Learn How This 5th-Grade Teacher Brings Positive Role Models into His Classroom
By Brandon LaBella, 5th Grade Teacher, Rocketship Spark Academy
Welcome to the first audio edition of Rocketship’s Teacher PD Launchpad content! We created this free resource hub at the onset of the pandemic to help elementary school teachers across the country share best practices during an unprecedented time in teaching. Now that school has returned to a degree of normalcy with steady in-person learning, we want shift gears and spotlight educators within Rocketship that are doing interesting things in their classrooms to inspire and engage their students in hopes it helps other educators do the same.
Today we’re talking with a 5th-grade teacher at Rocketship Spark Academy, Brandon LaBella. Brandon has been teaching at Spark Academy for the last two years and is rounding out his fifth year in teaching. After originally studying finance and business and working at IBM, Brandon decided to shift his career path to make more of an impact. He’s since taught in Hong Kong, in a charter school in Harlem, New York, and now in San Jose with Rocketship. He holds a Masters in Teaching from Fordham University and is also the author of The Journey To Failing Freely: How To Find Fulfillment By Letting Yourself Fail.
In this 30-minute chat, we discuss what inspired him to get involved in teaching, what keeps him motivated to continue doing this work, the relationships he’s built with his students’ parents, the benefits of Rocketship’s Learning Lab, and an innovative initiative he started last school year where he brought guest speakers into the classroom to teach his students about a variety of career paths and life perspectives.
Listen in to the audio interview:
If you enjoyed this conversation, you can check out more Teacher PD Launchpad content here and learn more about teaching opportunities in the Bay Area, Milwaukee, Nashville, Fort Worth, and Washington DC here. You can read the full transcript of our conversation below.
Welcome, Brandon. Thanks for joining us. So, today I wanted to chat with you to hear more about your story of getting into teaching, but also I’ve noticed that you have this vibe as a teacher where you create these inspiring, positivity-driven spaces, it seems.
Brandon LaBella (02:15):
Yeah, I think especially when it comes to kids, you want to make and find ways to create environments where they feel positive – where they feel confident in themselves, and believe in themselves. You don’t know what’s going on when they’re not in the classroom, and just making sure that they feel valued and they feel like they are understood every single day is really important.
So I make an effort to have that connection with each of one of my students so I know how they’re doing and make sure that I check in with them. You know, some days are not the best for everyone. You know, every student has their days that they’re off. And I always tell them, that’s great, you know, you could have your off days, but you can be positive about having an off day.
You could be positive about being sad or mad, and they get that, you know. They say, I know right now I’m not feeling great, but I’ll feel better later. And they know how to address that. So I think it’s extremely important to create that environment for children, especially at young ages. And it’s something they can always remember. I know that some of my prior students have said, I always remember no matter what happens to stay positive, to be happy, whatever that means. Because everyone has the power to do that. They don’t need to be happy all the time, but they can believe in themselves, be confident, and know that the storm is going to pass and they’re gonna learn from it.
Kind of a silver lining. That’s great. To start, tell us where you teach and what grade you teach and how long you’ve been doing that for.
Brandon LaBella (03:48):
Sure. So I teach at Rocketship Spark Academy. I’m a fifth-grade, general education teacher, which means that I teach both math and reading. This is my second year at Rocketship. I taught ELA (English Language Arts) last year. And so it’s been a really fun transition of learning, while not only still teaching ELA but also adding math onto that plate. And, learning about the excitement of math and going through the first year of teaching a new subject. But this is my fifth year teaching in total.
I started my teaching journey in Hong Kong, back in 2018 and that was really, really exciting. I was at a private learning center over there and taught about 40 to 50 kids over the course of a week from all different ages, from ages five to 12. And I learned so much from that experience about the different cultures there.
The way that the students were respecting me and what their parents’ expectations were. It seemed that in Hong Kong at that time, everything was all about activities. It was all about filling up their schedule with the most amount of activities. So when the students came to my classroom, they were overwhelmed. They were overworked, and they were really tired. They go from piano to swimming to there, and it’s all about who can do more, who can become the smartest, and who can do the most activities. And so that was a really good starting point because when they came to my classroom, they kind of let go. They let loose, they had fun, and they found ways to find enjoyment in learning, which is something that they weren’t used to doing.
And then the riots started in June 2019. So I was there for a year and it got really dangerous to be over there, especially with the way that you teach. You know, maybe if I was like, stay positive, maybe they wouldn’t come in. So after that, I went back home and started teaching in Harlem, New York City. And that was at another charter school. So that was my first experience with charter schools. And I really liked the passion, and the foundation of that parent partnership. That’s one of like greatest joys here is making those deep, authentic connections with the parents. And from being in Harlem, I really saw the power of that and the excitement of the kids, and their passion. And so that was a really good stepping stone for me.
I taught first and second grade there, and then I ended up getting my master’s at Fordham. I realized that I really wanted to be a teacher and I wanted to be the best teacher I could be. So I ended up getting my master’s in teaching, and that’s when I graduated and decided that I was going to take my talents to California. And so after that I taught for a year in a public school in New York while I was getting my master’s. And that was a really enlightening experience too, because I had such positive relationships with the kids. We had a lot of outdoor activities planned. We had a lot of really cool events at the school, and I really found a home there, but I didn’t feel like it had that academic focus, that parent focus that really drove strong, results for the kids and relationships with families. And so I wanted to work somewhere that focused and prioritized that. And that’s when I found Rocketship and it feels like being here is home. I’m so grateful every day to come to work with my Spark family. The kids just greet me with joy. I feel very supported by school leaders. And so just really lucky to fell upon this and just cherishing and embracing it for however long it lasts.
That’s so interesting that you started in Hong Kong. And I heard briefly that you were previously in the finance industry before teaching. Can you share more about that career switch?
Brandon LaBella (07:43):
Yeah, so I did my undergrad degree in finance at William and Mary. And that’s like a top 10 business program over there. So everyone who comes out of there, you know, it’s a feeder school for investment banks and other really strong companies where you can make a lot of money out of school. And so I started working at IBM and that was my junior year over there. And then after working there, I really enjoyed making money. But I used that money and saved it up to travel and have these really rich experiences and realized that, although that was fun, me sitting in front of a computer doing something that wasn’t really fulfilling was not my passion. And I wanted to, you know, never work a day in my life again.
So, when I found teaching, it’s something where I could really enjoy it. I really felt fulfilled. I had a couple of different experiences when I was traveling where I met people who had so much less than where I came from, and realized how happy they were, how excited they were about life, and realized that it’s really not how much money you make, but it’s more so about the joy and experiences you have with your family, with your friends, with the people around you. And that’s where I kind of found teaching.
And in that kind of same window, I started getting into a lot of different outdoor activities combined with rebuilding schools or raising money for charity regarding education. And that was really cool, as well. I ran a marathon in New York City on crutches to raise money for this organization called Pencils of Promise that builds schools for the 250 million people around the world who can’t read. We ran a marathon in Singapore to rebuild the school in Indonesia, and we hiked Kilimanjaro to do the same thing to support Pencils of Promise. So I really believe in the power of raising money and the excitement of doing activities to inspire and influence other people to read better, to live better, and live healthier lives. So I really appreciate that part of my journey, as well.
Bringing Guests Speakers into the Classroom
Yeah. Wow. You attended so many things in so many different angles related to education was super cool. and so kind of your time at Rocket Ship, when I, I remember when I came into your classroom, I noticed something, I was there to take photos, like just for our usual photo refresh, and there was something on your, your whiteboard that said, I think it’s of like, it’s a great day to be alive. Thought that was such an intentional way to frame a teaching environment. Like it’s a great day to be alive in that, that positive respect. And then also this learning lab kind of revamp that you’ve been doing in some ways, or you mentioned that you’re bringing in outside guests outside of Rocket Ship into the Learning Lab. And for folks who aren’t familiar with Learning Lab, like Learning Lab is kind of an independent learning space, well you can describe it, but for my, what I’ve seen, it’s like there are rotational blocks in some schools where sometimes they’re doing like chess or like robotics or, but every school does it differently. Can you can explain what Learning Lab is and then this guest teacher approach you’ve been bringing in more recently.
Brandon LaBella (10:51):
Sure. Yeah. So Learning Lab is a really important block in the day that we value at Rocketship. And it’s basically to let the kids explore socialization, explore really important topics like research projects, learn about history, do really cool hands-on activities with their friends, or other people in the class that don’t know so much, and work together to build those connections projects. It also improves their confidence with presentations that they do. So, I’ve been blessed to have an amazing Learning Lab teacher. Her name’s Miss Ari and she does the Learning lab on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and, Friday. And every single day, they do something really cool, and the beginning of the year they did projects on, Native Americans and made different tribal posters. And on Thursdays, I got the blessing of continuing to teach Learning Lab, because there’s another commitment that she has another class.
And so instead of saying, oh, that’s more work, I got super excited and was like, let’s make this really purposeful. Let’s make this really fun. And I remember last year, I brought on about like three or four guests, and the kids were absolutely loving it. They were all actually via Zoom but one of them, he worked on American Ninja Warriors and was on the TV show, and he’d also built schools for Pencil Promise, as well. So, you know, everyone was so excited. They’re all asking questions, they look up to him, you know, asking him about life. Then we had an author Jordan Gross, and he was teaching them a little bit about how to believe in themselves, how to find their purpose, and find their passion.
And then we had, one of my good friends JJ, he’s also an author and he’s a hedge fund manager, but on the side he really likes to spread kindness and share messages as a person with food allergies and how we can choose to be defined by what we’re allergic to and we can’t have or what we can’t do or by what we can do. And so I felt like that was a really important message to start off the year with. We live in the land of can’s where we can do things. Maybe we can’t do it yet, but at the same time we’re always thinking about how we will be able to get there and we shouldn’t be defined by the fact that I can’t really play guitar that well, or I can’t really eat nuts.
But at the same time, we can be defined by what we are good at by what we can do. And that’s a really important message. So I think in, in short, the two key components of the Learning Lab that I do on Thursdays is more about exposure to things that the students may be passionate about. Whether that’s coding, whether that’s learning languages, whether that’s finding a college they want to go to, or finding what they really enjoy doing – whether that’s sports, or whatever that may be. And then I think the second part of it is really understanding where they can go, what is at the end of the line here, and giving them really tangible real world examples. And that’s when we brought in a musician, Ed, who has built many businesses and he started off by really showing them and exploring different types of music.
And we showed music from classical music to different concerts. And the kids were so engaged, they were really interested in how we have different tastes in music and why we’re grateful for music. And then at the end of the day, we kind of switched the second half to be more entrepreneurship and they all had to make their little business ideas and do like a Shark Tank pitch about how to make money and invest. And it’s so important for them to understand the foundation of money, the foundation of where this is all going. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about checking the boxes and, just moving on to the next grade. It’s about finding something that you could potentially do that you could potentially love and giving them that opportunity was also really cool.
And then we brought in Ms. Rojas. She’s a fan favorite here all across Rocketship. She graduated from Rocketship and she’s our Care Corps coordinator. And she has done amazing things with the community, but also she came in and shared her journey about going to college and just the kids lit up looking at pictures of her study abroad experience, about how she went to college, and what that looks like. How she has this job that she loves. And so it’s really important to give them exposure to real world things to help them understand like how it relates to them and help them set goals, visions or dreams for the future of what they could be. So it gives them a little headstart on that.
You mentioned general reactions they had, but is there any one moment that stands out in regards to how the students reacted to the speakers?
Brandon LaBella (15:56):
Yeah, I mean, I think big picture when someone asks a question like, “I’m having trouble when things are going bad at home what can I do to help myself?” And it was crazy how this person who they’d never met before, who might be a little famous could say something as simple as, always think positive, always believe in yourself and how that can change the student’s day and her life, you know? And she thinks about that.
And so it’s really important when they ask these questions, that’s when I see the aha moments of when they relate to things. Like, what is it like going to college at Santa Barbara? Or what was like it to study abroad? I want to do that. I wanna go to Japan. And so different ways that they can connect with that I think is the most important way guide them in the right direction.
And do you have any ideas for folks who are coming in next as future guest speakers?
Yeah, one of my friends, he’s a professor of photography at a college. And I want him to show the kids the power of photography, the power of arts, and what you can do with that and what photography can mean. And it’s so cool because we actually read one of his books and he made a little zine and it’s like basically a very small picture book through words. And so how tangible that can be to them and how they can make their own books with their own pictures.
And you saw and met Joanne last year and she had that whole poem written up and we made that book. And so that was really cool making that book and bringing it to life. So I think the kids can see the tangibility, this is not something that someone else is doing, it’s something that they can actually do. Especially tell a story and the importance of what a photographer does, what a photograph can mean, and how they can share and tell a story.
Advice for Keeping Students Engaged
And when I popped into your classroom, I don’t know what type of class it was, but there were rotational centers of chess and poetry. They were writing poetry books and then doing an independent project. What was happening there?
Brandon LaBella (18:47):
Of, yeah, so that was a little kind of community meeting where we were exploring their interests and their passions. So there was a little center for writing poetry, a little center for playing chess. And then there were two other centers. One was art because a lot of them loved drawing art and expressing themselves through that. And it’s just like finding a way to give them time to explore things that they enjoy doing. I find that is something that is extremely important in their growth and development and also their excitement to be on campus and build a joy of learning.
Yeah, totally. Especially in fifth grade. I mean, thinking back to my fifth-grade experience, I definitely was not learning how to play chess or write poetry, both of which I enjoy now and would have loved to do. So that’s nice that you’re bringing that into their lives.
Brandon LaBella (19:31):
It’s definitely not an easy thing to stimulate 28 students every single day with one thing they’re passionate about. So if you do a really cool activity and spend a lot of time exploring languages and six or seven people are really engaged and then seven of them are really invested in coding, so it’s important to have multiple options because at some point you want the entire class to do something, but at the same time, I’d rather have them do something more purposeful that they enjoy, and explore that.
Great. Kind of switching gears. What keeps you at Rocketship and what do you enjoy about teaching here specifically?
Brandon LaBella (20:24):
Yeah, it’s a great question. Teaching at Rocketship has brought me so much joy because of the community of kids and their families. Having these deep relationships with the families brings a lot of joy. I’m going on a hike with one of the dads of a student. We went to Yosemite last year and we’re doing an annual trip there. We do birthday parties with all of our students and their families from different friend groups. So I really love that aspect where it’s beyond just the classroom. So, we can trust each other. We can do events outside. They trust me to facilitate those events, whether it’s playing football or taking them golfing or tennis or whatever it is.
Just really trusting that relationship and really embracing and enjoying that. And every time you see them, you know, it’s a joy to talk. It’s not a chore, it’s not a box of check like ‘We have to get our parent partnership hours.’ I really believe in that connection. It’s deep; it’s meaningful. It’s way bigger than just checking out for 20 hours. So that’s one thing – the parent engagement is really, really strong and I love that. And then just the community with the kids. The kids are so excited to be here. They’re really excited to be with their friends. They love their teachers. And so every time you come together, every time you see them, it’s like one big community. And you feel very connected with them. So the community within the student base, you know, the relationships you have with other staff members, and then the parent partnership, I feel really strongly about, Rocketship and why I teach here. I really love it.
And if you could give a piece of advice to other teachers who maybe are trying to bring in more of an inspirational element to the classroom through guests or I guess trying to bring more of a spark into their classroom, is there anything you would want to share on how to get that started?
Brandon LaBella (22:41):
I think advice is a funny topic because there’s so much that I can grow in still. There’s so much I learn every day and grow. But from what I know, I think letting the kids have a block, where they can really find something they’re interested in is really, really important. Because that’s gonna help them with their development. And just like interweaving different important concepts that you want to teach in class, something that’s really relatable to the kids is just as important. And don’t be afraid to find a time where you can try it – in a community meeting, show a two-minute clip of Shark Tank of a seven-year-old kid investing and, that relates to creativity and curiosity, which is our core value, right? Or when you are doing vocabulary, how you can weave in TikTok and include something that’s very educational that can help them understand a really difficult concept in close reading or in writing that relates to them. So I think it’s that relatability of content to make the content engaging, to make it fun in all different blocks, and connecting that with all the amazing stuff that the network’s doing is a really powerful combination where they can really make it stick. They can really be engaged and, and really understand that concept.
Tips to Stay Inspired as a Teacher amidst Challenges
It sounds like there’s so much creativity in how you think about teaching and the things that you bring into your lessons. How do you stay inspired as a teacher? It’s a lot of work to be a teacher and we’re grateful for all the work you do and everyone does. How do you stay motivated and stay inspired day in and day out?
Brandon LaBella (24:34):
That’s a great question. It is not easy on a general basis to wake up when it’s freezing cold and come to school. But at the end of the day, it’s the energy from the kids. I mean, that’s the motivation for me. Every day is a day where you can have an amazing experience, an amazing moment where a kid can change you, where you can change a kid, right? It’s not like you’re just teaching kids. I learn from my students all the time. I feel like, you know, they’re part of my family. They’re my kids. And so just those relationships, just realizing that every day you could have these experiences that can change each other, that can change the world. So, it’s really important that we have that outlook on it, because we are doing amazing things as educators, really, really amazing things. So even if you may not realize it, you are having such an impact in a positive way on these kids and giving them life, giving them joy, and try not to forget that.
Great. That’s all my questions. Is there anything else you want to share that we didn’t touch on?
Brandon LaBella (25:48):
No, those are some really good questions. Really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. It’s crazy. It’s year five for me, and I feel like there’s a lot of things that are going really well and, you know, I’m growing and learning and just even being a year five teacher, there are so many things that I can get better at and improve. I’m not some amazing teacher; I am going through everything. You know I struggle. I’m challenged by it. So whether you’re a 15 teacher or a year-one teacher, we’re all kind of in the same boat. We’re all struggling. We’re all trying to find ways to do it better. So I don’t want to come off like I’m some amazing teacher who knows everything. I don’t. I learn so much every day from my kids and I’m trying to get better every day. It’s a really challenging job. And, you know, every year you teach it gets harder and harder because you know more, and you want to help more. You want to make a difference more. And so it’s an amazing job that we have that has a lot of responsibility and challenges, but at the end of the day, it’s the most worthwhile thing, for me at least. So, I’m really lucky for the opportunity.
Published on February 14, 2023
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