He parks in a different spot than he did in high school, but the same farm-lined, meandering Union County roads lead the way there for Thomas La Bianca ’16. These days, the second-year English instructor and New Teacher of the Year nominee pulls into the staff lot and heads into Porter Ridge High School to lead classes, the place where, not long ago, he struggled to even turn in homework on time.
A native of the Charlotte suburb of Indian Trail, La Bianca says his path through school was occasionally rocky.
“I wasn’t the greatest student, especially in high school,” he said. “I did not manage my time well at all.”
While La Bianca labored in the classroom at Porter Ridge, success came easier on the field. At well over six feet tall and looming around 290 pounds by his senior year, he took to football as a youth and excelled. As an offensive lineman, he was named to the All-Conference team twice and drew the attention of college scouts.
La Bianca was considering his options when he got a call from Brad Lambert, then coach of the 49ers, with an offer to join UNC Charlotte’s inaugural football team in 2012.
“The idea of being a part of the first team and setting the groundwork for what’s to come, that really stuck out to me, so I ultimately decided to go to UNC Charlotte,” La Bianca said.
Athletic prowess had delivered him to campus. To thrive there, keep his scholarship, and move toward future success, La Bianca knew he had to elevate his commitment to academics.
“I had to practice discipline and self-control right away. I realized I was there most importantly to get an education,” he said. La Bianca’s dedication yielded improved grades. He also continued to make an impact on the football field, starting more than 25 games for the 49ers over his college career. Yet, like many students, he made his way through his first years and core courses without a clear finish line picked out.
“I wasn’t one of those kids who knew what he wanted to be when I was five. I really came onto campus with no idea what to do,” he said.
Before he knew it, La Bianca was a junior and well on his way to earning a double major in Criminal Justice and English, but unsure about a career. It was around this time he began to think seriously about applying a simmering love for reading and writing to becoming a teacher.
“Having the opportunity to make a positive impact on the next generation appealed to me. It’s a great way to help students learn and grow, and they need skills in English and Language Arts for many fields in the real world.” La Bianca also loved the idea of leading a class toward a common goal and staying connected to the team mentality he’d always valued in sports.
He soon found the Cato College of Education’s graduate certificate in teaching program, which allows students with a bachelor’s degree in another area to learn the skills and earn the license needed to teach.
“I thought it was a great idea. Just to be able to finish my undergraduate degree and then get the graduate certificate, and be able to pursue teaching,” La Bianca said. The program is ideal for recent graduates or working professionals like La Bianca, as it can be completed in as few as three semesters with many classes offered online.
Education faculty taught La Bianca lesson planning, instructional techniques and classroom management. They were impressed with his potential.
“Thomas builds upon his unique ability to form meaningful working relationships with both his students and fellow faculty. He is approachable, real, relevant and supportive,” said Rex Mangiaracina, La Bianca’s student teaching supervisor. Mangiaracina observed that student-athletes often turn out to be great teachers. “They are accustomed to stressful environments. Their background can give them an intrinsic level of self-confidence having performed in front of crowds and this often translates to greater comfort with their students,” he said.
BACK IN THE BUILDING
La Bianca’s confidence was tested on his first day back at Porter Ridge High School, where he was hired in 2017 to teach English.
“I walked into the classroom and saw 30 faces looking back at me. I realized I’m responsible for these kids for the next hour and a half, and it kind of blew my mind,” he said.
Over his early months on the job, La Bianca became comfortable and developed a signature teaching style.
“My favorite thing about Mr. La Bianca’s class is how interactive it is. We have lots of class discussions, which I think is a great way for us as a class to get to know each other better,” said student Raine Callender. “He tries to incorporate humor into his lessons. I knew that every day I walked into his class, I wouldn’t leave without laughing.”
La Bianca also set out to apply lessons from his time as an athlete to teaching.
“Look at successful coaches and programs across sports: they have a clear culture that’s been set,” he said. As he welcomes new students, La Bianca strives to establish a “classroom culture.”
“I say, ‘You know, we’re going to have a lot of discussions in here and it’s okay to disagree. It’s almost encouraged, but there has to be a way that you communicate respectfully and kindly with one another and get your ideas across,’” he explains.
Glowing reviews of the new teacher soon trickled up to Porter Ridge administrators, earning La Bianca the Beginning Teacher of the Year nomination.
“When he talks, the kids listen, they’re interested in what he has to say,” said Dr. Kim Fisenne, principal of Porter Ridge. “When you go into his class they’re engaged, they are doing work that’s purposeful and often collaborative; new teachers often hesitate to do that.”
While La Bianca is surprised by and appreciative of the recognition, his focus remains on empowering students, especially those who are skeptical about school.
“I can look at them and say, ‘I made the mistakes you’re currently making. I don’t want you to do the same thing. You have potential. I want to help you not make those mistakes by practicing good study habits and time-management skills,’” he said. These moments of connection are at the core of what La Bianca describes as his “why,” the thing that fuels him as a teacher.
He remembers a note printed carefully at the bottom of a student’s reading journal. La Bianca had suggested a book, and the student had taken him up on it. “Thank you so much for recommending this book to me,” the note read, “It has helped me through a hard situation in my life.”
In his first year as a teacher, the former Porter Ridge High School star stepped up for the Pirates football team again, this time as assistant coach, leading the team to a berth in the state high school semifinals. Despite the success, after the season La Bianca decided to give up coaching to spend more time with his family and focus on growing as an educator.
“I’m trying every day to be the best teacher I can possibly be,” he said.