Tyler Spielberg’s students are as obsessed as he is with his sneaker collection. “Practically every day the kids ask, ‘How many sneakers do you have now?’” he says, laughing. “I love it as much as they do.”
Spielberg, a wellness teacher and basketball coach, uses his fashion sense and common sense to teach and reach that prickly population known as middle schoolers. His success belies his age and experience. Spielberg is just 26 and has been a full-time teacher at Quest to Learn, a new middle and high school in Chelsea, for a mere 18 months, yet he seems to intuit as much about the inner workings of his 7th- and 8th-grade students as any seasoned educator.
“My sneaker collection is just another way of making a connection with my students and they with me,” he says. “For middle schoolers, relationships are everything and their social lives are everything.”
As a wellness teacher, Spielberg covers all manner of health issues from stress management to peer pressure to sex education. He spent the entire last trimester discussing, dissecting and defining relationships — “all of them,” he says, “friends, families, co-workers, bosses, romantic” — with his 8th-grade classes.
He placed special emphasis on abusive relationships, betting that if kids understand the nuances and traps of domestic violence, they won’t have to suffer it firsthand. “They see and admire athletes and performers, these big-time heroes, committing acts of violence,” says Spielberg. “They need to understand that there is a line you never, ever cross.”
As their final project, his 100 students worked in small groups and produced 60-second, anti-violence videos. The only requirement their teacher imposed was that they had to include statistics and solutions.
“They made some amazing public service announcements,” says Spielberg, who came up with the idea while watching a National Football League PSA on domestic abuse. “They were so into it, which made me feel like I’m making a difference in their future lives.”
Teaching is housed deep in Spielberg’s DNA. His mother, father and sister are current or former teachers. A lifelong athlete, the Brooklyn-bred Spielberg played point guard for four years on the Leon M. Goldstein HS basketball team.
“My high school PE teachers are a huge reason why I wanted to become a teacher,” says Spielberg, who graduated with a physical education degree from Massachusetts’ Springfield College. “They were tremendous role models and the impact that they had on me is exactly how I want to impact my students’ lives.”
So far, so good. His students, both in the classroom and on the court, seek their young teacher out for advice, support and some good-natured ribbing, much of it centered on his fancy footwear.
“For the record,” says the sneaker snob, who wears only Nike or Jordan, “I own 40 pairs.”