Often as children, we don’t fully realize how influential our teachers can be in our lives. They don’t just teach us about math, science, reading, and writing, but they teach us about life. Teachers often teach us about right and wrong, justice and injustice, and not just how to be a better person, but how to make the world a better place. This is exactly what this New Jersey teacher has been teaching his children for the last 50 years. How? By always keeping an empty chair in the classroom.
Why This Teacher Has An Empty Chair In His Classroom
Dan Gill has been teaching elementary school for more than five decades. During the entire length of his career, if you walk into his classroom, you’ll notice one peculiar detail: An empty chair. (1)
Ask him or his students, and you will discover that this chair is always left empty. It is not an extra chair ready and waiting for visitors. It is not there for time-outs or in case another chair breaks. Rather, the empty chair in Mr. Gill’s classroom is their symbolically. It is there to teach his students a valuable lesson on inclusion and basic human rights.
Wonderful story on Glenfield's own Dan Gill!https://t.co/r4Ic4bcPEC— Montclair Schools (@montclairschls) May 17, 2022
A Sad Story
Every year Mr. Gill teaches lessons about the Civil Rights Movement around Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. The chair is his way of helping the kids to connect more personally with the importance of the movement and basic human rights.
Mr. Gill grew up in New York City. When he was nine years old, he went to a birthday party for a kid who also lived in his building. He didn’t go alone, however, he went with his best friend Archie. Their gifts tucked under their arms, the pair rang the doorbell.
The child’s mother answered the door. When she saw Gill and Archie, she told them that there were no more chairs left. Gill was confused and said that it was okay, he could sit on the floor or go get some more chairs, it wouldn’t bother him. The woman repeated, sorry, there just weren’t any more chairs.
“And she said it again, ‘you can come in, Archie can’t,’ – my friend was humiliated,” Gill said. (2)
It was at that moment that Gill realized why the pair weren’t welcome. It was because Archie was black. Both he and Archie left in tears. The empty chair in his classroom is his way of symbolizing that story for his students and helping them understand it better.
“It’s a symbol to show kids there is room for everyone – there’s always a chair,” Gill explained.
More well-deserved attention for Glenfield's Dan Gill!https://t.co/3auT2RiD7Q— Montclair Schools (@montclairschls) May 23, 2022
A Class Of Opportunity
That day is one that Gill has never forgotten. It stuck with him all the way into his adult life when he became an educator for his career. His career has spanned more than 50 years. Near the beginning of his career, he moved from NYC to Montclair, New Jersey. He has been instrumental in integrating Montclair public schools.
The school where he works today, Glenfield Middle School, has transformed into a magnet school for the arts. Thanks to Gill, Glenfield became a model for the desegregation of other schools.
“We need to be a class of opportunity,” Gill told TODAY. “Archie was denied the opportunity to go to the birthday party because of a bias the woman had.”
Always Room For Improvement
Gill is proud of the work he has done to help fight back against racial injustices done to people of color and other minorities in the United States. He will not hesitate, however, to say that this is an ongoing movement. There is still plenty of work to be done.
By teaching his students about inclusion – the young minds who will grow up to determine laws, culture, and what “goes” in their society – he hopes the world will improve. He says that he believes his method is working. When visitors come into his classroom, his students are the first to ask them “do you know why we have that chair?”. They point out the symbol and they explain what it means. This is how Gill knows that the lesson is resonating.
An Incredible Career
At 75 years old and after more than five decades of teaching, Gill is finally preparing to retire. He is not, however, going to allow his lessons to just disappear. At a recent literary festival, he pitched the idea of a book called “No More Chairs”, where he will continue the same lesson. He plans to dedicate the book to Archie. Though he and his childhood best friend lost touch several decades prior, Gill found Archie’s family on social media and has reached out to them.
Gill’s goal with the book is that it will inspire other educators to keep empty chairs in their classrooms. He hopes that teachers across the country – or perhaps even further – teach the lesson of the chair and about inclusion.
“I hope it imparts to kids how they can be better and how they can treat people better. I hope they will be decision-makers in their own class.” he said.