on his first day as a teacher at the al noor school in 2003, yihia mohammad nervously stood in front of his physics class as they informed him that he had three weeks to prove himself.
"obviously that wasn't my contract, but they seemed serious," he said. "after three weeks, i was still there, so it must have worked out."
six years later, to say things have simply worked out for the 35-year-old high school chemistry, physics and math teacher would be a drastic understatement.
"brother yihia," school principal saad ibrahim said, "is easily the best teacher in the school."
mohammad was a technology consultant at accenture, a global technology management company, when a series of layoffs left him without work in 2002. his brothers were science teachers at the islamic school on the southern edge of park slope and suggested that he give teaching a shot.
not only was mohammad quick to make his mark in the classroom, but he also began informally mentoring students in his free time. now, he helps students with basic study skills and college application strategies. he also helps teach an sat prep class.
"he has a unique character," ibrahim said. "he loves his job. he comes prepared. when i walk around to classes, his is always the most focused. everybody's paying attention and is into the lesson. but it's more than just respect. they love him as a brother."
that sort of compliment is commonplace for mohammad, whose soft-spoken, respectful tone and patient style endears him to students, parents and colleagues. "his teaching attitude is different from other teachers," said dezika taiem, a parent whose daughter, fahmia, was in mohammad's class in 2007 and 2008. "he's just so patient, so willing to listen."
though his background is in chemical engineering, mohammad has learned that experiences accenture are an asset in the classroom.
"students always like to see how something learned relates to everything around them," he said. "so they always seem to enjoy when i bring actual experiences from my previous work in the industry world."
he frequently asks students to work in groups, which he has found engaging and effective.
"you have to learn how to adapt to other people and learn their strengths and weaknesses," mohammad said. "when they work in teams they can explain concepts to each other, and that's probably even more effective than a teacher explaining it to them more than once."
one of the most fulfilling parts of teaching is seeing where his students go after graduation. dena moharrem is one of those students. moharrem had no interest in chemistry before entering mohammad's class, but by the first week, she was hooked.
"before the first class, i was sure i'd hate it. but soon i began actually looking forward to class," moharrem said. "he's the most patient person i've ever seen-he never raises his voice. it's not like a student-teacher relationship. he was like a friend."
now a freshman at city college in manhattan, moharrem is a chemistry major. in her current internship, she observes high school chemistry classes around the city.
"the teachers yell at students and don't respect them," she said. "the students aren't getting anything out of it at all, and they don't want to learn. without brother yihia, i never would've entered this field."
for mohammad, it is words like these that make all the difference. and for the ultimate compliment, moharrem has decided on her career: high school chemistry teacher.
"someday," she said, "i hope i can be half the teacher he is." -- yihia mohammad high school chemistry, physics and math, al noor school