Growing up in a household where education was strongly encouraged, Mellissa Alonso-Teston recalls a childhood that consisted of Nancy Drew mysteries, nursery rhymes and fairy tales.
Her mother and her love for literacy, she shared, played an instrumental role in her becoming an educator, a step she took in 1992 with the University of South Florida’s (USF) Elementary Education Program.
“My mother's mantra always resounds in my ear,” Alonso-Teston said. “She would tell me, ‘No matter what people take away from you in life, they can never take away your education.’”
Since graduating, the USF alumna began teaching and later achieved a district position in 1996 that enabled her to author and lead Hillsborough County Public Schools' Reading Coach Project. This well-recognized initiative was launched after Alonso-Teston attended a professional development workshop in USF’s David C. Anchin Center for the Advancement of Teaching.
“Back in 1993, I came to the Anchin Center to learn about something called instructional coaching,” Alonso-Teston recalls. “The research that we built on was from (Beverly Showers and Bruce Joyce), and the idea is this: You can take training, and you can take professional development, but if you don’t practice it in your environment with a knowledgeable other, sometimes what you learn doesn’t transfer over.”
Alonso-Teston returned to teaching in 2004 to put her training into practice and she was later honored as the 2004-2005 Hillsborough County Teacher of the Year. After obtaining an Educational Leadership degree from Nova Southeastern University, she took on a role as assistant principal for Ester D. Burney Elementary, a turnaround, Title 1 school in Plant City, Fla.
In 2017, Alonso-Teston’s desire to become an education researcher motivated her to pursue a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in Literacy Studies at USF.
“I needed to come home (to USF),” Alonso-Teston said. “I’m a bull. I bleed green and gold. Working with the literacy studies department at USF just felt top-notch.”
Since beginning her studies, Alonso-Teston has applied the knowledge she’s gained to her work in recruiting, hiring and training literacy coaches at 146 elementary schools within the school district. Learning from the faculty has given Alonso-Teston the confidence to grow her teaching and leadership abilities.
Beyond what she’s learned on campus, Alonso-Teston also had the opportunity to embark on a USF study abroad experience in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Observing and learning about how education moves in schools miles away from home, she says, has enabled her to gain an outlook she didn’t have before.
“I think one of my major reflections was looking at the dialogic nature of literacy in the UK,” Alonso-Teston said. “Children are not only reading and writing, but they’re also communicating about their understanding across all grade levels. This experience allowed me to see literacy in action and to bring that back to the states.”
In addition to her doctoral studies, Alonso-Teston is an adjunct instructor for teacher preparation courses in the College of Education and serves as the Florida Literacy Coaches Association’s president.
Since the start of the pandemic, her goals have centered on supporting educators with technology tools, providing a space for them to share their concerns and working to make online learning parallel with how teaching looks like in a face-to-face classroom setting.
“(In March) I had been reaching out to experts saying, ‘What will teaching look like? How does this look different?’” Alonso-Teston said. “But the question we should be asking ourselves is: ‘How can this look the same?’ Virtual learning should still be focused. It should be highly-engaging, and it should provide differentiation for all students.”
Last September, Alonso-Teston was selected to serve as a State Regional Literacy Director, a position that entails providing the Hillsborough and Polk County school districts with ongoing professional development while also supporting Florida’s transition to Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking (B.E.S.T.) standards.
Aiming to graduate with her PhD in 2024, Alonso-Teston plans to continue her work with literacy coaches and share more about how coaching benefits all teachers, not just those who appear to be struggling.
Her advice to students with literacy and research in their hearts is to stay the course.
“Become a reader,” Alonso-Teston said. “Read deeply and read widely. Let people read your writing. Take coaching and put that coaching into action.”
USF's Literacy Studies program offers cutting-edge master's and doctoral degree programs that include reading, writing, and all forms of multi-media communication. Our programs of research and innovative practices are focused on helping individuals navigate the complex texts of our social, cultural, digital, and global society.