William Cheung’s classrooms know no bounds.
“My students just don’t learn about history and current events — they use it,” says Cheung, a Brooklyn Technical High School student teacher and debate coach.
A 2021-22 Abby M. O'Neill Teaching Fellow, Cheung is part of the largest O’Neill cohort — 12 TC students — to date. While a student in the College’s Social Studies Education program, Cheung teaches at his alma mater, Brooklyn Tech.
Cheung, a self-described “Brooklyn Nationalist,” strayed from the borough following graduation from Brooklyn College when a Fulbright teaching fellowship took him to Germany. Returning stateside, the pursuit of a Ph.D. at NYU shifted Cheung's academic life to Manhattan.
Brooklyn, though, remains and will always be home.
Cheung flirted with a career as a curator or museum educator as he juggled his NYU studies with Mellon Foundation-funded positions at the Museum of the City of New York and the Museum of Chinese in America.
But a sideline calling — coaching high school debaters — won out and led to the pursuit of a degree at TC.
Today, he says, “I can’t imagine myself outside of a classroom. It’s just electrifying to see how the different combinations of personalities learn something new.”
Cheung enters the classroom each day with a full appreciation of the “power of a teacher to change someone’s life.”
That educator, for Cheung, is Adam Stevens, a Brooklyn Tech social studies teacher he strives to emulate by “selflessly fighting in the classroom for working-class students of color.”
Cheung credits Stevens for tapping into a passion for learning inspired by his Chinese-American mother, a seamstress who instilled a deep appreciation of the tapestry of “migration, gender, race, ethnicity, and the proud labor history” in the lower Manhattan garment district.
Cheung in his teaching weaves a personal history from the perspective of a 21st Century Asian American into comprehensive lessons on civil rights and progressive thought.
“Making the past relevant to the everyday lives of young people is transformative,” he says. “I want to make sure our history is represented and lives on in all of us.”
Cheung moreover views civic engagement and education as an imperative.
“It’s more important than ever for students to understand they have to take an active part in democracy and what they do can make a huge difference,” said Cheung.
“A lot of young people don’t realize what can be accomplished with civic engagement.”
Cheung discovered the O’Neill Teaching Fellowships while applying to the Social Studies Education program.
A gift from O’Neill, a TC Trustee Emerita who died in 2017, the O’Neill Fellowships award $40,000 in tuition-assistance per student. To be eligible, students must intend to enroll in an elementary or secondary teacher education master’s degree program, leading to initial certification. This year’s 12 Master’s students represent 9 different fields of study.
The gift reflects that O’Neill Fellows are committed to spending at least two years teaching in New York public schools following graduation. For Cheung, the task itself is a calling.
“I hope to stay a lot longer than two [years],” laughs the Brooklyn Nationalist.