Members of the community and officials of Montclair Public Schools celebrated teacher Dan Gill on Saturday, June 17, as he retired after 53 years of teaching.
Generations of Gill’s students, parents, co-workers, elected officials and other well-wishers from Montclair filled the auditorium at Glenfield School to express their appreciation at the ceremony and reception organized by Gill’s family with the support of the Montclair Board of Education, Glenfield School, PTA and colleagues.
Referred to as a beloved icon in Montclair education, Gill has been working as an educator in Montclair Public Schools since 1970.
In addition to teaching, he was part of the committee to implement desegregation in the town’s schools in the 1970s, led the adoption of Glenfield as the first peace site of the state in 1984 and wrote a book about desegregation in Glenfield with his students in 2004. All of that without leaving his social studies classes.
Erika Pierce, principal of Glenfield Middle School thanked Gill for enriching the lives of more than 2,000 students.
“I have often referred to Mr. Gill as Glenfield’s anchor,” Pierce said. “Regardless of the severity or the duration of the storm, he keeps Glenfield grounded, centered and focused on what is truly important: the kids and the quality of their education.”
The gathering to honor Gill even drew the governor of New Jersey.
Gov. Phil Murphy said: “You are not a teacher. You are an awakener. You awoke countless hundreds, thousands of young persons over these years. … I wish I had you as a teacher.”
Mayor Sean Spiller, who is also the president of the New Jersey Education Association, thanked Gill on behalf of the community.
“You taught students to be strong leaders and have great character, and that is why people celebrate you,” Spiller said. “That is how we are going to be successful as a society; when each and every one of us do all we can like you have to make the world a better place,” affirmed the mayor.
Students are not the only ones who have benefited from Gill’s experience. Samantha Fife, a student teacher who worked with Gill during the pandemic, thanked him.
“Dan truly tackled virtual teaching by remaining dedicated and entertaining to his students,” Fife said. “He willingly stayed late to run clubs virtually after school so that students could escape their situation and still have a sense of community.”
She added, “After spending hours with students and all day on a screen, he would then pick up the phone and call me to make sure I was doing okay and felt confident in what I was teaching.”
Fife is using what she learned from Gill as a social studies teacher in Fair Lawn and implements many of Gill’s projects, like the money system. In her class, she calls the currency “Gill bills” in honor of his role in her education.
Gill has stood out for developing programs that answer students’ needs. Through Seton Hall University’s Upward Bound program, he has worked to aid students from families in lower-income areas in accessing higher education for 40 years. He also helped Glenfield to create its popular “House” system, in which students stay with the same group of core teachers throughout middle school and where he is the lead teacher of House Gill.
“House Gill is not just a house, but a home,” said Tracy Wolfson, who was accompanied on stage by Carmen Blanco, Pete Von Hoffman, Nicole Noto, Sarah Kornblum and William Boss.
“Houses provide students with a place where they feel protected and a place where they belong,” the House of Gill team members said. “Its existence has shaped young children to become true trailblazers in their community.”
Gill has often received recognition for his outstanding teaching. He received the Robert Merrill Scholar Award from Cornell University, the Euphemia Lofton Haynes Award from the Montclair NAACP and two Weston Awards for Excellence in Teaching.
Gill’s youngest son, Connor, read an essay from a former student titled “How Mr. Gill’s leadership has Inspired me.” The student extolled the tradition of making origami cranes, which were sent every year to Hiroshima, to honor the memory of Sadako and the many children who lost their lives from the effects of the nuclear bomb.
“Mr. Gill created a sense of community within the house, along with teaching us responsibility towards the world, the hallmark of great leadership,” the essay said.
Connor Gill added, “I think we all can share that sentiment” before calling his father to the stage.
Dan Gill, who turned 76 years old last month, thanked his wife, children, grandchildren and his “extended family” – the people he worked with at Glenfield.
“I tell people all the time, my career spanned this way: I went from ‘my dog ate my homework’ to ‘my computer ate my homework’ to ‘AI did my homework,’” he said.
Gill recalled memories of his early years in Montclair, when he was assigned to Hillside School, where he taught in a portable classroom. Among the challenges he faced were limited resources, teaching international students who didn’t speak English and a dog that entered while his class was being observed. All those experiences taught him that being flexible is critical for an educator.
He also took a moment to remember Patricia Podesta, a colleague at Glenfield who died from cancer in 1994. Podesta was the inspiration for the name of Gill’s well-known money system that he used in his classes.
Offering a bit of advice, Gill said: “Sit up and act like you’re somebody because so many people out there think you’re a nobody. But when you sit up and when you act accordingly, people will listen to you, and people will begin to respect you and hear what you have to say. So find whatever words in your life you can repeat and keep saying them.”
Concluding his remarks, Gill said: “How proud I am to be a teacher at that institution? How proud am I to be connected to colleagues who each and every day make kids feel they are connected to something? How cool is it?” Then he sang the Glenfield School Song as everyone in the auditorium stood up and sang and clapped along.
“He’d find out what all of his students were good at and let them lean into that skill and really bring that out of them – and really wanted to get to know his students,” said Alana Schreiber, who graduated from Glenfield in 2011.
“I can’t say that I’m necessarily or have always been the biggest history buff, but I always loved his class. Most teachers can’t do that,” said Jory Mandell, who also graduated from Glenfield in 2011. “Every other teacher I had after – they just didn’t come close. I feel so lucky and grateful that I was able to have the honor of being his student.”
Although he has retired, Gill will still be busy, working on publishing his book “No More Chairs,” which recounts the story of Gill’s childhood friend Archie, who was barred from a birthday party because he was Black. The host made the excuse that there were not enough chairs. Gill used it as an anti-racist lesson in his classes, always keeping an empty chair in the room.