Josh Berberian: Teaching Students, Not Content

Kathy Smith

“If you had asked me as a student at Haverford High if I was going to be a teacher, I probably would have laughed at you,” says Josh Berberian, Upper School math teacher and head of Shipley’s math department. “It’s just that I was set on being an engineer.”

But everybody knows life doesn’t always go according to plan, something that Berberian, a fastidious planner and highly organized individual, is coming to terms with as life rolls on.

When Berberian learned that Brown University’s engineering curriculum mapped out his entire education, leaving little room for exploration in the arts, he changed course. “I took jazz classes. I took writing classes. I also took some education classes,” he says casually, not revealing in tone the monumental impact that single decision has had on the rest of his life.

Learning at the Knees of Education Giants

“I took a class with Ted Sizer,” says Berberian. “Sizer was an innovator in urban education at the time, and he emphasized many of the ideas that independent schools have adhered to all along. He advocated for 80 students in a grade. He suggested that teachers should develop relationships with the students inside and outside of the classroom, and that those relationships would go a long way when it came to teaching content and academics at a deeper level.”

Berberian put theory into practice during a semester when he took courses at the prestigious Bank Street College of Education and served as a student teacher at Central Park East Secondary School. Deborah Meier, founder of the small schools movement, was serving as principal at the time. “I was inspired,” he says of his experience. “I knew then that I would go into education right out of college.”

Berberian’s first job was at the St. Thomas Choir School, a “little boarding school in Manhattan.” Again, Berberian found himself under the tutelage of an individual who was changing the education landscape for the better. “I was hired to teach math. Gordon Clem (Headmaster at St. Thomas) was a math guru. He pretty much started the whole idea of using manipulatives in the classrooms in the ’60s. He started kinesthetic learning.”

Berberian’s formative experiences with incredible educators were lucky, he says. “Like most things in life, you don’t realize it at the time. You look back later, and you realize how very fortunate you were.”

Teaching Students, Not Content

Berberian’s teaching style has evolved, molded by his early influences, by his colleagues, and by the students he loves to teach. “I’ve learned that ‘teaching’ is not about teaching content, although content is important. I’m teaching students. That’s a whole paradigm shift."

And math is not a one-way street. “While I like to be structured and organized because the kids deserve to have their time spent well, I also provide pockets of time during class for students to discuss mathematics. There needs to be a dialogue in learning. That’s the kind of thing that Shipley offers.”

For the Love of Shipley

A past winner of both the Margaret Bailey Speer Distinguished Teacher Award and the Greg W. Coleman Award for Excellence, Berberian has been at Shipley for 18 years. He’s very clear about what keeps him coming back every day, every year. “The students,” he says without a beat. That’s first on the list. “They are genuinely fun to be around. I can laugh with them. I can be with them even when I need to hold them accountable.”

“I love my colleagues,” he reels off quickly. “They’re so dedicated to what they do. Shipley is a great academic environment.”

There’s a pause.

“I don’t know if this is superficial,” he says, “but I love the facility upgrades that are happening. I’m excited about that!”

And then he is overcome by a seriousness, a gratitude. “I have always felt supported and encouraged to push myself—from doing coursework so that I could teach physics, to hiking the Appalachian Trail, to designing a hybrid online course in multivariable calculus. I have always had the support of the School to try new things. Shipley’s motto, Courage for the Deed; Grace for the Doing resonates with me, and it is not just lip service. Here, there is a real desire to cultivate adventurous minds and bodies.”

The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.