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Meet New York’s teacher of the year: A Harlem chemistry teacher

A teacher in a bright orange and blue jacket stands at a table surrounded by four of his teenage students.

Billy Green, the state’s Teacher of the Year, works with students at A. Phillip Randolph high school in West Harlem.

Courtesy of El-Wise Noisette / New York State Teachers Union

For the first time in four years, the state’s Teacher of the Year award went to an educator from the five boroughs, the New York Board of Regents announced Tuesday.

Billy Green, 42, who teaches chemistry at A. Phillip Randolph Campus High School in West Harlem, is starting his 20th year of teaching in New York City, according to the state teachers union. He taught science at the East River Academy at Rikers Island, then became the science department chair and instructional coach at Frederick Douglass Academy III High School in the South Bronx before moving on to A. Phillip Randolph.

Green was also a finalist for the award in 2018. 

The award is the state’s highest honor for educators, and also means that the state will nominate Green for a national teacher award. Four other teachers from across the state were named as finalists. 

Teaching in Harlem, where he grew up, Green feels that his community “gets to see an example of, when you work hard, you stay in a community, you do for your community, the power and privilege and the award comes back to your community,” he said in his Albany acceptance speech.

Green is known for bringing “an imaginative approach” to teaching by connecting the arts with science and math, state teachers union officials said. He created elective courses such as “Hip Hop and Science Education” and “Sociocultural Perspectives of Science Education through Arts Practices.”

NYC_20220913_BillyGreenNYSTOY_CourtesyOfNYSTU_002.JPG

Billy Green

Courtesy of El-Wise Noisette / New York State Teachers Union

Green became interested in education during childhood, much of which he spent living in poverty, while navigating homeless shelters or squatting in abandoned buildings, according to a profile by the state teachers union. 

“At 12 years old I got evicted… at the same time I was dealing with coming out sexually,” Green told the New York Daily News. “When everything was falling down in my life… one thing I was always able to confirm was that my academic experience was going to be stable.”

Even in those days, Green found an early love for teaching: He offered extra school help to three students inside of a building where he squatted, on East 119th Street, between Lexington and Park avenues, Green said in a video presented to the board on Tuesday. 

Green credited his former high school English teacher Jane Kehoe Higgins for pushing him academically, making sure he had winter clothes and food, showing him books that helped him “come to terms with his identity as a gay teenager,” and driving him to college where he initially pursued pre-med, the union profile said. 

But Green soon realized he wanted to teach, and he returned to the city, going to work at a school on Rikers Island.

His teaching philosophy involves allowing students to co-create lessons and express themselves, Green said. Educators shouldn’t shy away from tough conversations with children or be unwilling to debate, he added. 

“Learning to work alongside our students, include their perspectives in our practices and generally see them as knowledgeable partners and contributing factors to our profession — they are not the client,” Green said of his approach in his acceptance speech. “Our goal as teachers is to always make sure our students are seen, heard and cared for.”

In addition to teaching, Green also runs his school’s LGBTQ afifnity group and created an LGBTQ youth support center in East Harlem, according to NYSUT. He also helped to create a summer arts program for children in Ghana and South Africa through the nonprofit Opus Dance Theater.

Schools Chancellor David Banks congratulated Green on the honor. 

“It’s my hope that teachers across the city can look to Billy for inspiration in their work this school year and beyond,” Banks said in a statement.

The last time the state offered the top award to a city teacher was the same year Green was a finalist, in 2018, to Alhassan Susso, a Bronx social studies teacher, who works with immigrant students.

Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on state policy and English language learners. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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