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From Cop to Top Teacher

2009 Teacher of the Year Anthony Mullen on how schools can connect with the hardest-to-reach students.

August 2009

Sometimes the farther you get from the classroom, the more you forget the first lesson you probably learned as a rookie teacher: To paraphrase the late former House Speaker Tip O'Neill, all education is local.

If you need a reminder that the education offered in every district is delivered to idiosyncratic children, consider the case of Anthony Mullen. For 20 years, Mullen was a New York City police officer, hearing children's tragic stories and thinking: if only someone had cared enough to step in before it was too late.

Nine years ago, he became that someone, quitting the force to become a teacher. Seven years ago, he transferred to the Arch School, an alternative program within Connecticut's Greenwich Public Schools that educates about 25 students, many dealing with anxiety, depression, or eating disorders. Some have anger issues after being shuffled from one foster home to another. Some are teen moms. Others have failed academically.

In April, Mullen, 50, was named National Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers. President Obama honored him in a White House ceremony. His award serves as a reminder: There are many ways to judge a school district, including how well it serves its most troubled students.

"Each of us carries with us the love and wisdom of people like Tony-the special few who were there for us when we needed it most; who pushed us when we were afraid; who pulled us back when we were headed in the wrong direction," the President said.

A Strange Honor
Mullen says being named the nation's top teacher was surreal. "It is kind of a strange title," he says, "because it assumes something you are not. National Teacher of the Year has an implication that you are the nation's best teacher. I'm not. What it really means is they have asked you to represent the teachers and bring your message to the country."

His message? The nation's dropout rate is tragically high, and students need our help. Problems are often traced to middle school, when kids lose personal connections with teachers.

"We've had such a focus over the last 10 to 15 years with No Child Left Behind [on doing] more academically, academically, academically," he says. "We do need to improve academic performance, but not at the cost of social and emotional learning needs."
Mullen sees the high percentage of special-ed students who drop out and says it must be fixed. "We need to prevent [these children] from dropping out. We need young teachers to let these students know they have value and importance in their lives. You can't teach a more valuable population of students [than special-education students]."

In accepting his award, Mullen explained that the best teachers are able to read a child's story and understand the dynamics driving the behavior. "Good teachers know how to script confidence and success onto the blank pages. They know how to edit the mistakes. And they want to help write a happy ending."

Going Down a New Road
At the arch school, Mullen has plenty of opportunity to help rewrite his students' stories. "They want to be given something much more than an education-they want us to help heal their pain. We help speed the healing process every time we compliment a student, or make them laugh, or spend a few moments listening to their story," Mullen said in his Rose Garden speech.

Barbara Varanelli, the program administrator at Arch who nominated Mullen for the award, says he has a knack for breaking through bravado. Many students have been in trouble with police, and Mullen uses his background to help them understand their choices. "He helps them realize they don't have to go down that road," she says.

Much of Mullen's passion for reaching out to kids in crisis stems from his own childhood. "My story is their story," says Mullen, who grew up in New York City. His parents wanted him to be the first in their family to attend college, but they died when Mullen was young, and circumstance did not immediately allow Mullen to pursue his dream of teaching. He worked on a factory assembly line and then joined the NYPD.

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