In my second day at graduate school, my education professor gave my class advice that was very simple but memorable. He said, “A great teacher is like a great entertainer, you need to know your audience.”
Later that day while I was sitting on the Q train heading home after class, I thought about what my professor said and looked back at my experiences as a NYC public school student; I had several exceptional teachers in elementary and middle school, but when I thought back to high school, there was nothing memorable about my experience as a student. My perception is that most of my high school teachers taught their lessons like it was a nuisance and the only reason why my peers and I got through some of our classes was because we read the textbooks and studied our butts off. But the one thing that really stood out for me was that my school’s culture led me to settle for pedestrian grades when I knew I had the potential to do much more. And it was that moment, on my evening commute home, that I decided to become a high school teacher, put an end to tedious lessons and raise expectations for my students.
As a special education teacher, I spent most of my career in self-contained classrooms teaching students with autism, ADD, learning disabilities, down syndrome, and emotional disturbance. Engagement is obviously an obstacle for all educators, no matter what grade or setting you’re in, but over the years I learned to become the entertainer my professor was referring to. I have to be unpredictable with my lesson execution. The favorite part of my job is when a student approaches me and asks, “What are you going to do today, Mr. Gottesmann?’ They never ask me about what I will teach because I always give them several days notice on what they will learn in the unit, I just love keeping the students in the dark on how I will present my lessons. I lean heavy on using games to assess the students (Kahoot or Jeopardy!), but I’m also a strong proponent of using learning stations or centers, as keeping the students moving around and working in small groups does wonders with peer-to-peer instruction, as does using two- to three-minute videos to introduce a topic that I find on YouTube.
Looking back on the 10 years I spent as an educator in New York City public high schools, my professor was right on. Without realizing it, I’m always entertaining my students by challenging them as well by having high expectations and structure in my classroom. The entertainer philosophy has done wonders for my career, without ever tooting my own horn (with the exception of this article) I’ve developed a reputation as a hard-working and caring educator largely through my teaching-style and personality. And I know what you’re thinking right now, ‘I don’t have your personality or feel comfortable with your methods, so how can I engage my students?’
I’m not going to pretend to have all of the answers, but it’s important to confront your weaknesses head-on. As an introvert, I knew that I needed to come out of my shell to improve my abilities as an educator. So I did what any person would do when they’re seeking improvement: Go learn from the best.
In the early years of my career, I was very proactive and used my preps to watch the veteran teachers and talked to them about their lessons after school. Every time I observed a colleague, I took a technique from their lessons and used it in my classroom. I would never replicate any teacher’s lessons minute-to-minute, largely because I felt it was important to create my own identity as a teacher. Rather, I would just incorporate some techniques from my colleagues and make them my own.
After I revitalized my lessons from the observations, I naturally felt more comfortable in the classroom and gradually more of my personality came out. Before I realized it, I had a great rapport with many of my students, and it was done organically. I wasn’t waiting for an administrator to tell me how to improve or what workshops I should attend, I did it my way and have no regrets.
Learn more from Josh Gottesmann in his EDxEDNYC Session Understanding Autism: A Guide for High School Teachers