Astoria Characters: The Pedaling Pedagogue

Ben Sherman is standing outside his apartment building eager to hop on his bicycle.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ben works for the city’s Department of Education.

A former high school principal who works for the city’s Department of Education, he rides to work in Downtown Manhattan virtually every day on his own two wheels.

Even when he takes the subway, he rides a Citibike to and from the Queensboro Plaza station.

For Ben, it always feels like the first day of school. He can’t wait to get to work so he can make a difference.

Big, bearded and bespectacled, Ben’s imposing but not very intimidating – his soft-as-feathers, even voice is calming, and his circular goggle-like glasses give him an eccentric, comic air.

Ben has been schooled in education his entire life. His father, Norm, was an elementary school principal before he retired a number of years ago.

Ben’s a skyscraper – in stocking feet, which is how he likes to pad around his apartment, he stands well over 6 foot 5.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ben taught in China and Japan before heading to NYC classrooms.

Ben has been schooled in education his entire life. His father, Norm, was an elementary school principal before he retired a number of years ago.

The family moved to North Queensview Homes when Ben was 3. Norm and Ben live in the same building and frequently find themselves sharing the same elevator.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ben rides his bike to work nearly every day.

Ben, however, had no intention of following in his father’s footsteps.

“He thought I would make a good teacher and told me I should go into teaching,” Ben says. “But I rebelled. I’m headstrong. I didn’t want to be what he wanted me to be.”

That’s why, after high school, Ben went to an upstate agricultural school to study farming.

“My original plan was to take a gap year before starting college and move to Israel and live on a kibbutz,” he says. “I lasted one year at the school. I learned that farming was hard work. I also learned that I was allergic to hay.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ben’s the founding principal of East-West School in Flushing.

While he was recovering from a car accident, he took some education courses at Queens College, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in applied linguistics.

“I wanted to travel abroad for a year,” he says. “I taught English as a second language in China for a year then did the same thing in Japan. I thought I would be in Tokyo six months; I stayed for 11 years.”

During that time, he accomplished a lot: In addition to earning a master’s degree in education from Temple University in Tokyo, he started (and lost his shirt on) three businesses. Oh, yes, he also got married.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ben proposed to his wife at their first meeting.

He and Chi met in Shanghi. “She was thinking of studying Japanese in Japan, and she wanted to get some advice,” he says. “I met her 11:30 the night before I was leaving; I thought we were going to talk 20 minutes.”

Their chat lasted until the sun came up, and as Chi was about to leave him forever, Ben realized that he wanted to spend his life with her.

“I told her that I thought we should get married,” he says. “She thought I was crazy, but she did agree to see me again.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He was raised in North Queensview, where he now lives.

Ben changed his plane ticket, and they dated every night for a week.

“I met her parents on our fourth date,” he says. “When I got back to Tokyo, I broke up with my girlfriend of three years. For a year, Chi and I traveled back and forth to see each other then got married.”

They have two daughters – one in college and one in high school.

When they returned to New York, Ben taught high school briefly then returned to school to learn to be a computer-network engineer in what was then an emerging field.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He’s training teachers and principals.

“I did it for three years and hated it,” he says, “because it was working with machines, not people, and my crawling under desks to fix computers wasn’t changing the world in any positive way.”

So he decided to return to the classroom. After teaching at a transfer school on the Lower East Side, Ben enrolled in the Leadership Academy to train to be a principal and in 2006 became the founding principal of the East-West School, a public school in Flushing for high-poverty students in grades six through 12.

In 2017, he took the helm at Forest Hills High.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
His work is about changing lives.

“I felt it was time for East-West to grow without me, and I wanted new challenges,” he says.

In his current leadership position with the city’s Department of Education, Ben professionally develops principals and teachers.

“I want to have an impact on the lives of a large number of children and teachers,” he says.  “If and when I retire, I hope to tutor students and mentor younger principals.”

Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at, @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling