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Melissa Leyba (LA, ‘20) - The Joys of Teaching STEM

Read about how TFA LA alumna Melissa Leyba evolved throughout her time as a math and science special education educator and why she loves teaching STEM.

April 22, 2022

Teacher and current corps member Melissa Leyba knows firsthand the transformative power of an excellent education. She also knows it’s a privilege many children do not get the chance to experience. For Melissa, the pursuit of educational opportunity meant leaving her home community as she traveled over an hour every day to attend a high-performing arts magnet school. “It was great and brought me to where I am,” she shares, “but looking back now I realize I shouldn’t have had to do that…it took so long some days just to get to school.” Between commutes, she took advantage of all the resources available at her high school–she participated in band, took a varied course load of AP classes, and made friends with teenagers from different areas across the city. She graduated high school with a sense of optimism and confidence sharing, “Once I learned what I could do, I never questioned myself after that.” 

As a math and science special education teacher at Cesar Chavez Middle School in Lynwood, Melissa believes it’s her responsibility to help her eighth-graders grow both academically and emotionally so they are prepared for high school. Her instructional style creates an environment where curiosity, calm, and confidence intersect. She teaches lessons by “scaffolding'' in which she explains a new broad concept or skill and then breaks it down into smaller more manageable lessons for students who need additional support. For example, when launching her unit about cells, she first explains what they are, why they are important, and their key characteristics. She then provides an assignment to check for understanding before diving deeper into the ways cells function and their individual parts. This makes complex concepts easier to grasp and enables her to effectively instruct students with varying levels of understanding. It eliminates some of the frustration many of her students typically experience in the classroom. “I try to make it a very calm space. Part of it is that I’m trying to build up their independence. I’ve built systems that allow them to do things for themselves. For a lot of my students, it’s about confidence. ”

Melissa knew her first year teaching would be difficult, but nothing could fully prepare her for the challenges of teaching virtually during a pandemic. “It was pretty rough, but I was able to survive it,” she recalls, “I came to realize this is what Teach For America is working towards, finding people that can go into these challenging spaces and make an impact.”  Throughout her first year she simply “accepted things as the way they were” trying not to cause too much of a stir.  But the closer she became with her students and more aware of their needs, she began to advocate on their behalf in meetings and to the administration. “Seeing that they really needed, things they weren’t getting–it gave me courage,” she shares, “Yes, there are a lot of problems, but some are fixable and I’m going to try and fix them.”

“I try to make it a very calm space. Part of it is that I’m trying to build up their independence. I’ve built systems that allow them to do things for themselves. For a lot of my students, it’s about confidence. ”

Melissa Leyba

math and science special education teacher, Cesar Chavez Middle School

Los Angeles Corps Member 2021

This year Melissa is teaching eighth grade and has many of the same students she had from the previous year when she taught seventh grade. Since in-person classes resumed their relationship has only grown stronger and Melissa’s impact on her students and school continues to expand. She runs an after-school tutoring program with other teachers and is a member of an educator team working on behavioral interventions for struggling students. “Last year I was really overwhelmed by how many problems there were…but now I've come to realize that people doing little things in one place can really change that place…and I feel that in a way, I’ve found my place.”

a teacher sits at a desk next to a student, showing them her laptop screen.