Our National Treasure
Tony Mullen doesn’t just teach kids; he changes their lives. And for that he is the first-ever Greenwich teacher to be honored as National Teacher of the Year. He reflects on his year in the spotlight and how he can’t wait to get back to the classroom on Milbank Avenue
Photograph by Bob Capazzo
Where would you rather be: at the White House’s Rose Garden being lauded by President Barack Obama as an exemplar of your profession, or in a Greenwich classroom encouraging an audience of discipline cases and chronically inattentive young people to care about their future?
If you’re Anthony Mullen, the answer is easy. After a year of traveling from Greenwich to the nation’s capital to London to Toyko as the National Teacher of the Year, he can’t wait to get back to the tiny one-story building on Milbank Avenue where he teaches a small, tough group of high schoolers who, for any number of reasons, are on the verge of dropping out.
“It’s reminding them each day what value they have,” Mullen explains. “I have a saying with them: ‘The sum of all your yesterdays doesn’t equal one tomorrow.’ You have to find their strength.”
For Mullen, that strength is something he has dedicated a lifetime to building. It began in Flushing, Queens, when as a youngster in the 1960s he found school a personal refuge from a hard, unsettled life punctuated by the death of his mother when he was a boy and factory work as a teenager. As a young man in the ’80s and ’90s, working his way through the ranks of the New York Police Department, he was surprisingly impressed by the kids he brought to court for arraignment for selling drugs on the streets of Harlem and East New York. He came to realize that, for the most part, these were bright kids. “They had high intellects that just went into survival mode,” he recalls. “You saw the loss of human potential.”
One problem he saw was a lack of adult role models. It was a void he wanted to fill. Over the course of twenty years, Mullen rose to the rank of deputy inspector. NYPD brass told him he could be a deputy chief soon enough. Thinking instead about those kids, Mullen studied on his off-hours to get his education degree. Not a lot of me-time, not with a wife and three children, but that’s what makes Tony “Big Tone” Mullen tick.
Finding a Home
There have been fifty-nine National Teachers of the Year since the award was first given in 1952 by the Council of Chief State School Officers. According to Andy Drewlinger, a project assistant for the Teacher of the Year program, Mullen is the first from Greenwich to win the award, and the second special-education teacher to take the honor.
Mullen agrees that there’s a common misperception that “special education” refers specifically to teaching the mentally retarded. Special education supports a wide range of students struggling with severe problems of many different kinds. Tom Fleming, 1992 Teacher of the Year, was a special-education teacher who focused his work at correctional institutions. Mullen deals less with the criminal type than what might be called the severely disaffected, drop-out risks often diagnosed as emotionally disturbed or learning disabled, known as EDLD for short. “Emotionally disabled students graduate at a lower rate than students with mental retardation,” Mullen notes.
The humble brick building that is the Arch School is set between Milbank Avenue and a hillock where an observatory rests, just a few yards from the entrance to Julian Curtiss Elementary School. The Arch School was created in 1989 to provide a supportive and nurturing environment to a troubled high school-age population—a majority of which have been diagnosed as EDLD. Over the years it has moved several times, faced severe cutbacks and was even rumored to be shutting down.
Arch School teachers say their school is often seen as a “dumping ground,” and that their physical isolation from Greenwich High School is matched at times by a professional separation from other staff and faculty in the Greenwich public school system. In a town where high test scores and Ivy League access are seen as birthrights, an aura of unconscious invisibility can descend upon a school that for years was derided as “the Sandbox” or other, crueler names.
Barbara Varanelli, the Arch School’s program administrator, is a fifteen-year Arch veteran who started as the school guidance counselor. “I remember when we moved to Dundee School [the second of four locations she has known], the then superintendent of schools came over one day and said, ‘Don’t get comfortable, you aren’t going to be here long.’ He wanted to get rid of us totally.”
There’s more town support these days for Arch School, especially now that one of its own carries the banner for teachers nationwide. “Tony has raised awareness for what Arch is about,” says Sharon Turshen, assistant director of pupil personnel services and one of the Arch School’s founders. Clare Harding, the Arch School’s guidance counselor, remembers her first impression of Mullen as a teacher. “The first time I heard him teaching a class, I thought, This is someone very special. He is delivering a Cadillac program in a modest setting.”
Just what that means depends on the class. For a forensics class, students may walk in and find a dummy made up to resemble a victim in a crime scene, painstakingly assembled by Mullen, who knows what the real thing looks like from his past life. A physics class may involve taking students outside and demonstrating how gravity acts differently against a basketball and a baseball, or else designing a model from a book to test if it really works.
Mullen is a big believer in reinforcing learning by doing, especially with young people who struggle with far more than equations and big words. “If I have a child who is having issues in her life and I ask her to read five or six pages, her mind is going to drift right back to that issue that’s troubling her,” he says. “If I bring her and her classmates outside and start bouncing balls with them, they’ve forgotten about that fight they’ve had with their mother that morning.”
A Different Way of Teaching
Getting outside the Arch School is not only an option but, at times, a necessity. There are just four classrooms, all fairly small. When a student has an emotional outburst, not uncommon, it might as well be played on a PA system.
Nicole is a twelfth grader who came to the Arch School two years ago after too many cut classes at Greenwich High. Quiet-voiced, with bright, dancing eyes and short brown hair, she remembers her first impression of Arch School. “I was saying, ‘I’m going to be in this building? What!? What!?’ Just the size of it got me mad.” Mullen sees that as a common reaction. “They feel marginalized when they come here, absolutely,” he notes. “They know the type of facility this is just from looking around.”
What Mullen and the other Arch School staff (in addition to Varanelli and Harding, there are three other regular teachers and three instructional assistants) must deal with is breaking through such attitudes as Nicole’s, as well as the self-doubt and insecurity that comes with every new arrival. “You have to know what they need, talk to them, find out what’s of interest to them,” explains Sarah Guidotti, an English and sociology teacher at the school.
The teachers also have to bring a lot of patience. “We deal with kids who are very emotionally disturbed, who have learning disabilities, and/or have processing problems,” Varanelli notes. Not to mention missing filters between mind and mouth. It’s not unknown for a teacher to be greeted by a new pupil with a comment akin to “nice rack!”
“A teacher in a [regular] high school, when a kid like that walks into a room, already labels them a bad kid,” says Matthew Hartigan, a teacher filling in this year while Mullen does his Teacher of the Year travels. “Whereas here, we’re not trying to disrespect students. That works well with a lot of them.”
The smallness of the physical plant can be a plus. Getting to know people individually isn’t something you have to work hard at here. Even lunch breaks down walls. With no school cafeteria, students eat in classrooms, usually settling into one with a specific teacher.
“Each member of our staff gravitates to different types of kids,” Varanelli explains. And Mullen? “Tony gets the kids who used to beat the crap out of people,” says Joyce Donnelly, a longtime Arch instructional assistant. When Mullen deals with a first-time miscreant, the student may be surprised when the tall man with the imposing stare kicks off the conversation by offering a piece of candy.
“You find with your so-called bully, it often starts with a problem at home,” he says. “Really deep down, bullies are the most fragile students we have. They aren’t afraid of other people, but they are afraid of life, what it will do to them. Because they often come from abusive homes, our job is to make them aware of that, let them know it’s their turn to cut the cycle of abuse, not pass it on to others.”
One way Mullen connects not just with bullies but many other students is by getting them in the gym. A dedicated gym rat himself, he encourages pickup basketball games as a way of fostering teamwork and communication. It gets results, students say.
Jorey, a senior, came to the Arch School after being kicked out of Greenwich High. He got to know Mullen at the gym, exercising, playing basketball and weightlifting. “We kicked it off real well,” he says. Mullen and the other teachers helped Jorey overcome a shyness about asking questions in the classroom, he says, breaking down difficult concepts into digestible parts.
“I had Tony in forensics last year,” says Sandra, an athletic senior who has grown up in foster homes. “I’m not a science
person. But he’s a hands-on person, and really helps you get to understand what he’s teaching. He takes it a step at a time.”
The challenge of teaching at the Arch School comes not only from working with problem students, but also with individuals with very different kinds of problems. “We still have a system of education where they consider emotional disabilities as singular, and they aren’t at all,” Mullen says.
When Matt, another senior, first came to Arch School, he suffered from a depression that as he explains “was almost physical, like a thick cloud just descending on you.” He found himself so affected he was unable to move his pencil fast enough to take notes. For a while, he sat next to another student who, it turned out, had a phobia about pencils. That led to an outburst or two.
Tony Hernandez saw situations like that during his time as an Arch School student, from 2005 to ’07. “In the classroom you had kids who didn’t have any direction whatsoever, substance abusers. Big Tone figures out a way to connect with someone, and they never let go. It’s a whole different level than teacher-student.”
Since graduating in 2007, Hernandez has earned a vocational degree in electronics and is now studying business at Norwalk Community College. His success story is one Mullen and the other teachers like to tout, but it’s not unique.
According to Turshen, from 2007 through ’09 Arch School has graduated thirty-nine seniors without a single dropout. Most graduates immediately go on to a job or else some kind of post-secondary education, whether to a vocational school or college. Arch School staff helps out in this process, even arranging summer internships with local businesses. Students say they know the tough part will be leaving the security of Arch School, but feel equipped to make smart choices and maintain positive momentum.
“We all struggle in some ways,” Sandra says. “But all the kids I see, they’re going to be successful. If we didn’t have Arch, we’d drop out.” Mullen is missed by Sandra and the other students, who describe him as special. “He’s a very unique person,” Matt says. “I think he’ll be the one teacher I remember for the rest of my life.”
Mullen hasn’t stopped teaching in his year away from the Arch School; his classroom has just gotten much larger. As National Teacher of the Year, he has been on the road speaking before audiences large and small, usually in the hundreds, regarding the mission of education and what he regards as the critical need to support students on the margins. One thing he worries about is the failure of schools to provide adequately for the non-academically inclined student, who would rather learn a trade than go to college.
“It’s a big issue in this country, because Greenwich is not different from other school districts in that we are focused totally on the academic piece,” he says. “In fact, we are getting rid of vocational education and replacing it with extra math and science classes, because we feel that this will help bring up standardized test scores. But we are missing the point that not everyone is meant to go to college.
We need electricians. We need quality heating, HVAC personnel. We need people to fix our computers. These are all high-skilled jobs that you can attain with a two-year post-secondary education.”
Mullen estimates he will have spoken at 170 such events when it all comes to an end in June, capped fittingly enough by his delivering the commencement address at Greenwich High School.
Then it’s back to the Arch School, a prospect that pleases not only Mullen but his wife Susan. “It’s been a blessing,” she says of the Teacher of the Year designation. “But not having a routine has been rough.”
Mullen’s reign as Teacher of the Year lives on. The video record of Mullen’s introduction to the national press from President Obama remains active on YouTube, along with Mullen’s calm acceptance speech. (“I only looked calm because you couldn’t see the knees shaking under the podium.”) There’s also a new Chicken Soup for the Soul book, Teacher Tales, which features a Mullen-penned foreword and opening chapter as well as contributions from all the 2009 Teacher of the Year nominees.
“It’s something that goes on for years, indeed, for the rest of their lives,” says Drewlinger. “We always use the present tense when we talk about someone, say they are 2009 Teacher of the Year, because they continue on in the role after the year is over.”