NY’s Teacher of the Year says he’s a ‘rebel with a cause’

On a Friday morning, a group of freshmen stopped their chemistry teacher, Billy Green. The students were in pods and were tasked with completing mathematical equations related to physical chemistry and then submitting them to Green for points.

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

But when Green walked over, the students hadn’t decided who would be presenting, and then they began to doubt their conclusions.

“Well, I’ll stop you – why do you think? They’re not ready to present themselves yet,” Green said. “Even if it’s wrong, you have to believe in your work. I’m moving away because you know what, I have 30 other students so it’s your turn so better do it now.

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

Training students to collaborate, especially under pressure, is at the core of Green’s teachings, recently named New York State’s Teacher of the Year. He reminded his class that “science is collaboration, discussion, discovery” – revealing that it was a practice activity that would not be graded that day.

Green’s path to teaching has been a rocky one, a point made clear when he recently received the state award. He grew up in poverty and homelessness, often squatting in abandoned buildings while his mother battled a drug addiction. Despite this, he fell in love with school and education from an early age, and with prodding from his mother and the help of a trusted high school teacher, Green enrolled in college.

A few years after his first teaching assignment at the High School for Environmental Studies in Manhattan, Green, who was then on tenure, said he was fired for being late on multiple occasions. (Nathaniel Styer, a spokesman for the Department of Education, confirmed that Green was “quit” as a teacher in 2007 and began teaching full-time again in 2009, but said he could not provide further details on what happened).

Green said he made those mistakes because he wasn’t raised to know that time management is important – one of several skills he wants to pass on to his students, hence the time restrictions on Friday’s group activity.

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He has taught at six schools in his 20-year career, including a program at Rikers Island. When asked why he had moved so much, he said that after a few years he intentionally quit because he felt other schools, which cater mostly to 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 shell. But Green acknowledges that his teaching style and focus on culturally-responsive education is not universally popular, citing a recent New York Post article in which he criticized his approach. While his former and current principals both agreed to nominate him teacher of the year, he also noted that, as with any job, he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with former bosses. This earned him the nickname “Rebel With A Cause”.

Green wants his predominantly Black and Hispanic students to feel connected to science, a field still dominated by white workers. That means finding connections between what he teaches and their background, for example introducing them to prominent scientists who look like them, or fighting off stereotypes.

“What’s stopping black and brown people from learning math,” he told the class, “is that someone told you not to make a mistake.”

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

You spoke of this cooperation model. What did that say? Have you always taught like this, 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 raised the bar so high that even the smartest who think they are the smartest and the weakest who think themselves the weakest have no choice have work together.

One of the greatest models I learned from Williams College was that to be successful in business, to be successful in the world, you had to know how to work with different people and different places, things and communities. This always included: setting the bar high, not placing too much emphasis on intelligence or cleverness, and above all, who is working with whom and who is building each other up.

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How do you take how you were raised and bring that into the classroom? One of your former students mentioned that he knows where you are from, he knows your background and do you talk about it in class? And how do you let that influence your teaching?

I can’t wake up and discard my identities, right? So I was always tutored by my mother [to] never to hide who i am, right? 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 moments in my subject, right, where I can tell you a story or things that I’ve been through because my chemistry subject is related to the world. I’m doing a project called Chemistry in the City, which a lot of kids love because in every unit they have to go into their communities or their cultures and bring back something related to the content of chemistry, then I become a learner. Right? That’s why I teach the way I teach because my teachers have validated me and I know what that validation is like when you are a marginalized person or identity. I want all students to feel that in these rooms.

At the end of the class, you talked about why Regents exams aren’t everything, and then specifically called out black and brown people. (He said, “What’s stopping blacks and browns from studying math is that someone told you not to make mistakes.”) Can you tell me more about that?

There’s a cliche that blacks and browns hate math. They’ll tell you, “Oh, I don’t like that.” Right? Before that they have phobias. There are many stereotypes that Asians or whites do better.

I’m rebuilding her self-esteem. I get them to work together to let them know it’s okay, there’s a huge misunderstanding between blacks and browns just saying, “We’re crabs in a barrel.” I know that. I live in blacks and brown communities. So it’s my job to let them know that you’re not crabs in a barrel, we’ll lift each other up. Don’t scratch each other down.

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What do you think are the challenges of this school year?

The challenge I think students face – and the only challenge I’ve always faced in these types of schools – is the lack of knowledge of what’s coming next. So the goal of my classes is to teach them what they won’t find in the books, right? And that means connecting their science to their community, connecting their science to their culture, connecting science to a career, connecting science to literacy, right, I want them to do those things. And the challenge becomes when everyone isn’t on the same page, right? From an educational point of view, you push certain things, and then you divert the curricula the other way.

They will say, “No, we won’t do that” or “Don’t do too much,” as they say in the [recent New York Post] article right there. Some people just don’t understand that you have to include the student’s voice, the student’s culture and the student’s life in the curriculum. They shouldn’t come in here and be robots and controlled, monitored. You know, that’s not what education is about. So, as I said, the big thing for me is simply to create spaces that emancipate, liberate and educate.

What’s next for you?

That’s the saddest part of this award. That everyone asks me: ‘Are you going to be chancellor now, Superintendent? When do you leave the classroom?’ Are you kidding me? My love, my passion is in the classroom. My strength with these youth is in this classroom. I will do that for the next 80 years. I hope to live to be 120 so they can see what a 120 year old teacher can come into the building and do.

Reema Amin is a reporter who covers New York schools with a focus on state politics and English learners. Contact Reema at [email protected]