Each week, DNAinfo.com talks to a principal from one of Manhattan's schools. This week, it's Bob Bender, 47, of P.S. 11 at 320 W. 21st St. in Chelsea. Since Bender started in 2005, the school has become the most in-demand in the neighborhood, has expanded into its entire building and has adopted some innovative food and nutrition programs.
What was your best subject in school?
I had a worst subject, which was chemistry. I couldn't wrap my brain around that. I always liked school: I loved social studies, I loved language arts. I liked the exploratory, creative side of those. I had great teachers in all of those subjects.
What’s the school project you are the most proud of? Do you have a photo or record of it?
When I was in eighth grade, I did a photography journal that I called man versus nature, where I basically went around and took pictures of nature invading: weeds growing out of cracks or trees growing out of bridges or roadkill, things like that. I was really proud of that project. I don’t know why I think about that a lot.
Is there a teacher or principal you had that stands out? Why?
There is a teacher that stands out to me, and it’s horrible to say that I cannot remember her name, but my sixth grade social studies teacher. I think about her almost every single day. She was way ahead of her time: she was a non-textbook teacher; she had kids working at different stations. You worked at your own pace, so every kid had an individual plan. She just got me, and I think she got kids.
When did you decide to become a teacher and then a principal?
I was in the theater for a while and got sort of tired of living out of a suitcase, so I did a really insane thing and opened a restaurant in Maryland. That didn’t work out. A lot of the work I did as an actor was with teaching kids and I loved it. My mother said to me, ‘Why don’t you actually be a teacher?’ So I applied to the teaching fellows program and was accepted 11 years ago.
How did you decide that you wanted to lead the school?
Teachers always want to change the world. I had a professor who always said to me, 'You’re going to do great things as a teacher, but you’ll never be able to make a difference until you become an administrator.’ I didn’t really believe him until I started teaching, and I had a great principal. My last principal was a really amazing woman who I saw making a huge difference and she nudged me to go into administration. I ended up coming to P.S. 11.
How has the school changed since you've become the principal?
We’ve gotten a lot bigger. We were at 400 kids when I came here seven years ago; we’re at 700 now. I think we’ve become a more close-knit community school. I think we’ve become a lot better at what we do because we’ve had consistent time to really work on it. I think the level of teaching in this building is through the roof, and I just think that we finally know what we’re doing. There were some great foundations here, seven years ago. It’s just a great community and I think it’s the perfect school.
What is the most important thing that you want students graduating the school to have learned?
There’s so many things. I want them knowing that they can do anything. I want them knowing that it’s okay to not always be successful, but as long as you try, and you work hard. I want our kids to be independent problem solvers in life, and I want them to be kind.
What makes this school different from other schools?
Our diversity is one of our biggest assets. We’re an incredibly diverse school — one of the most diverse in the city, I think. I think that our philosophy about teaching a whole child — physically, mentally, emotionally — is really huge for us. We are a really big, healthy school. We grow our own food. We have our own farm market. We cook with organic foods here. We have a salad bar for kids. Our kids learn to cook beginning in kindergarten. We also are really strong believers in the arts and what arts can do for kids, so our kids sing, dance and act from the minute they walk into the room.
What do you want the school to look like in five years?
I’d like us to be able to maintain the smaller class sizes that we have. I’d like for our food program to continue to grow; we’re becoming a lot more sustainable. I’d like for our teaching to continue on the path that it’s going, where we’re allowing kids to be independent and have a choice and voice in their experiences here.
What are the obstacles to achieving your vision for the school, and how will you deal with them?
The biggest challenge in education is money. We’ve gone through a lot of budget cuts, but our kids have never, ever felt those cuts because we plan very carefully, and we have an incredibly supportive PTA, incredibly supportive council members. [City Council Speaker Christine] Quinn has been a huge supporter for us. That’s really our only obstacle — schools cost money.
If you could be Schools Chancellor for a day, what would you do/change?
I would ask everyone who works at Tweed [the Department of Education’s headquarters] to leave Tweed, go to a school and thank a teacher.