From expelled student to Stamford’s Teacher of the Year, Jon Ringel’s secret is being ‘just himself’

STAMFORD — Jon Ringel was standing a few feet away from where he spray-painted a wall inside a Stamford High School classroom as a senior in the 1990s — and for which he was suspended — when he was awarded the district’s Teacher of the Year honor last month.

The 41-year-old English and journalism teacher described himself as a poor student when he attended Stamford High. Teaching was hardly something he aspired to do once he graduated, he said.

“If you told me when I was your age I was going to be a teacher, I would have laughed in your face,” he said, repeating a line he often says to students.

Perhaps that helps explain why Ringel’s style often diverges from traditional teacher-student dynamics.

Students in his journalism class talk about how much they enjoy his class as much as they praise Ringel’s interpersonal skills.

“He’s like the one teacher that (when) you walk in, you can just have a normal conversation and then it turns into actual learning,” said senior Lucy Santora, who won a Connecticut Press Club award for feature writing in the high school category from work she produced in Ringel’s class.

“He’s helped me a lot,” said junior Marcela Aju. “Last year was a really hard school year for me. I wasn’t doing well mentally ... Whenever I needed Ringel for more for than just reading my papers, I would come and cry in here.”

Aju, who said she has struggled with anxiety and depression, said Ringel helped her cope with often difficult times.

“He definitely helped me as a person to grow,” she said.

For Mollie Herz, a senior, Ringel makes learning personal.

“He relates things to life and himself, rather than textbook life,” she said. “It’s almost like talking to a friend rather than a higher up.”

Ringel said he welcomes students who want to talk with him.

“They’re going to have other teachers that never talk to them about anything personal ... and so I think it’s OK if I’m the other side of that balance,” he said.

After graduating from college with a journalism degree, Ringel said he had no intention of taking up teaching. But after finding little rewarding work, the Queens native was encouraged by a teacher friend to try his hand at education.

Ringel took the friend up on the challenge, received a degree in secondary education from the University of Bridgeport — he later earned a degree in school administration from Sacred Heart University — and was hired in 2009 as an English teacher at Westhill High School.

A year later, he was transferred to Stamford High, where he has been ever since.

But the landmark moment in Ringel’s teaching career came when he was offered the job of leading the school’s journalism program, he said.

A journalism graduate himself, Ringel gladly accepted the assignment. Since then, the school’s newspaper “The Round Table” has racked up a number of awards, including a Silver Crown from Columbia University last year, the second highest honor bestowed by the university to high school publications.

Ringel was also instrumental in creating a popular weekly video series called “Weekly Knightly News,” which is shown to students in class and posted online.

Every year, his journalism classes are packed to capacity, with students often being turned away. Those who get in say a big part of the appeal is Ringel himself, a wisecracking and engaging educator known for his ability to connect and communicate with students.

But life at Stamford High was not always so pleasant for Ringel.

Before he was suspended during his senior year as a student, Ringel suffered an even harsher punishment during his sophomore year: expulsion for weapons possession.

“It’s the funniest tragic story,” he said.

One day during his second year in high school, Ringel decided to bring a seven-foot bullwhip to school, he said. During weightlifting class, he took it out and started whipping stationary cans, a la Indiana Jones.

The school had a zero tolerance policy on weapons, and Ringel’s case was brought to the city’s Board of Education. One of their first orders of business was determining if a bullwhip was a weapon.

“Spoiler alert: it was,” Ringel said.

He was expelled for the year. But through an appeal from the building’s principal, he only missed a quarter.

Now, as the district’s latest Teacher of the Year, Ringel said the best part of his job is his relationship with students.

“I actually do genuinely like them as people, said Ringel, who is in a number of bands — he plays keyboards in one band, drums in another — including one with former students: “It’s not just a job. I’ll hang out with these kids any time.”

Matthew Forker, the principal of the school, said Ringel’s secret is being himself.

“He’s just himself and I think that’s what teaching is all about,” Forker said. “Successful teachers are who they are. And I think that is what is great about Jon. He doesn’t need any magic tricks to get kids involved.”

Forker described Ringel as personable and approachable.

“When you have classes that are at capacity, you’re doing something right,” he said.