By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
When Bryan Billy Jr. first set foot into his classroom at Green Acres Middle School Birmingham’s Five Points West community as a teacher, he didn’t know what to expect.
He was a self-described introvert who had studied biology at the University of California, Davis and now he was tasked with teaching the beginnings of algebra to seventh graders.
“I do remember the first day, walking into my classroom and … That was when my stomach dropped. I was like, ‘Oh, it’s me and [the students],'” Billy recalled.
However, his two months of intense training with Teach for America Alabama, the local chapter of a nonprofit which trains and places teachers in low-income public schools across the U.S., had prepared him, and with the support of their staff, he found that he loved “being in my classroom and loved my kids.”
After 12 years of leadership in the organization and Alabama’s educational community, Billy, who no longer teaches in schools, was named July 31, executive director of TFA Alabama, headquartered in downtown Birmingham.
In the new role, Billy said he looks forward to sharing what works in schools across the state served by TFA Alabama, including Birmingham and Selma City Schools and the Hale, and Perry County systems.
“I feel like I get the opportunity to tell the stories of what’s going on in school buildings, of what we’re seeing across the country that’s working, I get to do that externally, and I love the work that we do. I love the work that’s happening in schools every day, the work that’s happening with our folks, with the work that’s happening with veteran teachers,” Billy said.
“I’m excited to be able to just amplify those stories to a new audience,” he added.
Additionally, Billy said he’s interested in seeing TFA Alabama grow as a facilitator of conversations between families, education officials and the organization’s more-than-450 teachers on what sorts of improvements are needed in the state’s education system.
As an example, Billy pointed to the organization’s annual “Opportunity Summit” event. This year’s event was held in April at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.
“We brought in parents, veteran educators, people from the state office, from district offices to have conversations about what policies are working at the student level, what policies are working at a teacher level, what policies are possibly creating barriers for them to be the teachers they want to be,” Billy said.
“I think that the more that we can just create the venue for those conversations…we’re just gonna end up in a better spot,” Bryan said.
Early Awareness of Education
Billy was born in Dublin, California, about 30 minutes from Oakland in the northern part of the state.
He is the second of two sons. His mother, Patty, spent much of her career working for a national laboratory, and his father, Bryan Sr., started as a construction worker before working in administration for the same construction company.
His mother had been a longtime secretary at the laboratory, but after a decade of night classes, she was able to move into a higher role with the company, prompting the move.
“I would go to school with her. I remember falling asleep in classrooms and her carrying me across college campuses [as a] dead weight eight-year-old,” Billy said.
As a result of the new job, Billy said, the family was able to buy their home in Byron, a home more spacious than Billy had previously known.
“I became very aware at an early age, that just access to college, access to that degree, does change life trajectories,” Billy said.
It was that experience, Billy said, coupled with his mother’s cancer diagnosis in his high school years, that led to his first pursuit — becoming a doctor.
“I just saw the impact that doctors have, not only on the person, but also on the family,” Billy said.
A Switch in Vision
After graduating from Liberty High School in Brentwood, California, Billy went onto the University of California, Davis, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in biology, with a concentration on neurobiology, physiology and behavior.
Billy, preparing for a medical career, even took the Medical College Application Test (MCAT) before he received an email from a recruiter at Teach for America.
“Once I got the email, asking me to meet with a recruiter about Teach for America, I learned more about the mission, I learned more about the core values the organization had, it felt like, it was exactly what I was looking for. It felt like, because of my own life experiences, I had to join the organization,” Billy said.
Once meeting with the recruiter, Billy said, he was “not a hard sell.” In his application process, Billy said, he selected Alabama as one of the 10 regions he would like to work in, and in May of 2011, he moved down to Birmingham, with his wife Amanda, to begin training and ended up at Green Acres Middle School.
“I was blessed to have middle school because they will ask you all the questions. If you’re not telling them what they want you to tell them, they will ask you the questions to get you to tell them what they want to know,” Billy said.
In that first year, Billy learned many lessons, he said.
“The key to being a strong teacher is relationships, making sure that you have relationships with your students, that you really know them, who they are, their families, what they care about, what their aspirations and dreams are,” Billy said.
But building relationships goes even beyond simply teacher-and-student, he said. Forging connections with your principal, teachers at other schools and particularly older teachers in your school can be critical, he said. “…and they know where to find anything that you need. I’m pretty sure my first year, my classroom, every decoration on my wall was donated to me by another teacher in the building.”
Moving Up in Leadership
After teaching for two years at Green Acres, Billy moved up into a coaching role with TFA. During his time as a teaching coach, Billy worked with teachers across the state, as far north as Huntsville and as far south as Butler County.
Coaches give tips sometimes during class but also give advice and planning help to teachers in between classes. Some of the most common advice Billy said he gave was around how to give the opportunity of participation to every student in a classroom.
Most advice is simple, Billy said, geared around helping teachers find their “presence” in the classroom. “Once people find that, they’re usually good to go,” Billy said.
Coaching, Billy said, is something that everybody could use.
“I think coaching could change the world…I think that all of us want to be our best selves, and it’s hard to be a good self-analyst of that.”