Feature stories

'It gets better'

Bronx teacher overcame hardship to become an example for students

William Green engages with his AP chemistry students.Jonathan FickiesWilliam Green engages with his AP chemistry students.

Green’s students appreciate his efforts. “He goes above and beyond what he needsJonathan FickiesGreen’s students appreciate his efforts. “He goes above and beyond what he needs to do,” said one 12th-grader. In William Green’s AP chemistry classroom at Frederick Douglass Academy III in the South Bronx, every student-teacher interaction is deeply informed by Green’s journey from homelessness to becoming a finalist for the 2019 New York State Teacher of the Year.

“All of the things I went through in my life,” said Green, “it was for me to teach these youth that it gets better.”

Green’s students are from the same neighborhoods where he spent his own childhood, all “in the poorest Congressional district in America,” he said. “I was born here, I live here and I teach here.”

His students are overwhelmingly students of color from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and Green weaves constant encouragement throughout discussions of electron configurations and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

“I have to understand that disenfranchised people aren’t getting prepared for these subjects,” he said. “I’m acknowledging obstacles but not letting them be an excuse.”

Green says that’s what makes a good teacher: “It’s not our job to be Jesus and act like their savior, but it’s definitely our job to be Moses and lead them to the mountaintop.”

He draws on his own experience with similar challenges to show students how to navigate them.

Jane Higgins, Green’s 9th-grade English teacher who now teaches at CUNY’s LehmanMiller PhotographyJane Higgins, Green’s 9th-grade English teacher who now teaches at CUNY’s Lehman College, stepped in to mentor him when his mother was in prison. “I’m Puerto Rican, black and Italian, so I’ve experienced every -ism you can imagine,” he said. “I’m very empathetic to a lot of experiences.”

Another experience Green brings into the classroom comes from his identity as a gay man, and he shows his pride in that with a large rainbow flag hanging on the wall in his class.

He also knows what it’s like to face hardship at a young age. His mother, Rosa Pagan, suffered from heroin addiction and was imprisoned for much of his adolescence, and Green became homeless at age 12.

“I was living in the streets; squatting in buildings,” he said.

By high school, he’d moved into a homeless shelter.

Though his situation was dire, he had support. Green said his mother sent him a letter from prison every day.

“She motivated me and reminded me that intelligence is based on hard work,” he said.

His mother found help in Green’s 9th-grade English teacher, Jane Higgins — who now teaches at CUNY’s Lehman College. Green initially met Higgins at a summer bridge program at Stuyvesant HS, where he was so disruptive that Higgins asked him to leave the optional program after three days. But that fall, Green turned up in her English class at the Leadership & Public Service HS.

“I thought, ‘Seriously? That kid?’ He was even more upset to see me,” she said. But after a few days, she said, “it became so obvious how bright he is and what tremendous talent he has.”

Since Green’s mother was unable to be part of his day-to-day life, she encouraged him to see Higgins as a mentor.

“She essentially said to him, ‘You’re going to listen to this woman and do what she tells you to do,’” said Higgins. “She turned over a little of her relationship with him to me, which is a tremendous sacrifice for a mother to make.”

With encouragement from his mother and guidance from Higgins, Green applied himself and began to excel.

His hard work got him into Williams College in Massachusetts and he graduated with a degree in chemistry in 2003. That accomplishment was marred by tragedy: Green’s mother had died six months before his graduation.

After college, Green went to South Africa to teach but he soon realized he wanted to pay his success forward in his own community. He returned to New York City and has taught at several public schools, including East River Academy for students incarcerated on Rikers Island.

Green, who earned a master’s degree from New York University in 2014, juggles his responsibilities as a chemistry and forensic chemistry teacher at Frederick Douglass with his duties as chairman of the school’s Science Department and coach for new teachers, including Tiffany Gordon.

“Things flow effortlessly in his class,” said Gordon, a fellow science teacher. “I aspire to be like that.”

Gordon said she learned from Green useful pedagogical strategies such as having students move through subject-based stations for focused, hands-on learning.

His students appreciate what Green does for them.

“He goes above and beyond what he needs to do,” said Yailin Rodriguez, a student in Green’s 12th-grade AP chemistry class. Rodriguez said Green pushed the school administration to create three new AP classes and pushed students who completed their course credits early to keep taking classes and get that extra preparation for college.

“He tries to put us on the same level as any other student in any other school in the country,” said Rodriguez.

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