Born in Brooklyn, New York and currently based in San Francisco, CA, Jason Branch works as a product designer in addition to running an art project for marginalized communities called Off the Margins. He also lives with two educators and sees the hard work they do day in and day out to meet the needs of their students.
Living with educators, Jason quickly realized how much teachers pay out of pocket to have all the supplies they need to do their jobs. In fact, teacher out of pocket spending on school supplies is at a record high of $860 for the 2022/2023 school year.
While he was inspired to fundraise by the teachers in his life, Jason also saw a great opportunity with the rise of the hit sitcom “Abbott Elementary.” Using his skills as a designer, he created a t-shirt featuring “Abbott Elementary” and sold the shirt to raise funds for teachers on AdoptAClassroom.org.
We spoke with Jason about his work, this incredible project, and why he chose to support teachers with AdoptAClassroom.org.
AdoptAClassroom.org: Where did you grow up and go to school?
Jason Branch: I grew up in Brooklyn, New York in the 90s. Went to PS 115, it was a great education system. I remember all of my teachers there. In 2002, I moved to Jersey, where I went to middle school, high school, and went to college at Rutgers University. Then for grad school, I went back to New York City to the School of Visual Arts. Now I live in San Francisco, California. I go back pretty often to New York.
AAC: You mentioned that you remembered a lot of teachers. Were there any teachers that really impacted you and helped you get to where you are today?
JB: Mrs. Fuchs in third grade, Mrs. Fox in fourth, Mrs. O’Conner in fifth. I remember them all equally. I think one who left a real mark on me was an Economics teacher in seventh grade. She really instructed me on what economics was, and this idea of scarce resources. I think about how that translates today into our economy and professions like teaching. Where teachers have to spend money out of pocket, where there are not enough resources or funding to go around. I think that really changed the course of my career and things I was interested in.
AAC: What inspired you to do the “Abbott Elementary” project? Do you have teachers in your life that brought to your attention how much they were spending on supplies and how much they needed support?
JB: I think it was twofold. One, was this idea of media, and two are the people in my life. I think we hadn’t seen a sitcom like “Abbott Elementary” in a while. Growing up I saw “Everybody Hates Chris,” “The Cosbys,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” but I think it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a TV show that centered around real problems, real issues, and then giving a deep dive into the every day of a particular profession, be it teachers. I think that was the difference.
In my personal life, I’ve been with my girlfriend for four years now. She’s an assistant principal in Redwood City, California. Our roommate, her best friend, is also an assistant principal, so on a daily basis when they come home I hear the stories and the difficulties of being a teacher. Talking with parents, working with students, being students’ everything. There is this idea that these individuals are not just teachers, they’re social workers, they’re therapists, they’re the second parent if something goes wrong, they’re confidantes, they’re who the kids are coming to. Hearing those stories on a daily basis kind of spurred me in a different way.
AAC: Did you think your project was going to be as successful as it was? Did you think “Abbott Elementary” actress Quinta Brunson would respond the way she did?
JB: This has been something I do once every two years. I call it Off the Margins, I try to raise money to help communities. In 2019, I did a popup art gallery for homeless artists, where I rented a space and homeless artists could debut their work and get 100% of the proceeds. So this was the third iteration of that. This time around, I loved the show. I live with teachers. I love teachers. A good percent of my community in California are teachers. So, it seemed like a no-brainer using the show as an opportunity to raise funds for people who could use the money.
Given that I’ve done this before, I had a good feeling that I’d be able to raise the money because my instagram community has come out for me the past two times. I had a good idea that they would also tag Quinta on the Instagram posts, but I had no idea that she would end up buying shirts or buying as much as she did. So that was a big surprise for me. I thought it would reach her ears eventually but did not anticipate her buying as much, so that was a really pleasant surprise. Especially given that the campaign only lasted four days! Usually I try to do it for two to three weeks, so the fact that she saw it in that short timespan really gives credit to my community and how much they supported and shared it.
AAC: Why did you choose to support teachers with AdoptAClassroom.org?
JB: From living with and hearing from teachers in the past four years, they spend a lot of money out of pocket. This is a real issue in our country where teachers don’t have the resources or the salary to help compensate for the work they do in and out of the classroom. Year after year, you’re setting up a classroom or providing for students and knowing that this money was out of pocket, AdoptAClassroom.org seemed like a great resource. You channel funds to teachers who need them the most, to provide that warm and welcoming environment. So in the first class, students know who the teacher is, what kind of the environment this is, and feel warm and welcome. I thought this was a great opportunity and a great cause to support teachers.
AAC: We just completed our teacher spending survey, and teachers are telling us that this school year they spent an average of $860 out of pocket on school supplies. This is more than a hundred dollar jump from 2021. It was a lot worse than we knew. What’s your reaction to that as someone who supports teachers and educators?
JB: It’s unfair. I think that’s the only word that comes to mind when I think about it. There are seldom other professions where individuals have to pay out of pocket to do what they do on a daily basis. So I think that’s the first thing that comes to mind, it’s unfair.
And the second: it’s reality. It’s an unfortunate reality. Not too long ago, my girlfriend, who is an assistant principal, told me that she was buying one of her students shoes. Shoes, right? Things we think that normally are for parents to buy. Parents couldn’t afford shoes. And the shoes the student had were too tight. This needs to change, we need increases in funding, and AdoptAClassroom.org is one of those stopgaps in providing extra resources to teachers who need it.
AAC: Is there anything you would say to teachers of the AdoptAClassroom.org community?
JB: All I can say is thank you. It’s a thankless job, they do it day in and day out, and it does not end at 3:05 or 2:30 or whatever the cutoff time is when parents pick up their kids. I constantly see them working after hours until six, seven, eight at night. First and foremost, I wanna say thank you. It is a difficult job, it takes a toll emotionally, physically, and it’s very hard work.
I wish they were compensated more, if there are picket lines I’ll get on them, if there are strikes I will. I’ll be doing my best to support, not just from the sidelines but physically as much as possible. Thank you first and foremost. The work is needed. I think when we think about fulfilling work, the stories I hear on a day-to-day basis, how kids are excited to come to school, how they’re learning, improvements they’re making. I don’t think that can be talked about enough, I think the reward in itself is creation of the future. I think that should be respected and upheld.
Thank you Jason and all AdoptAClassroom.org supporters for standing by teachers and for sharing your inspiration with us! Together, we can ensure every student has what they deserve to succeed in school. And, teachers won’t have to pay for it themselves.
If you want to help teachers, you can make a direct donation to AdoptAClassroom.org today.