In his 20 years as a New York City cop, some of it serving within the gang unit, Anthony Mullen crossed the paths of area youth many times. And what he saw worried him so much he decided to pursue a second career as a teacher so that he could be at the front end of these tragic cases and hopefully change the outcomes.
But as a husband and father of three, going to school and working full-time took its toll, and after a year of doing both, he was on the verge of quitting the masters program.
“I was physically and mentally exhausted and I told my wife I can’t do this and she said, Don’t make any hasty decisions, why don’t you sleep on it,’” Mullen said. “And I’m glad she did because later that night [the police station] got a call.”
A 15-year-old girl was perched at the top of a fire escape, screaming down to a gathering crowd. Mullen raced to the scene, climbed the stairs, and squeezed through the window to join the girl on the deck.
“I remember telling this young lady she was beautiful, and she had a whole life ahead of her, and I was just about to tell her something else when she jumped,” Mullen said, who dove to catch the girl. With quick work from Mullen and his partner, she was safely rescued–though, in truth, she rescued him, too.
“I saw her later on the street, and she was with a group of her friends, listening to music, and I realized we had each given each other something special that night
she’d given me the energy to finish my degree because I knew that’s what teaching was all about,” said Mullen, who has taught special needs students for the past nine years and was named the 2009 National Teacher of the Year.
He shared his street-level perspective and success in working with young people in crisis with a packed crowd Sunday afternoon.
For the past seven years, Mullen has worked at an alternative school in Greenwich, Conn., a school where the kids arrive angry, bitter and intent on dropping out. In fact, according to statistics, a student leaves school every 26 seconds and by the end of his session, more than 150 students will have dropped out, Mullen said.
Reversing this trend requires a paradigm shift from teachers and administrators, he said. One of the most important changes is realizing that unless the social and emotional needs of children are addressed, academic achievement will be impeded, because they are all intertwined.
“When I first started at my school, I saw nothing but chaos and behavioral problems and yet I saw teachers just handing out worksheets and I remember one teacher telling me This is what [the students] want,’” Mullen said. “So I said, Do you have any other tips?’ and she said, Yeah, if you want three back, assign five.”
Clearly, this was just busy work and not the kind of academic intervention these kids needed, he said. Not only has that changed, but students and their parents or guardian have a meeting with teachers every six weeks.
Yet, instead of this being view as a burden or onerous, students actually look forward to these conferences because they are not structured and are meant to be enlightening instead of confrontational.
“It’s a meeting about them, and you’d be surprised what they bring up at this meeting and what they let us know
because we’ve created a safe haven,” Mullen said. “Research has shown that students don’t say they drop out because it’s too academically challenging. They tell us time and time again, they left because nobody cared, nobody paid attention to whether they showed up or not. Whether that’s real or perceived is irrelevant.”