Shakespeare taught us that all the world’s a stage. For chemistry teacher Billy Green, all the world’s a classroom.
At A. Philip Randolph Campus HS in Harlem, Green teaches with his whole body. He shimmies to the rhythm of R&B music as his students play musical chairs, checking one another’s chemical formulas when the music stops. He punctuates discussions of systemic inequity with sweeping hand gestures, calling on students to bring their cultural backgrounds with them into the classroom.
For his relentless commitment to his community and his students, Green was named the 2023 New York State Teacher of the Year by the New York State Board of Regents.
A product of city public schools who rose above homelessness, the Harlem teacher was a finalist for the honor in 2019.
“Teacher of the Year Billy Green makes a difference in his students’ lives,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “Once children are in his class, they are in his class for life. He is a powerful voice for our students, our profession and our public schools.”
As a child, Green was a student at the Manhattan East School for Arts and Academics, a high-performing middle school in East Harlem. Although his family had been evicted and his mother struggled with addiction, Green was determined to relay what he was learning at his middle school to his younger relatives and considers that his first teaching experience. He has spent his career seeking out schools in neighborhoods that remind him of the one where he grew up.
“My career has been very intentional,” says Green. “I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was 3 years old. I knew I had the power to change the system.”
For Green, who describes himself as a “rebel,” the road to changing the system was rocky.
As a high school student in the late 1990s, he clashed with English teacher Jane Kehoe-Higgins. “You are not Michelle Pfeiffer and this is not ‘Dangerous Minds,’ ” he remembers telling her, a reference to a movie about an urban high school where Pfeiffer played a teacher with unconventional methods.
Four years later, Green found himself in a car driven by Kehoe-Higgins, heading for Williams College in Massachusetts. The teacher had become his champion and mentor, spurring Green — who had an aptitude for math and science — to enter a pre-medical program.
But his heart never left his Harlem classroom. In his senior year at Williams, his mother left him a life-changing voicemail just before she died, encouraging him to become a teacher.
“My mother wanted to see everyone fulfill their dreams,” he says, wiping away tears. “This is exactly what she would want me to be doing. And her greatest pride would come from the fact that I stayed in my community.”
Green completed the New York City Teaching Fellows program and never looked back. He’s been a teacher for 19 years.
Green also sits on the board of the nonprofit Opus Dance Theatre in East Harlem, and he works hard to bring the arts into his classroom.
“What’s really cool about Mr. Green is that he’s not just a chemistry teacher,” says former student Ibrahima Jalloh, who prides himself on his ability to incorporate “dope” vocabulary from Green’s chemistry class in his original rap lyrics. “He brought out a different side of me. He helped me tap into my gifts.”
Green is fond of reminding students that chemistry, just like rehearsing for a performance, is all about making mistakes, reflecting on the process and trying again.
Students proudly share their classwork — and their places on “Mr. Green’s Periodic Table of Honor Students,” displayed on a bulletin board outside his classroom — on Instagram with the hashtag #GreenTeachesChem.
“Who knew identifying the functional group for each compound could be fun?” reads one caption.
“His creativity is unbelievable,” says Gifty Asamani, a teacher at the HS for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at City College who has co-taught with Green. “He’s passionate about empowering Black and brown students in STEM.”
Green is just as passionate about creating an environment where students can be their authentic selves. He’s frank with students about his background as a mixed-race gay man who has experienced homelessness, bullying and personal loss.
“It’s been a journey for him. He meets students where they’re at and makes them feel welcome,” says Sonia Burke, the chapter leader at Randolph who has known Green for more than 20 years.
Green is proud to call himself the New York State Teacher of the Year. But he’s also adamant that it’s an honor he shares with his entire profession.
“My community gets to see that I’m an example of how when you work hard, stay in a community and do for your community, the power and the privilege comes back to your community,” he says. “If you want something fixed, bring in a room full of teachers.”