It’s not often that a teacher stays in the classroom for a half-century. Richard Herrmann did.
The Central High School English teacher, beloved by his students, is retiring after 52 years. The 75-year-old Herrmann, who noted that “a lot people don’t even live to 75,” said it was a tough decision to give up a job he loves.
Though he doesn’t have an estimate, he has taught thousands of students over the past five decades. He had 167 in his first year alone.
Herrmann graduated from Rice High School in Manhattan and then attended Iona College. After working as a graduate assistant at the University of Miami, he spent six months in the Army, stationed in Fort Dix, N.J. When he got out in 1960, he needed a job, and became a substitute teacher for the rest of the school year in Forest Hills.
That summer, looking for a full-time teaching job, he applied to Valley Stream. The starting salary was $5,400 a year, $400 more than the city paid, and it was easy to get to. “I couldn’t afford a car,” he recalled, “and it was the only place I could reach by public transportation.”
Herrmann said that he and his teenage students have always had a mutual respect, and he always says “thank you” when a student answers a question. He has seen many of his students go on to become teachers — some at Central High. Several have retired themselves.
“At first it was strange,” he said of working with former students, “but there were so many, I got used to it.”
Herrmann said he will miss his conversations with students. Many discussions in his classes have veered off into politics, sports, current events or entertainment, but it is important that students are aware of the world around them, he said. “When we go off on a tangent, I’m famous for that,” he said. “But that’s why I like Shakespeare, because he does the same thing.”
Vocabulary and spelling are two hallmarks of Herrmann’s English instruction. He said that if students don’t know what words mean, they can’t fully understand a book. A strong vocabulary also helps them in their SAT and Advanced Placement exams.
As for spelling, Herrmann said he recently read an article in The New York Times that stated that “teaching spelling is in again.” “For me it was never out,” he said. “I see misspellings everyplace. My 10th graders get a spelling quiz every week. That shocks people on Parents Night.”
Herrmann said his favorite book to teach is Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” yet it is the students’ least favorite to read. “I think that’s the most challenging book they tend to get in school in literature,” he said.
Many students have left Herrmann’s classroom knowing not just more about literature or writing, but about life. “He teaches you more than just English,” said senior Brian Sinko, this year’s salutatorian. “He teaches you about life outside the classroom. It helps to have someone that experienced giving you advice.”
Herrmann has been named to Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers seven times, and received an Excellence in Teaching award from the New York State English Council in 2003.
Changes over the years
When he taught at Central in the 1960s, he recalled, there was a strong political current at the school. Students organized demonstrations in support of civil rights. “It was almost like a college atmosphere in many ways,” he said.
He was also one of 25 teachers behind the creation of the first teachers’ union in Valley Stream. “Union” was considered a dirty word in those days, Herrmann said, and he was told by his principal that he was committing career suicide. But decades later, he’s not only still teaching, but he has been the union president for 38 years, and will stay on one more year in retirement to help with the transition to his yet-to-be-determined successor.
Technology has evolved dramatically over his 52 years in the classroom. He said he allows students to use their phones or other devices to look up information if it is relevant to a classroom discussion or “when they think I’m making it up.”
One change he said he doesn’t like has been the recent attacks on educators, specifically by politicians. He said that most teachers are good, hardworking professionals who have the best interests of their students at heart. “What I find pathetic is the constant teacher-bashing that is going on in this country,” he said. “It’s like they’re punishing all teachers for the sins of a few.”
An area that hasn’t changed much has been Central’s leadership. Herrmann has worked for only four principals in 52 years. He has taught in more classrooms — six — than he has had principals.
“In Mr. Herrmann’s last days of teaching, it is still a privilege to walk by his room to see and hear his vigor and intellect,” said Dr. Joseph Pompilio, principal for the past 11 years. “I will miss his precision lessons on spelling, vocabulary and grammar and his profound lectures on ‘Heart of Darkness.’ His presence always elevated the expectations of those around him, including myself.”
Herrmann, married for 49 years, said he plans to spend more time with his family. The Malverne resident has two children and three grandchildren.
He won’t miss grading papers in his spare time. “I’ve spent my entire career marking papers over every vacation and almost every weekend,” he said.
But he will miss the time in the classroom with students. Herrmann said that the biggest reward as a teacher was getting compliments from them. “I really liked the kids over the years,” he said, “and I’ve found that most of them liked me. That’s why I’ve stayed. Why would I not want to come to work every day when I was doing something I basically liked doing?”
Former students shared their thoughts about Richard Herrmann, who is retiring after teaching English at Central High School for 52 years.
"Mr. Hermann is one of those teachers that you just don’t forget. He was the only English teacher I had that took the time go back and teach the basics of writing. At the time, I remember dreading those tests, but looking back, I am grateful that I had that chance to build my skills. We read some great books in class when I had him. He made sure The New York Times was available to us everyday, and would pull out articles that he found interesting to share with the class, both for enjoyment and to work towards building our vocabulary. As a college student, I wish I could have him as a professor."
-Amy Singh, Class of 2010
"I had Mr. Hermann for 11th grade English. I remember that he inspired me to think. We dissected music and I remember “American Pie.” Sentence by sentence he looked for hidden meanings. He is a good memory of growing up in Valley Stream."
-Gale Chapman, Class of 1973
I had Mr. Herrmann for 11th grade English in 2004. My favorite book to this day is “The Great Gatsby” which I first read in Mr. Herrmann’s class, and two more times while serving overseas in the Navy. My mom actually had him as an English teacher when she went to Central as well.
-Andrew DeMarsico, Class of 2005