Teaching to Learn and Learning to Teach

The University of Wisconsin’s recent study of our work, Personalized Learning in Practice, highlights the Learning Assistant Program at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy (on Chicago’s South Side) as a promising example of personalized learning done powerfully. To explore the program and the impact it makes for students, we asked Alondra Moncada, a senior at Brooks, to share about her experience as a 2018-19 Learning Assistant.

Ever since I was little, I have been interested in education. Growing up with two little sisters and five younger cousins, the pressure and expectations of being the oldest were on. I was expected to help everyone with projects and homework. As I got older, helping others stuck with me, and became something I liked to do.

When I started thinking about careers, I thought about the ones where I could help people: doctor, teacher, psychologist, etc. When I was a sophomore at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, I narrowed it down to becoming a math teacher after I joined the school math team. There, I was able to work with others while showing them how fun math could be outside the classroom. I felt like I belonged somewhere, and it felt good when other members found a new community to be a part of too. The moment I heard about the Learning Assistant Program at Brooks, I knew I wanted to apply.

The program works by placing high school seniors—most of whom are interested in teaching careers—into seventh- or eighth-grade classrooms for the entire year. Collaborating one-on-one with teachers, LAs get a taste of the skills and knowledge the profession requires, and seminars add to the hands-on exposure with more formal learning around education philosophy and teaching strategies. Checking my schedule a few days before the first day of school, I was thrilled to see I was an LA for Mr. Mrozek, a math teacher for middle schoolers and freshmen.

Mr. Mrozek is young and fun as a teacher, with a classroom that focuses on student participation, growth and humor. At first, my responsibilities were small, like stamping students’ binders or checking their work for mistakes, but as the year has progressed and as Mr. Mrozek and I have built more trust, I’ve had more things to do. Now, I work with intervention or acceleration students—those who need to move at different paces than the rest of the class—while stamping off work and checking in with kids. I try to talk with every single one of the students each time I’m there, checking in on how they’re doing and updating a spreadsheet Mr. Mrozek and I use to keep track of their individual progress through units. When students are struggling to comprehend problems, I go through them step by step on mini-whiteboards, sometimes advising them to stop by during Mr. Mrozek’s tutoring after school if they need more help. All this has allowed me to get to know the students really well, and to make what feels like a real difference in their lives. This human connection has been by far my favorite part of being an LA—well, that and getting to revisit quadratics (one of my favorite topics).

Although the year isn’t over, I’ve already learned a massive amount about my future career, and I’ve developed skills that will help me in and outside the classroom. Watching Mr. Mrozek, I’ve witnessed how much planning teaching requires beyond grading papers, and I’ve been encouraged by how much I’ve enjoyed helping with these types of things. I’ve also come to understand how important it is to be able to relate to the students. Mr. Mrozek will write test questions about Post Malone’s sales numbers because he knows that’s the musician his students are listening to, or use homework stamps that say “This ain’t it chief” or “Go you.” Such little details go a long way in building strong, trust-based connections with students. And as for skills I can carry forward, the experience has been essential in helping me develop my own “teacher’s voice.” Before this journey, the thought of Mr. Mrozek being absent terrified me. I hadn’t ever been comfortable speaking in front of a class; my voice wouldn’t project, and my gaze was never with the audience. But when the day came, I realized that I’d slowly built my own skills for communicating effectively, and it turned out to be more exciting than intimidating.

Since I first thought about teaching, people have tried talking me out of it. “It’s a lot of work,” they’ll say, or they’ll ask, “What will you do with troublemakers or the kids who don’t like math?” However, as my time as Mr. Mrozek’s LA nears its end, I have never been more confident that this is what I want to do. Even though the profession will likely change quite a lot over the course of my career, I’m excited about the opportunities that will come with these changes. This year I even caught a glimpse of the possible changes, as Mr. Mrozek shifted from traditional pacing to competency-based progression, where all students work at their own paces (moving on from topics when they demonstrate mastery). This shift was challenging for everyone, especially when many students were on a different activity, or even on a different competency. It made students work harder not only on the tasks at hand but also on managing their time. Even though they were frustrated with the change, as time passed they began to see the benefit of moving at their own speeds and taking tests when they best saw fit. And even as I was rushed across the room answering questions and helping students learn, I enjoyed the challenge because I felt like a teacher.

When the time comes to be a full-time teacher, I believe that I will be well-prepared and up for the challenge. Next year, I plan to begin at DePaul University as an Education major, with the goal of teaching between middle school and high school. Once in the classroom, I intend to utilize everything I have learned as a LA and what I will learn during college so that I can be the teacher my students need to succeed.