Most teachers can point to an “aha” moment early in their lives when a special experience or person inspired them to teach. George Schott was already 65 and had been a corporate marketer for more than 40 years when the revelation struck. As Schott recalled, he was reading to third graders at Westover Elementary School in Stamford during a United Way Day of Action, “when I realized I didn’t want to leave. I realized this is what I want to do next. So, I just started to follow my heart.”
It hadn’t occurred to Schott to kick back and take life lazily in retirement. “I’ve always been high-energy,” he explained. “I’ve always been interested in older people who stay vibrant—Rita Moreno, Anthony Fauci. Why would you not want to take all the experience and skills you’ve developed and use them?” Moreover, Schott grew up with the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam—an obligation to repair the world. “Tikkun Olam is a beautiful thing,” he said.
Schott retired from Legg Mason in 2019 and began tutoring that fall at Stamford High School. By January 2020, he was a substitute teacher in the district’s middle and high schools. When the Covid shutdowns began in March, he knew he wanted to become a teacher. In June, he entered a virtual master’s program in educational psychology at the University of Connecticut that doubled as a one-year concentrated teacher-certification program.
His lifelong passion was history, but he discovered that Connecticut, like most states, had more history teachers than job openings. Special Ed teachers, by contrast, were in short supply, so he took that route. As a student teacher, he was placed at a private school for children with autism or emotional disturbance who needed one-on-one instruction. He found the work fascinating and meaningful, and he discovered he had a knack for it.
Last fall, the Stamford school district launched a program to educate high-functioning students with autism who previously attended private schools at public expense. It was housed at the Academy of Information Technology & Engineering (AITE), a public magnet high school, and Schott was hired as its inaugural teacher. A consulting school psychologist and the school counselor supported him.
Schott teaches a daily 88-minute class formally known as Individualized Education (Schott substituted a more positive name: Learning Lab). The rest of the day, his students attend general education classes including algebra, physics, English, Latin, health, PE, digital music production, and history. Schott goes with them to provide direct support on issues that may arise with teachers or other students.
He started out with two ninth graders, a boy and a girl, both strong in academics but needing help with social skills, communication, executive function and academic planning to keep up with assignments. In February and March, the program tripled in size to six students and next year will reach ten, when a paraprofessional and a part-time psychologist are expected to join the team.
Schott tells the students that his classroom is a safe space. “They can lie on the carpet or show their frustration if something has upset them,” he explained.
He uses a color-coded Mood Meter developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to help build their awareness of feelings, from low energy to high on one axis, from unpleasant to pleasant on the other. High energy combined with major unpleasantness (anger or fear) is the red zone; low energy and high pleasantness (relaxed) is green, high energy and high pleasantness (joy or elation) is yellow and low energy with unpleasantness (sad or lonely) is blue.
When one student came to class in a rage, Schott responded, “Looks like you’re in the red zone. What do we need to do right now to help ourselves while we feel this way?” Mindfulness and breathing exercises taught by Schott and the psychologist helped the student regulate his mood and feel ready to return to class.
People with autism can struggle to read social cues in novel settings, so Schott works with the class on “social behavior mapping,” to understand why a teacher or other students may view their actions as unexpected and feel uncomfortable in response. One day, a teacher in one class was interjecting comments as students gave power-point presentations. “Let them finish! It’s so disruptive,” one of Schott’s students blurted out. The teacher responded sharply, “You’re undermining my authority and I don’t want you doing that.”
In social-behavior mapping terms, the student had engaged in “unexpected behavior,” which made the teacher uncomfortable, Schott said. But to the student, who has a strong sense of justice, this was an honest reaction, if perhaps brutally honest. In the privacy of the Learning Lab, Schott asked later if there were other ways to handle the situation. Together, they came up with alternatives, like sending an email or speaking to the teacher after class so as not to make others uncomfortable.
Schott often asks his students to self-reflect at week’s end, and one Friday when he still had only two students, he asked what they were thankful for. Both said they were thankful for him.
“They never say it, but I’m the bodyguard. I’m just there,” Schott said. “They’ll say, `I don’t even notice you.’” He goes by “Mr. George” rather than “Mr. Schott,” he said, because “it’s more approachable. You’re not just a teacher; you’re a coach and friend.”
One of his goals, he said, is to provide his students with unconditional support, and he takes pride in their progress. The first two students, who have been together the longest, were initially uneasy with each other socially but now “have developed a genuine friendship, characterized by respect, trust and liking,” he said. On their own, they decided to attend the homecoming dance together.
Rather than give lectures, Schott structures activities designed to teach skills. When a visit from a therapy dog delighted his students, he proposed that they explore getting a class pet. This would require teamwork and the capacity to plan and execute. They would need the principal’s permission, for example. Ever since, they have been jointly drafting and editing a proposal to her, with feedback from Schott.
All but one student wanted a hamster while the other dug in on a guinea pig. Ultimately, the holdout switched sides, with an explanation that amazed Schott: “I decided that making everyone else happy would make me happy.” People with autism often have difficulty interpreting their own and others’ feelings. But Schott took a lesson of his own from this experience: “Autism is highly specific to each child, and I learn more about it every day.”
Combining his past as a marketer with his new life as a special education teacher, Schott developed a unit inspired by an advertising campaign. In a full-page ad in the New York Times, the skin cream maker, Olay, admitted that people with arthritis and other dexterity issues had bombarded the company with angry comments about how hard it was to open their jars. The ad campaign highlighted Olay’s new “easy-open” jar.
“My marketing brain said, `This is fantastic,’ and my SpEd (special education) brain said, `I can turn this into a lesson,’” Schott said. “I created a lesson around skin structure and where wrinkles come from and a business lesson on how responsible businesses respond when they make a mistake.”
“Then I framed it in social-behavior mapping terms, suggesting that we become social detectives and stand outside the situation and analyze it. Were the customer reactions expected or unexpected? Appropriate or inappropriate?” He urged his students to use the Yale Mood Meter to analyze the feelings of the customers and the company officials. “They had to put themselves in someone else’s shoes,” Schott said.
The discussion went on for an hour and a half without a lag. Schott said it was a thrill “to see them go from where they were at the start of the school year and to be able to engage in a discussion for one and one-half hours, to be interested and excited and apply the tools we’ve learned.” He hopes the students will eventually apply the same skills to interactions with teachers and other classmates.
Schott expects to teach for ten years, meaning he would retire at age 81. But sometimes he thinks of emulating Grandma Moses, who started painting seriously at 78 and lived to 101. He imagines being asked, “George, now that you’re 97, the oldest public-school teacher in the country, how does it feel?”
The differences between teaching and business astound him. Teachers must be “on” all the time.
I can’t say, ‘I wasn’t paying attention.’ I can’t lose patience, make a sarcastic comment, say something I regret. In business, those things happen all the time and people just say, ‘Sorry about that,’ and it’s over. But as a teacher, I have to do my very best to be my very best self. All. The. Time. Otherwise, I could lose a student in a heartbeat.