Why this teacher has kept one empty chair in his classroom for more than FIVE decades

When you enter Daniel Gill’s Glenfield Middle School classroom in Montclair, New Jersey, you will notice a lone chair sitting in the center.

It’s not for an administrator to occupy while observing the class, nor is it a time-out chair for unruly students.

The empty chair serves as a reminder to the social studies teacher, and his students.


“I put a chair in my classroom so that anybody who comes to my classroom filled with anticipation, like a party, would feel welcome,” the father of three said.

Gill will never forget the incident that brought about this practice.

He shared his first story with students in 1980, about a 1950s encounter he had with a friend.

Gill, a nine-year-old white boy, and Archie, his best friend, were ready to attend a New York City birthday party. They brought gifts and went to the house to ring a bell.

empty chair in the middle of a classroom

The celebrant’s mother opened it and looked at the two boys before telling them there were no more chairs.

Confounded, Gill suggested that they sit on the ground or get more chairs. But the woman insisted that there weren’t enough chairs. Finally, it dawned on them that Archie wasn’t welcome because of the color of his skin. The boys handed the woman their presents and went back to Gill’s apartment, crying.

It’s an encounter that stuck with Gill through the years and drove him to where he is today.

“We need to be a class of opportunity,” he said. “Archie was denied the opportunity to go to the birthday party because of a bias the woman had.”

Daniel Gill and Archie Shaw as young school boys

Gill has been teaching for 52 year and was instrumental to integrating Montclair public school systems. He left New York City and moved to Montclair as an educator. He worked to transform Glenfield Middle School to a magnet school for the Arts.

But Gill knows there’s always more work to be done.

“Kids work well with symbols,” he said. “It’s a reminder that they can do better — better academically, socially, and emotionally — but also to make people feel welcome and make this a better place to live.”

The teacher knows the message is resonating when visitors come to the classroom, and the students ask the newcomer, “Do you know why we have that chair?”

a table with documents on it

Gill, now 75 years old, plans to retire as a teacher after the 2022-2023 schoolyear. He’s not happy about it, but he is grateful for the experience.

“I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to build something sustainable that works and addresses many of the issues we need to address, which is to help young people learn and explore, and help an underserved population move up in the world,” he said.

“I’ve had 52 years of doing what I love,” he added. “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.”

But Gill is in for another mission—to spread the message of the empty chair beyond Montclair.

Social studies teacher Daniel Gill

At a recent literary festival, he pitched the idea of a book called “No More Chairs,” which will be dedicated to Archie, who passed away last year. Gill was able to connect with his relatives via social media, even though the childhood friends lost touch after high school. He plans to reach out to Archie’s daughter.

Gill hopes that his book will inspire fellow teachers to keep empty classroom chairs.

“In my wildest dreams, 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.

To learn more about this story, click on the video below by CBS News.

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