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Teaching & Tea with Tony Mullen, 2009 Teacher of the Year

Teaching & Tea with Tony Mullen, 2009 Teacher of the YearTony Mullen has had a long road to the White House to become the 2009 National Teacher of the Year. 

For 20 years, Mullen worked as a New York City police officer. He remained dedicated to his education during that time, completing his bachelors degree and eventually attaining his teaching license. During his time with the NYPD, Mullen worked with many troubled teens. He continues that work now as a teacher to students with severe emotional and behavior problems.   

Tony shares his experience and expertise with a TeachHUB interview.

This is the second year in a row that a male, second-career teacher has been named Teacher of the Year. Do you think this is a sign that the teaching professional is breaking from traditional stereotypes?


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The teaching profession is attracting a more diverse population of non-traditional applicants and I certainly fall into that category. My selection, however, is more a recognition of the students I teach and mentor than me. I frequently remind family, friends, and colleagues that the title National Teacher of the Year implies something I am not: the nation's best teacher. That honor belongs to the thousands of teachers throughout the nation working hard each day to teach and inspire their students. I have been blessed with a wonderful honor and hope to use my title to bring attention to the many challenges facing children afflicted with emotional disabilities.


You’re known for excellent classroom management in an environment with students having severe behavioral and emotional disorders. What specific steps have you taken to create that a constructive learning community in your classroom?


Students afflicted with emotional disabilities suffer from myriad mood disorders but share the common denominator of being unhappy. I try to make my classroom a place in which students, regardless of disability, find a sense of purpose and happiness. I design lessons to include hands-on activities because staying active helps engage the student and abate anxiety or ADD ADHD issues.

My students are not unlike students assigned to regular education classrooms; the primary difference is a need for more direct emotional support from a teacher. I insist that my students work in cooperative groups to improve social skills and understand the purpose of teamwork. And I expect my students to complete rigorous academic assignments. Students afflicted with ED can be very manipulative and try to find the “easy way out” of work. They too often have a history of negotiating with teachers and doing less work.


What is the golden rule in your classroom – for your students?


Students must demonstrate compassion for fellow students. I expect that my students will help each while participating in group activities or during a personal moment, such as making a cup of tea for a fellow sick student.

There are countless times during the day when I can find an opportunity for a student to show compassion. And compassion for others helps teach students that they are part of a greater community of people that have needs. ED students suffer greatly but need to be reminded that many other people are in pain. My students need to know that they cannot be self-absorbed in their own problems.


What is the golden rule in your classroom – for you as a teacher?


It’s not personal. I do not view the misbehavior of my students as a personal attack against my teaching skills. When a student has a “really bad day,” it’s usually because something happened at home. They come to school the next day in a much better mood.


How do you deal with moments of frustration when even these practiced techniques aren’t working?


I make a cup of tea and let the student expel their anger/frustration/pain. As long as the student is not being directly disrespectful to a teacher or fellow student or causing harm to others, I just watch them vent while dipping my cookie into a hot cup of tea.

It’s amazing how quickly the situation fades away when the student does not get to see me angry. But I worked for the New York City Police Department for 21 years and have grown immune to people yelling at me.


Is there a particular instance of reaching an especially struggling or resistant student that stands out to you? How did you get through to him/her?


Yes. I had the wonderful opportunity to teach and mentor a young man who wanted to drop out of school because he felt “stupid.” He was about 6 years behind grade/age in math, reading and writing but had a nice personality and a positive work ethic.

I engaged him in some hands-on electronics activities and quickly discovered that he had a remarkable gift to diagnose problems. He understood the relationship between parts and a whole. I encouraged him to stay in school and helped him get through the math. A very dedicated guidance counselor helped me get this young man a scholarship to a high quality technical school, and he is now a certified electrician.


What do you miss from your time as a police officer?


The many people I met in NYC, particularly holiday tourists. Tourists love speaking with NYPD officers and we love speaking with them. I had the wonderful opportunity to meet people from all over the world.


Are there any similarities between the two jobs?


Police work and teaching are both people professions that require seeing the good in people.


In your biography, you describe how your community tried to shut down your school. Can you briefly explain the situation and how you rallied students to overcome this obstacle?


A small but vocal group of community “activists” wanted to close my school because they felt the students did not respect the neighborhood or building we rented. I told my students that only they could change public perception. So I invited my students to a meeting organized by the neighborhood association. I wanted those people to see and hear my students; to see the faces of my students and to hear their personal stories. All communities have the right to voice their concerns and worries and that is what public discourse is all about. I just wanted my students to be part of that discourse. My students did an excellent job answering questions and they let the community know they had value. I was very proud of them.


Describe your teaching philosophy in one sentence.


Passion, professionalism and perseverance are the keys to effective teaching.


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