Q&A with Educator Brad Cohen

By Christina A. Samuels — December 05, 2008 5 min read
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Courtesy Brad Cohen

It wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Brad Cohen never considered coming near a school, after his experiences as a child growing up with Tourette’s Syndrome. In one notable story, Brad says that a teacher made him get up in front of his class and apologize to his classmates for making noises and jerking motions -- all features of the disorder that were beyond his control.

But instead, Brad decided he wanted to be the teacher that he never had, and after 25 interviews, he landed a position as an elementary school teacher in Cobb County, Ga. He also wrote a book about his experiences, Front of the Class, that has been made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie scheduled to air at 9 p.m. EST Dec. 7 on CBS.

Brad, who now works in staff development for the 106,000-student district, talked with me recently about his experiences being the subject of a film. He had nothing but the highest praise for the producers and actors, who took time to find out what really makes him, well, tick. For example, they recorded him speaking so that they could create a “tic script” for the actors -- people with Tourette’s do not just tic randomly, and contrary to popular belief, shouting obscenities are not a common feature of the disorder. “They really understood it wasn’t a noise here and a noise there,” Brad told me."They were amazing.”

To read more about Brad, check out his website, which includes a video clip of his appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He also took time to answer some questions for On Special Education:

Your book spends quite a lot of time talking about the insensitivity that some educators had to Tourette’s when you were younger. What led you to the teaching profession?

I knew I wanted to be a teacher since middle school. I wanted to be that teacher who I never had. I wanted to be a teacher who focused on kids’ strengths and not their weaknesses. All I ever wanted to was to be like everyone else. I know what it’s like to be the kid in the corner and I just felt like I had the gift to make all children feel appreciated. I wanted to be a teacher for all those kids out there who didn’t feel like they had a chance...I’m here to say, “yes you do!”

Could you talk a little bit about how you explained Tourette’s Syndrome to your students? Did you find that they were immediately understanding, or did it take some time?

I put it into kid language and I say, I have Tourette’s Syndrome. Tourette’s Syndrome means that there is something in my brain that tells me to make noises and funny faces all day long. I explain how I can’t help it because it is a medical condition. I compare it to blinking your eyes. Just like your brain tells you to blink your eyes, my brain tells me to blink my eyes and make my noises. The kids are very understanding once they know. It’s the fear of the unknown that confuses them.

Courtesy Jon Farmer/HHF This photo shows Brad, in the middle, with actors Jimmy Wolk, left, and Dominic Scott Kay, right, who depict him at different ages.

What about the reaction of parents and coworkers? Was it easy to explain to them as well?

Parents usually have a more difficult time with the Tourette’s than the kids do. Once kids know, they are fine. When the parent see that their children don’t have issues, they they don’t either. But at first, many parents are hesitant because it is so different.

You mentioned that you’ve had students with special education needs in your classroom. How was that experience? Do you feel that your experience with Tourette’s helped you understand more what your students with special needs may have been going through?

Absolutely! I’ve been in their seats wondering “why am I different and how can I be like everyone else?” What I want kids to realize is they don’t need to be like anyone else. Each child has a gift. They have strengths that they need to follow and enjoy the things they are good
at, rather than always be reminded what their weaknesses are. I’ve always enjoyed teaching in an inclusion classroom because I am a walking role model showing them that anything is possible with a positive attitude and a little support!

Are there a few pieces of advice that you might offer to teachers who have a student with Tourette’s or other disabilities in their classroom? One thing you mentioned that was really interesting to me was the importance of just asking the child about his or her disability. Can you talk a little bit about why you think that’s important?

I learned early in life that education is so important. It is a powerful tool. You should be up front and honest about the disability and educate others. Take the initiative and help the student with special needs explain and education others about the condition. Understand that humor is a survival skill. This is why I tell my students we will never play hide and seek...because I would hide and then they would hear me making my noises and they would find me. And I hate to lose! Help the student see that you are truly willing to give them a chance. Believe in them when nobody else will.

In your book, you talk about how much of a breakthrough it was for you when you were given an opportunity to explain Tourette’s to your school classmates. Could you talk a little bit more about the importance of self-advocacy? How can parents and teachers help children be good advocates for themselves?

Stand by their side and support them. Just remember that they will want to be like everyone else. They want hope that some day, people will understand the difficulties they are having. There is no age that is too young to start self-advocating. The sooner the better. Don’t be embarrassed, either. In some ways, it is therapeutic for the child as well as the adult. Find good books, movies or articles that can be used as a tool to help educate others. Look for role models who overcame their own issues to find success. And lastly, start small to gain confidence in oneself.

People know more about Tourette’s now than they did when you were young, but sometimes parents still have to advocate for their children. You have a unique perspective, as a teacher and as a person with a disability. What would be a good way for parents to approach a teacher if they’re concerned that their child may have some needs that aren’t being met, or that the teacher or the students aren’t as sensitive as they should be?

Be open, up front and honest and build relationships with the teacher. Bring the child in with you when you meet, and help the child articulate the difficulities they are having and come up with strategies together of how to make things different. Please communicate with the child no matter what the age, they are part of this process. Teachers need to be open-minded that they might not have all the answers, and learning new ideas could be beneficial to not only that student, but maybe all the students in the classroom. Just be open-minded to something new.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.