Learning to “Hold On Loosely”
June 15, 2023
If 14-year-old Heather Alonso learned she would teach 7th and 8th grade Language Arts in a decade, she wouldn’t believe it. Yet every day, she walks into her classroom at Woodworth-Monroe K-8 Academy in Inglewood, California, with her large carafe of coffee, ready to help her 170 students mature as readers, writers, and people.
Growing up in a small town in Montana on the Flathead Indian Reservation (home to Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes), her schools were short on resources, and Heather’s grades fluctuated. “I had really great teachers, but there were a lot of things lacking, things that we didn’t have…it was a struggle for me, specifically in middle school,” she shares. For Heather, those years were marked by frequent moves and “instability,” but amidst the challenges, school remained the “one spot where things were stable.” She struggled to ask for help but was fortunate enough to have several English teachers who saw her potential and followed her academic growth closely, urging her to take her studies seriously and advocate for herself. Their constant “pushing” and support culminated in Heather attending college, a future she thought was out of reach. “Because of them, I went to college, which made a huge difference in my life and my family’s,” she explains. “At the time, I didn’t understand the full gravity of things…that just one person can make all the difference."
Heather aspires to emulate that “life-changing” influence for her students. Although she’s been formally teaching for less than a year, she’s already made significant gains with her students, especially in persuasive writing and reading comprehension. She intentionally builds student choice into her lessons and selects content that aligns with their interests, whether by asking students to develop their essay prompts or selecting relevant books. In the fall, Heather decided to do a unit on the book Touching Spirit Bear after managing several incidents between students. The novel is a powerful coming-of-age story with themes of anger management, love, redemption, and self-growth. She knew these themes would resonate with students and quickly noticed that even the most resistant readers were not only engaged with the book but actively reading ahead.
“Having teachers who believed in me changed my life…now I’m the one pushing my students to think long term. I’m just so proud of them.”
While Heather now comes across as a seasoned veteran in the classroom, it wasn’t always this way. “In the beginning, it was hard, really hard,” recalls Heather, “I wasn't taking care of myself because I was so focused on my students. I had 170 kids with 170 different needs, and I wanted to address them all.” She relied on her exceptional organizational skills, planning out every minute of the day and staying at school well after dark trying to perfect lesson plans. She spent her breaks listening to students as they shared their personal challenges and felt the heaviness of it all. She was beginning to burn out. But then, she found a support system in her fellow educators. “I bonded with some of the other first teachers, and we’d work together to figure things out. Building those connections helped me find my way.” Heather now balances the responsibility and heaviness of teaching with her wellbeing and knows that taking care of students must also mean taking care of herself.
She’s also learned to “hold on loosely,” as she puts it. Initially, she was so focused on “classroom management and addressing students’ every need'' that there was little room for error. “I was holding on to them so tight…now I know making mistakes is essential in the learning process. Even though it's going to break my heart, I have to let them make mistakes in order for them to learn,” says Heather. On the tough days, when a lot of learning comes in the form of making mistakes, she turns to her storage cabinet, which is plastered with drawings, notes, poems, and other things students have gifted her. “It helps me remember how meaningful the relationships with students are,” and reminds her of the power and privilege that comes with teaching. “Having teachers who believed in me changed my life…now I’m the one pushing my students to think long term. I’m just so proud of them.”