This past month I had the pleasure of interviewing Sabrina Morales, a founding kindergarten teacher and character lead at Brilla Pax. Sabrina joined Brilla in 2019 as a Seton Teaching Fellow. Born in The Bronx and the granddaughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, she has strong roots in this community. This background coupled with her desire to teach, inspired her to dedicate a year of service as a Seton Teaching Fellow in her home city.
“As long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a teacher,” remarked Sabrina. But it wasn’t until she visited and toured a Brilla school in 2019 that she knew it was the place for her. “I fell in love not only with the partnership with El Camino, but Brilla’s mission and focus on character in addition to academics,” says Sabrina. “The way that I saw teachers handle difficult situations was touching.” She was struck by the way that teachers spoke to children, even when they were misbehaving, in a way that respected their dignity and modeled virtue. She adds, “The kids themselves were beautiful children who were so excited to learn. There was definitely that joy factor.”
When Sabrina started as a fellow in the fall of 2019, she didn’t know that in March instruction would abruptly go online, as the country reeled from the pandemic. Thankfully, “we had a really creative and leadership-minded cohort,” Sabrina explained. The community bonded through the difficulties re-committed to the mission of serving the students.
After her year of service, Sabrina was invited to join the Brilla staff full time as a founding kindergarten teacher and character lead at the newly opened Brilla Pax. “It was a natural next step,” she recalls, especially as she received so much personal coaching as a fellow. Her time as a fellow has deeply impacted her current perspective as a teacher. She explains:
“When you are a fellow you are not expecting much in return. You know you are coming to do really hard work for little pay. It is out of your comfort zone in so many ways, and you get to the core of what it means to be a teacher very quickly. Your motivation comes from the love you have for the students. You want so much what is best for them, in high school, college, and beyond. Having a year of working at Brilla with that being my number one motivation still carries over now as a teacher. So many teachers at Brilla have that motivation. For me it was good to have that experience [as a fellow] to dig deep and build that motivation based on love for my students.”
This motivation aligns perfectly with the motto that Brilla Pax Principal Shingi Mutasa has outlined for his staff: love, joy, and excellence. “These three words really sum up so much about Brilla and it makes us stand out a lot in comparison to other charter schools,” Sabrina explains. “As educators we are called to love and create a joyful learning environment for our students.” But love and joy don’t mean we lower academic standards. “Excellence is there because we set high standards for our students and expect a lot from them.”
In addition to being a kindergarten teacher, Sabrina serves as a character lead at Brilla Pax. At Brilla, character initiatives is both a domain and a content area. We have a curriculum to directly teach virtues, but character formation is imbued throughout everything we do at Brilla. “We want kids to fall in love with learning and academics, but also be good people and embody the virtues,” explains Sabrina. Students of the week are chosen based on how they exemplify the virtues and teachers intentionally use virtue language to praise and encourage students. All staff also receive character formation so we can continually grow in virtue and better model it for each other and our students.
Staying motivated by love and growing in virtue isn’t easy, especially with the added difficulties of a global pandemic. When asked for advice for her fellow colleagues, Sabrina recommends, “don’t lose sight of all the beauty around you.” With busy schedules and many responsibilities, it can become easy to focus on the difficulties, but if this causes us to lose sight of the beauty in life, our work will become meaningless and overbearing. “Take the time to celebrate all the little wins and joys throughout the day, and the beautiful things your kids do,” says Sabrina. If you keep sight of those things, that can help you persevere with joy through difficult times.
About the Author: Alexandra Cohill is Chief of Staff of the Brilla Schools Network. In her role, she works with the Executive Director in overseeing the development and expansion of the network. Prior to joining the Seton team, Alexandra was a project manager at Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. She also spent several years teaching at two first-year classical charter schools, where she fell in love with classical curriculum and pedagogy. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in politics with a concentration in Spanish at the University of Dallas. In her free time, she enjoys baking, hiking, and watercolor painting.