A special education teacher and former police officer was honored by President Barack Obama at the White House on Tuesday as the 2009 National Teacher of the Year.
Anthony Mullen, an educator at the ARCH School in Greenwich, was chosen for the honor by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which cited his nearly 30-year career in public service. Mullen, 49, retired from his job as a New York Police Department narcotics detective eight years ago to become a teacher.
"As a police officer, so many of the kids, you get involved with them when it's too late," Mullen said. "With teaching, you get to spend a lot more time with these at-risk students and prevent them from either going to jail or harming other people, turning into something productive instead of destructive."
Mullen oversees an after-school program providing academic support for expelled students, and he has advocated for more resources to address the problems of school dropouts.
He was picked over finalists Alex Kajitani, a math teacher at Mission Middle School in Escondido, Calif.; Susan Elliott, an English and social studies teacher at Highlands Ranch High School in Highlands Ranch, Colo.; and Cynthia Cole Rigsbee, a reading teacher at Gravelly Hill Middle School in Efland, N.C.
Obama heaped praise on Mullen.
"Each of us carries with us in life 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; who refused to give up on us, no matter how difficult we were," Obama said.
The ARCH School is Greenwich's alternative high school for at-risk youth, a "last chance" to get an education, said schools Superintendent Betty Sternberg.
"Kids related to him because they know he really cares, and kids know it," she said. "Tony has the ability to look past all the struggles to find the strength and the hook to pull these kids up. He's really a classic in terms of a teacher who saves kids' lives."
While working as a police officer for 20 years, Mullen earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Long Island University in 1990 and a master's degree in elementary education and special education from Mercy College, based in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., in 2001.
After retiring from the police force, Mullen spent one school year teaching in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y. He then moved on to the ARCH School, where he has been teaching for the past seven years.
Mullen and his family met the president and first lady Michelle Obama in the Oval Office before the Rose Garden ceremony.
"To receive this award is such a validation of my students and their needs," Mullen said afterward.
Mullen, who lives in suburban Westchester County, just north of New York City, is slated to spend next year traveling the country, advocating for education. He plans to return to the ARCH School for the 2010-11 school year.
The National Teacher of the Year program began in 1952. The winner is selected by a committee of representatives from 15 national education organizations overseen by the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonprofit organization of public officials from elementary and secondary education departments.