Billy Green teaches high school chemistry at the A. Phillip Randolph Campus High School. It’s a subject that can be intimidating, and sometimes, boring.
“You teach the math part of anything chemistry, kids will shut down. So it is important to have them actively engaged. That’s why I have them move around,” Green said.
During a lesson on heat formulas, students move from table to table, joining new groups and solving problems together as a team. Turning the questions into an active game helps keep the students engaged.
“It could have been a simple lesson, right of just saying, ‘Hey, this is the formula. Now you got it, or you don’t.’ But I understand that I need to take my kids one step further,” he said.
Green makes a point to go above and beyond for his students — and this year it earned him the title of New York State Teacher of the Year. He says he keeps kids interested by tying chemistry lessons to their culture.
“And that culture is youth culture. They like to listen to music. They like to use technology,” he said, naming things he incorporates into his lessons.
Green is a magnet for students. During the lesson, a table full of students who were not in this particular class sat tutoring one another, during a free period. The next period, he was not teaching a class, but the room was full of kids anyway.
“Even during their lunch periods, kids come here, because if they’re not coming here for extra help with chemistry, they know that they’re in a safe space,” he said.
Green grew up in need of safe spaces himself. He was homeless as a high schooler, commuting from a shelter in the South Bronx to a school in Lower Manhattan, where he was encouraged to dream big.
“I was told that I can have every opportunity that was presented in front of me. I believed that because my teachers instilled that in me,” he said.
He works to instill the same belief in his students and to make sure they know they belong here, no matter who they are. Part of that is wearing his own identity on his sleeve — or his fingernails, which are long and painted gold.
“I believe in, as you can see, wearing your identities visibly,” he said. “I try not to speak so much and make it, ‘Oh, it’s a gay issue, right? Or this is a Puerto Rican issue. Or this is a Black issue or this is an Italian issue.’ I have multiple identities.”
It’s made him a target for some criticism. A New York Post editorial deemed his teaching “woke nonsense.”
But Principal David Fanning says students respond to Green’s style.
“He works tirelessly to make sure that every kid in his class not only understands material but are kind of working toward their future,” Fanning said. “And he means it — a lot of people say that stuff. Billy really means that.”
The award means Green is now up for the national teacher of the year honor.
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