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Teaching with Tourettes

TeachHUB Interview

Teaching with Tourettes

Drawing from personal experience can shape who we are as people and who we are as teachers.

Brad Cohen is the award-winning teacher he is today because of his experience as a student with Tourette Syndrome. His inspirational story is captured in his book Front of the Class and the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" movie based on his life.

Brad shares the struggles and successes on his journey in this TeachHUB interview:

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You story is an inspiration to all struggling learners. What advice do you have for teachers working with students with Tourette's syndrome or other sensory and attention disorders?


Five things to remember:
1) Focus on the child's strengths.....not their weekenesses. Allow that child to shine in their own way.

2) Communicate with the child about what helps them learn best. Don't make assumptions that the parents or other teachers know. Sometimes getting down on your hands and knees and asking the child is the best way to do things.

3) Don't give up on that child! Be that one teacher who will make a difference in the life of that child. Stand up for that child when no other teacher will do so. Just remember, the child is looking for someone to believe in them.

4) No excuses.....figure out a way for that child to be successful. Don't let the child give up on themself and don't allow you to give up on them either.

5) Educate everyone who will listen. Make sure the class and other teachers in the school understand what Tourette syndrome really is. Use my book or movie, Front of the Class as a resource to help stimulate dialogue with others. It is a great lesson on many of the character education words we are suppose to teach students on a daily basis.


As a previous Sallie Mae Teacher of the Year, what do you think makes you a great teacher?


I believe I see education from the point of view of the underdog. I know what it is like for teachers not to believe in you. I know what it is like to be kicked out of class even tough I try my hardest. I know what it is like to be bullied.

It was my dream to be that teacher that I never had. I have made it my goal to be there for those students who don't have someone cheering for them in the corner while at the same time showing all students that just because you are different or have some kind of disability or weakness in life, that you can still be successful and follow your dreams.....much like I did.

Are there particular memories from your time at school that you think of most when teaching?


Yes, it was disappointing for me because I just wanted to be treated like all the other kids in the school. But when the bullies would beat me up and the teachers would kick me out of class because they didn't want to deal with me, it is a constant reminder that life doesn't have to be that way for all students. I hope to be that role model to the students and teachers that we can make a difference in the lives of our students if we believe in all students, not just the smart and well behaved ones.


Have you had trouble with students or teachers in reaction to your Tourette's? How do you overcome that?


When I was first looking for a teaching position, I had principals tell me I couldn't be a successful teacher because I had Tourette syndrome. They told me my students would never learn, the parents wouldn't put up with me, and the community would not support me.

But on my 25th interview, I found the perfect administrators who believed in giving me a chance. They saw something in me that nobody else was willing to take a risk on. After that, I set high expectations for myself to be the best teacher I could be, despite having TS. From that day forward, I decided to be open and honest about living with Tourette syndrome. I allow students to ask me all the questions they want. Now, there are no TS issues at all.


Does being a teacher make it easier for you to understand and forgive teachers who gave you a hard time in school?


I have always looked to the future. I don't have time to look at the past and worry about what happened years ago. I try to learn from others mistakes in order to make for a better classroom situation in the future. I do believe I am the teacher I am today because of everything I have dealt with in my life. For this, I believe I am an effective teacher.


In your book, you describe how Tourette's created a distance between you and your father. Did your relationship improve after you were diagnosed and learned to live with?


The relationship with my father existed because doctors and teachers told him that "tough love" was the way to handle me and my condition. With my mom and dad divorice, my dad didn't deal with me on a daily basis. Over time, he did come around.

Although it took many year, he finally realized that there was no way to "fix it" and once he could accept me living with TS, we would all be better off. Now our relationship is great and he supports me very much.


What do you tell parents dealing with similar issues?


I tell them to believe in their children when nobody else is willing to. They must be their child's biggest advocate. They are modeling for their children how to advocate for themselves. If the parent is ashamed, then the child will know this for the rest of their life.


Parents must educate their child about the condition as well as all around them. They must set their children up for success. If others see the parents don't believe in the kid, then why should they? Don't give up on your child!


Do you ever struggle to identify with students who aren't "underdogs" like you were?


No, I believe I have a way to relate to all students. A child just wants to know you believe in them. If a teacher is sincere and shows the child respect, then the child will know the teacher supports them. In the classroom, I use best practices and allow children a chance to shine. Everyone wants a chance to shine!


What made you choose early elementary/second grade?


I always enjoyed that age of kids because they are young enough where they still want that help, but they are old enough where they start to have that independance in life. It is a great age because they are like human sponges and want to learn as much as possible about not only reading, writing and math, but life in general.


What's the coolest part of having a movie made about you?


Having a movie made about you is the most surreal thing that has ever happened to me. Seeing someone else play out my life on TV is amazing. I'm truly honored that others felt that my story was powerful enough to inspire others around the world to follow their dreams much like I was able to follow mine.


The coolest thing for me is to know my story is inspiring so many people that I will never even know about. If life is about being the best person you can be, and achieving as much as you desire, then I can celebrate the remainder of my life knowing that I have found success. When I get older and my son watches Front of the Class with my wife, I hope he will say the same thing that my students have always said and that is "If Mr. Cohen can do it, then so can I."


To learn more Brad's teaching experience, his book and movie Front of the Class, or to bring him to your school as a speaker, visit his website