Jose Herrera ’18 learned two things over the recent Winter Break: teaching physics to high school students is extremely challenging, and teaching high school physics is what he wants to do.
Herrera spent three weeks in January tutoring and mentoring physics students at the Margarita Muniz Academy in Boston. He was one of more than 30 students from Vassar, Williams, Middlebury, Amherst, and Smith awarded internships in Boston and New York City public schools this year under the auspices of the five colleges’ Urban Education Institute.
The majority of the students at Margarita Muniz Academy are children of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Herrera, the son of Mexican immigrants, says helping some of them overcome language barriers was one of the most rewarding parts of his job. “There were two students who were really struggling with comprehension, and being able to help them understand some physics concepts, seeing that sudden recognition on their faces, was really gratifying,” he says.
Herrera says he was in middle school when he decided he wanted to be a teacher. After he took two physics courses at his high school in Springdale, AR, he was convinced it was the subject he wants to teach. “Physics is hard – it didn’t come easily to me,” Herrera says. “But my teacher was inspiring. He was funny and engaging, but he stayed on task and made sure we understood all the concepts and he always answered all of our questions.”
By the time he finished his three-week stint in Boston, Herrera says, he had even more appreciation for what his former high school teacher was doing. His duties included helping students in four physics classes complete daily worksheets and tutoring some of them in one-on-one sessions after school. “I’m a shy person by nature, so it was difficult for me to be assertive at first,” he says. “But as time went on, I was able to joke around with them while still having the ability to tell them to buckle down and get their work done.”
Herrera says he learned to appreciate how difficult it is for teachers to strike a balance between engaging students as friends and maintaining a level of authority. “It really opened my eyes to what’s involved in teaching, the time and effort it takes to be good at the job,” he says. “One of the biggest challenges in urban schools is working with students with different levels of comprehension. Some of them are learning quickly and others are falling behind, and you have to find ways to help all of them succeed. But the three weeks I spent working with them also confirmed for me that it’s something I want to do.”
Professor of education Christopher Bjork, who encouraged Herrera to apply for the internship, says the lessons he learned are exactly the ones the Urban Education Fellowships are intended to teach. “During these internships, many students discover that their preconceptions about teaching and learning in those institutions were inaccurate. Spending three weeks shadowing a public school teacher helps students test the waters and see if a career in education is for them -- or not,” Bjork says. “I think the interns also come back to Vassar with a deeper understanding of the U.S. education system. The experiences they share in their education courses enrich our discussions about all sorts of important issues.”
Herrera says his experience in Boston prompted him to pursue another opportunity to gain some hands-on experience teaching high school students. When the spring semester is over, he will return to Arkansas to mentor students enrolled in Upward Bound, a program for gifted, low-income students run by the U.S. Department of Education. “Part of the program involves showing high school students what college-level courses are like, and I’ve been accepted as a counselor,” he says. “I was part of Upward Bound, and it helped me get to Vassar, so I want to give something back.”