PROVIDENCE – Alexander Major II likes to make a deal with his students.
Major is one of the most popular teachers at E-Cubed Academy where he has been the high school’s science teacher leader for the last decade. So when young people ask if they can visit him after they graduate, he tells them that they can return with 1 percent of their salary or a bag of potato chips, Utz original, to be exact.
In reality, Major wouldn’t accept a penny from the students he has loved since moving to Rhode Island from New York 12 years ago. But the chips would be a bargain for his relentless effort to reach kids where they are, and explain why science fits into just about anything they want to do in life.
“I tell them that one of the greatest honors is for you to learn and come back as a friend,” Major said in an interview last week.
His peers consider Major an excellent teacher, but he understands that his ability to explain physics, biology, and environmental science has added value because he looks like the kids he’s teaching. In Providence, more than 70 percent of teachers are white, while more than 90 percent of students are not.
Major said he does whatever he can to connect with his students, including challenging them to races in class, talking about martial arts, or discussing comic books. He can find science in any subject, and it makes the students comfortable with learning. He once taught physics to students using a Spanish novella.
He’s also not shy about explaining the importance of arming his students with facts. When his students ask about superfund sites or environmental challenges in their communities, he jokes that “some politician with only a ‘C’ in biology is putting that in your backyard.”
His message is a poignant one: “You don’t have a voice unless you know,” Major said. “You can’t blame other people for what you don’t know.”
To be sure, Major knows a lot.
He graduated from Queens College in New York, has earned two master’s degrees, earned black belts in Moo Do Kwan Tae Kwan Do and Kempo, and is a percussionist. He moved to Providence with his wife and children because they wanted to find a good, affordable school for his kids to attend. (They found the French American School of Rhode Island.)
He found his passion in teaching, and his infectious enthusiasm for helping students is on display every day. On a recent Friday, students delayed their weekends and stayed after school to participate in an experiment using yeast.
Major is known for going above and beyond for the kids.
When he wanted to take a group of students to the Bronx Zoo before the COVID-19 pandemic, he secured an $8,000 grant from the McDonald’s Corporation to fund the trip. (He says they’ll be returning to the zoo when the pandemic ends.)
He loves to talk to his students about their futures, offering advice while always reminding them that they don’t have to attend medical school in order to use science in real life.
Aside from the chips, he reminds them that he has only one expectation for every student he teaches.
“My main thing is that I don’t know what you’re going to be, but I demand that you be an advocate for change,” Major said.