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This gifted professor practices what she preaches

Whitworth University professor Margo Long pauses on the steps of Dixon Hall on campus. She is retiring this month as director of the Center for Gifted Education and Professional Development. (Christopher Anderson)
Whitworth University professor Margo Long pauses on the steps of Dixon Hall on campus. She is retiring this month as director of the Center for Gifted Education and Professional Development. (Christopher Anderson)

Margo Long, 65, founded the Center for Gifted Education and Professional Development at Whitworth University 36 years ago.

She’s retiring this month as director of the center, but Long will continue to teach some classes in the School of Education, where she has mentored generations of student teachers.

A popular keynoter, Long will also continue to give talks throughout the country. And she’ll spend time with her husband, Len, who coaches cross country at North Central High School, and with their grown children and grandchildren.

Long believes the country can emerge stronger from these troubled times if adults step out of their comfort zones, and if young people are taught to practice, practice, practice.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent Wise Words interview with her.

• I was raised in Pasadena, two blocks from the Rose Parade. I had a very active father who had projects and ideas and was a doer. I had a stay-at-home mom who was absolutely devoted to the family.

My parents did not have a lot, but they had enough. My dad worked for an insurance company. My dad did anything repair-wise, so I grew up in an environment where the first choice was to do it yourself.

• Were there gifted classes when I was in school? No. There were AP and honors classes. I was in them. Under the criteria now would I be identified as gifted? I’d say no.

I think teachers found me challenging. They thought (at the end of the school year): “She’s not in my class anymore. In ways, it’s going to be easier.” I’ve never had anyone say “You need to talk more” or “Speak up” or “Don’t you want to add something?”

• I taught social studies in middle school in the Central Valley School District. They were old enough to get the humor and enjoy it, but they were still young enough that they could deal with someone who was really tough, who would expect a lot of them and not be an easy grader.

If somebody says to me, “Your class was really fun, and it was really hard,” that’s the compliment I want to hear.

• I went to a conference in New Jersey in the early 1970s. They were talking about what to do with kids with exceptional talents. I came back and said, “We need to be doing something for our really bright and talented kids.” It didn’t take but a split second before there was a grant for a co-op between five states.

I created the Center for Gifted Education. I applied for the director. And then I chose myself. If you create your job, you’re not in a position to complain about it.

• I recommend that anyone who is exceptional in any way, or anyone raising children who show they have that ability, read Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset.” Dweck does an excellent job explaining the difference between a “fixed mindset” and a “growth mentality.”

We make a mistake telling our kids how capable they are, how bright they are. If we tell kids they’re bright, most kids will protect that label. They’ll choose things that are easier, because they don’t want it to turn out that they are not (bright).

When we tell our kids how capable they are, we stop that inquisitive growth mentality that says: “I’m here to learn.” So instead, we have to praise effort. Say: “You certainly put a lot of effort in that.” Or better yet: “How hard did you work on that, what did you learn, what else would you do next time?”

It’s so easy (for parents) to say: “How many points did you make? You’re a great player, why didn’t you play better?”

But the issue is: “What did you learn today in the game? Did you pay attention to the player who is really good? What did they do? What did you learn about winning or losing?”

• In “Drive,” Daniel Pink’s book, he says three things motivate people. No. 1: They want to know that what they do has purpose. No. 2: They want to do it in their own way. You can put some parameters on it, but we (should) allow people to develop their own ability and decisions about what they do.

And the third thing is mastery. If you really want to be good at something, you’ve got to put the time in. Remember this is a culture that wants to do it fast, but the key to mastery is deep practice.

• I believe in the 10,000-hour rule as described in the books “Outliers” and “The Talent Code.” Until you put 10,000 hours into something, you’re not near where you could be.

• I always say to my seniors when I’m watching them teach: I want to see you put a spin on your teaching. Make it more provocative, more interesting.

What’s a spin? Not just using a textbook or a Power Point. Get kids into real-life situations. Get them to talk to people. Talk about what could be. What might have happened. All the things that get our kids into critical, creative thinking. Don’t be afraid. Put a spin on it.

• I took 15 students, who had already done their student teaching here, to San Francisco for 25 days for multicultural “Jan term.” We put them in minority-dominated schools, in the depth of the inner city. And the first two days, two-thirds of them were crying, “I can’t do this.”

They were there 25 days. They were stretched. When they left, they said, “I cannot leave my kids.” That is the growth mentality. They made it.

• Here’s the deal: It doesn’t take much to take us out of our comfort zone. How open are we to letting that happen? Always seek out new information. New information immediately takes you out of your comfort zone.

• We adults cannot lose that connection and interaction with youth. If you don’t stay in touch, you think, “Oh my gosh, these kids are texting all the time, they don’t read, they’re not like we are.”

It’s so easy to slip into the critical mode. But if you are close enough to them, you see they have the same desires. They want people to know them and love them. Attachment is the No. 1 condition of the brain.

• Retirement? I am very torn. I can’t think of a better place to work. There isn’t a party more fun than teaching. But I’ve done this for a long time. I am holding a place that somebody could take.

When you retire with a passion, that passion will go on. I have a passion. I want to work with kids. I want to garden. It will take me two years to clean the basement.

• When I talk to young mothers, I always remind them of one of my favorite bylaws: “Do now what you cannot do later.” It usually gives us perspective and puts our focus back on the children.

• One thing I’ve been surprised about is how much I enjoy our adult children, as much as raising them when they were little. Len and I feel blessed they allow us to be in their lives as much as they do.

• I mark the value of the day by what I learned – not by what I got done.