if you make it past five years, you’re good.”

After four years, Gladden said she was ready to change her career. While Gladden enjoyed working with elementary-age children, she was drained by the constant stream of paperwork, endless meetings and a lack of meaningful relationships with her fellow instructors.

Parrish said she realizes the importance of quality relationships with fellow educators for venting, idea exchange and support.

“It’s very important that teachers be able to communicate and have time to collaborate,” Parrish said. “If that’s not there, you are truly an island, and you don’t get any new ideas.”

Teetering on quitting teaching and finding a different career, Gladden decided to teach one more year at a different school. The culture among instructors was totally different — dynamic and helpful — as a group of educators, unfamiliar with each other, came together to open a brand-new school.

She also earned her gifted teaching endorsement that year and realized her passion for working with gifted children. She was in an inclusion classroom, with a combination of general education and gifted students, but she learned to tailor her lessons to students in different areas of the spectrum.

Parrish worked with Gladden closely at an elementary level, but less frequently now that Gladden has moved to a middle school setting. Still, she said she suspects Gladden’s older students will pick up on and be inspired by her goals and aspirations both inside and outside of the classroom.

“(Gladden) is an all-around person,” Xavier Lopez, eighth-grade gifted student, said. “She helps, she supports, she does everything.”

He backtracked.

“Well, she doesn’t fly around like Superman or anything like that,” he said.

Waggoner corrected him.

“Well, if she put her mind to it, she probably could,” Waggoner said.