Anthony Mullen's thick Bronx accent and tough demeanor gave him his street cred for the 20 years that he patrolled New York City as a cop. The 50-year-old former deputy inspector isn't using his stern disposition to cuff teenage gang members anymore, though.
Instead he's teaching them -- as a special education teacher in Greenwich, Conn.
"You can be more proactive than reactive in the lives of young people," Mullen said. "I get to spend real time with students coming from poor social backgrounds, rather than have brief encounters like in the police department."
Mullen turned in his badge 10 years ago to educate at-risk teenagers at Arch School, a program within Greenwich High School, for students who've struggled in the standard public school system.
"They have emotional disabilities, then economic disabilities, then learning disabilities," Mullen said. "Taken all together, many have failed out of regular high school."
The former cop begins to lose his brusqueness when he talks about his students.
"You have angry and disappointed kids coming through school who've felt nothing but failure," he said. "Not only on an academic level but on a social level." Combined, these failures lead to dropping out. "They want to join the one million kids who leave our schools every year."
But students are less likely to fail when they have a teacher they want to do right by, Mullen believes.
"The very best teachers hook you emotionally to the point that you want to intrinsically do well for them," Mullen said.
That's exactly what happened between Mullen and two brothers who, as he puts it, were waiting to turn 16 to drop out of school.
In his physics class, Mullen noticed the older brother's interest in electricity. He showed the boy how much an electrician was paid and told him, "If you go to a two-year vocational school, you could become an electrician, have a good income and, most important, do something you love."
Mullen then helped him get into one of the best vocational schools in Connecticut.
His brother had an aptitude for auto work. "He enjoyed taking engines apart and putting them back together," Mullen said. "He understood the complexities of machinery, something a lot of academics can't do."
Mullen added more auto lesson plans to his curriculum to keep the boy's focus, got him an internship at a local auto shop, and encouraged him to further his education after high school. He's now an auto technician for Honda and, years later, came back to thank Mullen for inspiring him.
"They warm your heart," Mullen said. "As a human being, you've helped another human being become a constructive member of society. You know that you've done your job."
Last year the president awarded Mr. Mullen the 2009 National Teacher of the Year award, which he describes as an overwhelming moment -- one he'll always cherish.
"But I don't think President Obama would recognize me if we ran into each other on the street," he said. "These young people whose lives I've changed, they will remember me."
Mullen supports America's Promise Alliance, Colin Powell's initiative to mobilize America to end the dropout crisis.