Why I teach

A guest post from Tony Mullen

The reasons why I teach are not straightforward or simple. They come from my experiences as a child and as an adult and what I learned along the way. I hope those experiences help me to better understand children in my classrooms.


In the spring of 2009 I was invited to the White House by the president of the United States to receive my nation’s highest teaching honor. President Obama would greet me in the Oval Office and later hold a formal press conference in the Rose Garden, officially naming me the National Teacher of the Year in front of an assembly of fellow state teachers of the year, family and friends, and a busy group of national and international journalists holding pens, cameras and microphones. This professional accolade is designed to be the pinnacle of all teacher awards, and it provided me more than my fair share of fame for over one year.

Ambassador teacher

The National Teacher of the Year is an ambassadorial role in which the recipient advocates for students and the teaching profession by speaking at over 150 engagements in every state and a few foreign nations. The task can be grueling because all these speaking engagements are jammed into a one-year time period, but planes, trains and automobiles helped me travel over 300,000 miles to reach every podium. But a podium and spotlights could not replace where I truly belonged, in my classroom mentoring and teaching teenagers afflicted with acute emotional and learning disabilities. Stripped of all the accolades I received while performing my duty as National Teacher of the Year, I am seen for whom I am, a classroom teacher.

I walked in their shoes

Why did I become a teacher? It’s a good question and one not easily answered unless clichés are randomly thrown about cocktail hour. Teaching is an honorable profession. Teachers make a difference in the lives of children. I love children. All or some of these reasons can apply to most teachers, but they are superficial and do not answer a very complex and personal question. Many professions are honorable and help make a difference in the lives of children. And with the exception of a few forest dwellers in Grimm fairy tales, most people love children. I became a teacher because mostly lousy teachers taught me, and I wanted to work with teenagers who mirrored my life and might benefit from an adult who once walked in their leaden footsteps.

Rosebud moment

Too many young people have a Rosebud moment when childhood ends abruptly and their life is forever changed. A home becomes a house and love and tenderness are replaced with sorrow, pain and regret. My Rosebud moment occurred when I was a nine-year-old boy and came home to find my mother lying dead on the kitchen floor. The doctors said her brain bled and she died painlessly. Her name was Sarah and she was born in Scotland, and, coincidentally, her parents died when she was nine years old. So she was raised in a bleak orphanage and later came to America to start a family and to seek salvation from her Rosebud moment.


The Scots are a stoic people who mourn in silence and pretend the dead never lived. I grew up never seeing a picture of my mother or learning about her brief life. I went to school and listened to teachers remind students to “have their mother’s sign their homework” or ask for “a mother to volunteer for such and such a committee” or to bring in some baked goods for a cake sale. I wanted to remind my teachers that I had no mother and I did not know how to bake a cake. What did I learn? Empathy. I teach because I feel empathy for children and teenagers who lost the greatest of all love too young.


My father tried his best to raise two boys but failed miserably. He quickly remarried and sent my brother and me to live far away in upstate New York with a stepmother who was still angry that a house had fallen on her sister. My stepmother was physically and emotionally abusive, and she would not cook dinner for my brother and me unless we acquiesced to all her insufferable demands. So I learned how to cook TV dinners and enjoyed the small brownie treat tucked squarely at the end of the foil dish. What did I learn? Self-reliance. I teach because I want troubled teenagers to learn how to overcome adversity.

Life is unpredictable

My father divorced my stepmother after two years of marriage and the sight of two bruised young boys. I returned to my old NYC neighborhood and friends, and lived with my grandmother in a one-room apartment. My brother and I slept on a couch, feet to face, and yes, teenage boys’ feet smell. Life was taking a turn for the better and then my grandmother died in her sleep. I tried to wake her but she was cold and staring blankly at the ceiling. I was 16 years old and had to say goodbye to a woman who never learned how to read or write but had the wisdom of a sage. What did I learn? Life is unpredictable. I teach because I want my students to know that life is about change, some good and some bad, but always changing.


After my grandmother died I lived with my father, and once again my life was changing for the better. I had many friends, shared a bedroom with my brother and had a part-time job after school. I was saving for a used car because I was growing restless and needed to see the world outside my neighborhood. I felt an urge to fly but settled for four rubber wheels. And once again change intervened and my father became sick. He died when I was 19. What did I learn? Perseverance. I teach because I want to instill perseverance in my students.

Origin is not destiny

I worked in a paint factory and later the New York City Police Department. I rose through the ranks and became an inspector. I was awarded some of the police department’s highest medals and inducted into the NYPD Honor Legion. But such accolades mean little when every day I witnessed scores of young people handcuffed and taken to jail because they did not understand the value of empathy for others, how to become self-reliant or how to persevere in the face of adversity. These young people did not understand that origin is not destiny and consequently exchanged a future for a six by eight prison cell.


One day a young teenage girl stood on top of a fire escape and threatened to jump. The six-story fall would have killed her, and some onlookers were encouraging her to jump. I crawled through a small window and stood near her on the fire escape. I told her that she was young and beautiful and had many people who loved her. I fed her clichés she was not willing to swallow. And then she jumped. I’m not quite sure what happened next but I leaped at her and managed to grab her left arm. Her weight started to pull me over the fire escape and I was losing my grip. And then I saw her eyes and she looked at me. She was frightened and did not want to die. I prayed for strength because I did not want to be the last person she saw as she fell to her death, and I did not want to see the look in her eyes as she slipped from my grip. I managed to pull her up and over the fire escape railing and we both sat down huffing and puffing. What did I learn? Redemption. Distraught teenagers need a second chance to redeem themselves. They are apprentice adults who need someone to catch them before they fall from grace.

Why good teachers teach

I was relieved when my tenure as National Teacher of the Year ended because I heard a school bell ring and I was able to answer it. I returned to my classroom and to those who most needed me in their dysfunctional lives. I cannot answer the question why I teach without telling the story of my life because my story is written on the pages of the lives of too many children. My story is the story of the students whom I teach and mentor. And that is why I teach. Really, that is why all good teachers teach.

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Tony Mullen
Special education teacher Anthony Mullen was named the 59th National Teacher of the Year in 2009. He now teaches full-time at an alternative high school and part-time at a local college. He writes for various education publications, voicing his opinion from the perspective of a classroom teacher. His commentaries are often contrary to the opinions of politicians, policy makers and pundits, but they have their agenda and he has his.