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Teacher Keeps Empty Chair in Classroom for Over 50 Years for an Incredible Reason

The teacher has kept an empty chair in his classroom for over 50 years for an incredible reason. Teachers are like magicians with their bag of tricks. They somehow manage to get important points across. If one technique doesn’t work, another is used. But one technique has been used by 75-year-old teacher Daniel Gill throughout his whole 52-year career.

Ever since the 1970s, his classroom at Glenfield Middle School in Montclair, New Jersey, has had an additional chair located in the center of the room. It’s not a method of punishment, nor a reserved seat for admin or a parent, but it serves as a reminder for both Dan and his students. A reminder to stay kind. Each year, he teaches lessons around Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday about the Civil Rights Movement.

Dan told today that he wanted to connect the students in a personal way to what that meant in the 1950s. When Dan was nine years old, he and his best friend Archie went to a birthday party held in the same apartment building where Dan was living. Gifts in hand, the boys arrived and knocked on the door, excited for the festivities to begin.

The mother of the child who was celebrating their birthday opened the door and invited Daniel to come in but took one look at Archie and told him there were no more chairs left. Dan, confused at the situation, offered to sit on the floor, share the one chair, or to get more from his own apartment.

But the woman just repeated that there were no more chairs. Then it dawned on Daniel. The only difference between him and Archie was that they had different skin colors. Dan was white, and Archie was black. The two left together that night in tears, but it would be a moment that inspired the teacher, driving him to where he is today, to Montclair from New York City as a new teacher, and worked to transform Glenfield Middle School, where he teaches today, to become a Magnet School for the Arts.

The school became a model for other schools’ desegregation with the help of Daniel, who, at 25 years old, was full of confidence that he could make a difference. He was central to the implementation of the house system, where students stay with the same core teachers through their three years of middle school. “We need to be a class of opportunity,” Daniel said. Archie was denied the opportunity to go to the birthday party because of a bias the woman had. That’s where the empty chair comes in.

“I put a chair in my classroom so that anybody who comes to my classroom filled with anticipation like a party would feel welcome,” he said. The chair and what it symbolizes have been Dan’s guiding principle as a teacher and as a person. Not all of us can become presidents or senators, but if all of us do our due diligence in how we treat other people, then this will be a better world. Is the chair really empty when it holds such incredible weight of injustice, inequality, and discrimination? However, the simplicity of it might be the strength of the symbol.

“One of my jobs is to take complex ideas and make them meaningful to kids. Kids work well with symbols,” Dan told the Modern Met. It’s a reminder that they can do better academically, socially, and emotionally, but also to make people feel welcome and make this a better place to live. He knows that his message is resonating when visitors come to the classroom, and the kids ask the newcomers, “Do you know why we have that chair?” Dan is planning to retire from teaching after the 2022-2023 school year, but this will not be the end, as he’s driven to spread the message of the empty chair far beyond Montclair.

He’s planning to write a book dedicated to Archie, who passed away last year. The two had lost touch decades ago, but Dan found his relatives on social media. The book will be called “No More Chairs,” and Dan hopes it will inspire other teachers to keep an empty chair in their classroom. “In my wildest dreams, I hope it imparts the kids how they can be better and how they can treat people better. I hope they will be decision-makers in their own class,” Dan said.

“I’ve had 52 years of doing what I love,” Dan admitted. “It has kept me young, being surrounded by young people who energize me and teach me how to be a better person all the time. I never had to work a day in my life.” His love and dedication to teaching have not gone unnoticed, as Daniel has received two Western awards for excellence in teaching, as well as the Montclair NAACP’s 2013 teaching award. His main goal as a teacher is to help his students be a little bit more curious.

“I’m not big on getting the right answer. I ask lots of questions. I try to create an atmosphere where curiosity is rewarded, and no question is done. And I try to get them to apply that curiosity to themselves and their world. Curiosity and acceptance are two of the lessons that we can take from Daniel Gill, and we can do more than hope that there will always be enough chairs for everyone.

Let us know what you thought of this story in the comments below. Do you have any memories of a special teacher? Was there something they did that taught you valuable lessons? Can’t wait to read your answers, and I hope you have a wonderful day or evening.

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