New York teacher of the year says he’s a ‘rebel with a cause’

On a recent Friday morning, a group of freshmen pointed out their chemistry teacher, Billy Green. The students were in groups, tasked with completing mathematical equations related to physical chemistry and then presenting them to Green for points.

After several failed attempts, the group of students from A. Philip Randolph Campus High School in Harlem finally felt ready and raised their hands.

But when Green approached, the students hadn’t decided who would present, and then they began to doubt their conclusions.

“So I’m going to stop you – why do you think? You’re not ready to present,” Green said. guess what, I have 30 other students, so you all lost your turn, so now you better get it right.

Green gave them a clue on how to fix what turned out to be incorrect work. “Are you serious right now?” said an irritated student as Green walked away.

Training students to work together, especially under pressure, is central to how Green, recently named New York State’s Teacher of the Year, teaches. He reminded his class that “science is about collaboration, discussion, discovery” – and revealed that this was a hands-on activity that would not be graded that day.

Green’s journey to teaching has been a difficult one, a point that was underscored when he was recently honored with the state award. He grew up in poverty and homelessness, often squatting in abandoned buildings, while his mother struggled with drug addiction. Still, he fell in love with school and education at an early age, and with his mother’s nudge and the help of a trusted high school teacher, Green enrolled in college. university.

A few years into his first teaching job at the High School For Environmental Studies in Manhattan, Green, who was not tenured at the time, said he was fired for showing up late. Many times. (Department for Education spokesman Nathaniel Styer confirmed Green was “dropped out” as a teacher in 2007 and returned to full-time teaching in 2009, but said he couldn’t provide more details about what had happened).

Green said he made those mistakes because he wasn’t brought up to know that time management was important – one of many skills he hopes to impart to his students, hence the restrictions time on group activity Friday.

He has taught at six schools over his 20-year career, including a program on Rikers Island. When asked why he moved around so much, he said he intentionally left after a few years because he felt that other schools that primarily served many low-income students could benefit from his teaching methods. .

Several former students shared rave reviews of Green, saying he inspired them to come out of their shells. But Green acknowledges that his teaching style and focus on culturally appropriate education are not universally appreciated, pointing to a recent New York Post article criticizing his approach. Although both his former and current headmaster agreed to name him Teacher of the Year, he also noted that, as with any job, he didn’t always agree with past bosses. This earned him the nickname “Rebel With A Cause”.

Green wants his mostly black and Latino students to feel connected to science, a field still dominated by white workers. That means finding connections between what he teaches and their backgrounds, like introducing them to prominent scientists who look like them or challenging stereotypes.

“What keeps blacks and browns from studying math,” he told the class, “is someone told you that you can’t be wrong.”

Chalkbeat sat down for a brief interview with Green. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You talked about this collaborative model. What informed this? Is this how you have always taught or is it an evolution of your teaching methods?

So I went to one of the toughest schools in the country, Williams College… And you set the bar so high that even the smartest who think they’re the smartest and the weakest who think they’re are the weakest have no choice but to work together.

So one of the biggest patterns I learned at Williams College was that to be successful in business, to be successful in the world, you had to know how to collaborate with different people and different places, things, communities. Part of that has always been: setting the bar high, not overemphasizing smarts or smarts, and more, who collaborates with whom and who builds each other up?

How do you kind of take the way you grew up and bring that into the classroom? One of your former students mentioned that he knew where you were from, he knew your history, and so do you talk about that in class? And how do you let that inform your teaching?

I can’t wake up and take my identities away, can I? So I was always taught by my mother [to] never hide who i am, do you? Always present my authentic self. So I’m Puerto Rican, like I said, black, Italian, gay, [Williams]-educated… I learned a lot about how to survive in these environments. So what I teach my kids is survival, right?

And there are many times in my subject, okay, where I’m able to tell them a story, or things that I’ve been through because my subject, chemistry, is related to the world. I’m doing a project called Chemistry in the City that a lot of kids love, because every unit, they have to go to their communities or their cultures, and bring back something that’s related to chemistry content, then I become a learner. Right? This is why I teach like I teach, because my teachers have affirmed me and I know what that affirmation looks like when you are a marginalized person or a marginalized identity. So I want all students to feel that in these spaces.

At the end of the lesson, you were saying why Regents exams aren’t everything, and then you specifically called out blacks and browns. (He said, “What keeps black and brown people from studying math is someone told you you can’t be wrong.”) Can you tell me more about this topic ?

There is a stereotype that black and brown people hate math. They’ll say, “Oh, I don’t like that. Right? They have phobias of it. There are many stereotypes that Asians perform better or white people perform better.

I rebuild their self-esteem. I make them work together to let them know it’s okay, there’s a big misunderstanding between blacks and browns who just say, “We’re crabs in a barrel”. I know that. I live in black and brown communities. So it’s my job to let them know you’re not crabs in a barrel, we’ll uplift each other. Don’t scratch each other.

In your opinion, what are the challenges of this school year?

So the challenge that I think students face – and it’s the only challenge that I’ve always faced in these kinds of schools – is the lack of knowledge about what’s next. So the point of my teaching is to teach them what they can’t find in books, right? And it’s connecting their science to their community, connecting their science to their cultures, connecting science to a career, connecting science to literacy, okay, I want them to do those things. And the challenge becomes, when not everyone is on the same page, right? Pedagogically, you push for certain things and then the programs pull you the other way.

They will say, “No, we don’t do that” or, for example, “Don’t overdo it”, like what they say in the [recent New York Post] article right there. Some people just don’t understand the need to incorporate student voices, student cultures, student lives into the curriculum. They shouldn’t come here and be robots and controlled, overwatched. You know, that’s not the point of education. So the big thing for me, as I said, is just to create spaces that emancipate, liberate, and educate.

What’s the next step for you?

This is the saddest part of this award. Everyone asks me, ‘So now you’re going to be the superintendent, the chancellor? When are you going to leave class? Are you kidding me? My love, my passion is in the classroom. My power with these young people is in this classroom. I’m going to do this for the next 80 years. I hope to live to be 120 so they can see what a 120 year old teacher can walk into the building and do.

Reema Amin is a journalist covering New York City schools with a focus on state politics and English learners. Contact Reema at [email protected]

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