Academic Programs

Holy Child Faculty Spotlight: Billy Abdallah, Freshman Physics Teacher

Throughout the year, Mayfield contributes stories, prayers and artwork to share on the Holy Child Network of Schools website, including an annual “Faculty Spotlight.” This interview with freshman teacher Billy Abdallah, who joined the Mayfield faculty in 2020, will appear next month. Mr. Abdallah’s energetic conceptual physics course has made him a beloved figure on the Mayfield campus, and we sat down with him to hear about how working in a Holy Child school has shaped his teaching philosophy.
You started teaching at Mayfield at a very strange time: fall 2020. What were you doing beforehand and what motivated your transition into teaching?
I was a chemist, I was an essential worker. I was driving to work every day while the world felt like it wasn’t moving. I loved being a scientist, but I felt so isolated and I felt like: “I have no purpose and I want to do something different with my life...” So when I heard about the job at Mayfield Senior School, I thought, “This is different! This sounds like fun!” My job is not just to teach physics, it’s to teach the students how to think like scientists, how to think methodically, and how to insert their own creativity into the wonderful world of science. Nothing brings me more joy than blending my love of science with progressive pedagogy. And honestly—and I'm not just saying this because I'm a physics teacher—the concepts in physics are really fun to talk about and explore. It’s a process of explaining the world around us with laws, factors and equations. If you throw the ball with this speed, it's going to land at this time and we can calculate that! Now, I don't tell the students this, but everything I do for work is for them. Every lesson I prepare, every joke I make, every activity that I create is for them! Plus, I have full control over creating a safe space, I have full control over what I want students to learn, and how I want them to learn. When I tell people, “I work at a Holy Child school,” they have no idea what that means. Basically, there's a set of goals we want each of our students to have. Goals that make them lifelong learners, goals that encourage them to be humans of service, goals to make sure that they chase their dreams, and goals that emphasize the importance of faith. And what I really like about Holy Child and what I tell everybody I talk to, is that every student matters. Doesn't matter if they're the loudest kid, doesn't matter if they're the quietest kid, doesn't matter if they don't want to be at school. They all matter. They all belong. They are loved. They make the people around them better humans. I literally have my dream job now!
Faith plays a role in what kind of teacher you want to be and the kind of teaching environment you want to be part of. You and your family are largely observant in the Muslim faith—yet you and your four sisters went to Catholic high schools. Can you describe what shapes your (and your family’s) approach to faith inside an educational setting?
Our favorite time of the year is Ramadan! I'll tell you about one thing that stands out to me and I'll tell you why our kind of family chose the path they did. My oldest sister attended Catholic school and [my parents] watched her excel in such a safe and warm space, all while she was getting an amazing education. They liked the energy and the atmosphere, so my other sisters went there as well. I went to St. Francis (a Catholic high school in the L.A. area). I feel like my class was very close. I feel I intertwined there well. There's so much pride that goes into where you go and it feels like a second family, a community, and that’s really hard to establish. I knew I wanted to work in a faith-based school because you can try to create a community in a classroom, but it's really those outside events that make the school what it is. I mean [Holy Child] Goal One says it all! We are a community of God, we need to teach the importance of God, we need to live the importance of God. I'll always say faith is important, whether that's faith in the stars or in a certain religion or whatever. I think faith just makes us feel better as humans, knowing that someone or something is watching over us, protecting us, listening to us, and keeping us safe.
Your freshman physics classes tackle some complicated subjects yet famously the most common word students use to describe your class is “fun.” Was that by design? And how do  you accomplish that balance of rigorous schoolwork and genuine pleasure?
When I was hired in 2020, [Head of School] Kate Morin gave me a goal. She said we really want all the students to have fun, and even though she’s not a science teacher, she is so supportive of our STEM program. She's encouraging so much growth. We have 80 students in a class and we have seven STEM electives and they want to add more! And personally, I don't think we should be studying all night for a test. I don't think we should ever feel super nervous to come to class. I don't think we should ever be bored in class. Executive functioning skills are important. Following directions, doing worksheets, completing something in a certain amount of time, super important. But how can I combine that sort of critical thinking and having fun? I try to mix it up in class. We're just about to study electric fields in Conceptual Physics. One of the most daunting concepts in all of physics! In order to activate the students’ minds and understanding, we’re going to be playing an electric field hockey tournament…World Cup style. The students will be in teams of two, representing a country, and if they dress up, they get extra points. They're going to be creating an electric field—it's a simulation. They build it using the protons and electrons, repelling and attracting forces to get a puck into a goal. It's really fun. So we're going to make that into a competitive aspect. In STEM classes, I totally understand, you need to know photosynthesis, you need to know the equations, and you need to prove that you know them, but some of these things that we talked about in physics are so abstract and so dense, how do I even begin explaining quantum mechanics to these kids? My hope is to spark an interest in these topics so the students will want to learn more about them. 
How would someone observe your specific teaching philosophy in action inside your class? What does it look like in the room?
I want students in my classroom to feel comfortable for those 80 minutes. So it was coming up with those creative games and, and putting together aesthetically pleasing slides, and trying to engage them. I really do an “icebreaker” question every day and they have to answer it. For example: “What's your favorite ride at Disneyland? If you've never been to Disneyland, what's your favorite Disney movie? What is your pet peeve? What is your favorite dessert? If you could only go to one drive-through fast food place for the rest of your life, what would it be?” It gets everybody to talk and some days it takes longer than others and I think it's such valuable time. My teaching philosophy is super simple. I think the students should be learning and having fun while learning. And what I want them to learn is that everything in the world is physics. If the students can relate our course topics to the thousands of processes they encounter in the world every day, I mean, that's more than a lot of people know...and I’m sure the students will explain it to you at the atomic, molecular, and Earth(ly) level. And I think that type of retention builds love and appreciation for science. 
What do you think is the most important thing students can learn from your class? What do you want them to walk away with?
 I know other people may disagree but this is not a “catch-up” year for me. This is a time where we're able to have class in person. We're able to be within six feet of our friends. Let's take advantage of that. Let's talk to one another. At the end of the day, getting through the curriculum is my second priority this year. The first priority is the student's well-being—giving them enough time to really work on our activities and projects and make sure that they have time for their mental health too. There's nothing more important than sharing your voice. I really want to make sure each person's voice is heard and sometimes it can come in the most subtle ways. In my opinion, I think collaboration's really good. The intention behind that is to create an environment where you're not alone. So, I guess the most important thing they're learning is to be themselves and to be present and active in a safe space....that and all the Laws of Conservation of Energy and Matter!
The students are the reason I work so hard. They make me a better person every day, every hour, every minute. I want them to have an easier time in college. I want them to have an easier time in Chemistry next year. They're on a journey. I’m so glad I got to see them so early in their high school career, so early in their academic career. Teaching gives me an opportunity to offer support in a way that I wish I was offered support. It's never a bad time to be present for someone who needs support or someone who is seeking out support. Being a teacher is not just teaching, especially at a Holy Child school. It's recognizing that you are a valuable member of the community, an important member of the team that everyone is supporting. 

Last year's Holy Child Faculty Spotlight was science teacher Lydia Arguelles. Read that interview here.
Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.