Teaching Programming

Note: This is a post I drafted in 2017 and am publishing now in 2020.

My Background

I’m working as a tech educator now – my official title is “Lead Instructor”. I even have a super fancy business card:

business-card

This is after “years of industry experience” and “many hours of classroom instruction”, specifically volunteer work through TEALS-K12 teaching computer science in Brooklyn, work-study teaching Python to 7-12th graders during college, and teaching a self-designed actionscript/flash curriculum to peers during high school.

I think a lot about education. I think a lot about quotes like @LiaSae’s because I agree with it. I believe the current problems with the American school system are problems of economics, not education. The problem is that it’s the “Silicon Valley Jerks” like myself that have the wherewithal (read: money/privilege) to try crazy things like coding schools, but we don’t have the teaching background. Someone needs to combine the two.

Teaching Certificates and Regulation

The boot camp I work for is accredited by the state (CODHE). The application process is rigorous and it takes hundreds of hours to put together the documents. This ensures that CODHE has reviewed our curriculum and approved it. But, this means that if we come up with a “better” curriculum that we’d like to try, there’s no room to pivot. We would have to go through the approval process again, which nobody wants to do. Pros and cons.

(Edit from 2020: we actually could pivot. As far as I can tell there was very little oversight and so calling “audibles” to switch out materials or teach something different was totally fine, as long as we believed it would benefit the students. The state just wanted to make sure we were actually thinking through this stuff? The company is now defunct so I feel like I can admit this).

I don’t have a teaching certificate. As far as I can tell, the need for programming teachers is so huge right now that they’ve basically dropped that requirement. You also don’t need a teaching degree at a private institution like the one that I’m teaching at now. I understand that this is a huge gap in my experience and I’ll certainly be getting one right after completing an undergrad teaching preparation course, 800 hours of teaching experience, and… yeah… not going to happen anytime soon. I can’t even find if there’s an accredited program for getting a computer science teaching certificate (maybe at Regis? What a convoluted PDF).

As far as I can tell, no teachers at bootcamps have teaching certificates (let me know if you do!). Does this mean we’re all those silicon valley jerks? Yes, and that sucks for the students and it sucks for the companies that try to hire out of boot camps like mine. Lots of people argue that boot camps should be regulated by the government and I agree with them and I think @LiaSae would too. But then, I would be out of a job and 99.99% of bootcamps would shut down.

(Edit from 2020: it seems like this was a good idea. I should have taken a harder stance on this, since it does seem like a lot of fly-by-night bootcamps popped up and quickly shuttered. The one I worked for, I believe they were doing a lot of the right things, but the market quickly saturated for junior developers and we started not being able to get people hired. After I quit – taking a job with a 30% salary bump – the bootcamp I had worked for was able to attract enough students and shuttered.)

It’s hard enough convincing programmers to take a pay cut and work at a boot camp. It’s even harder to do that to programmers who have the prerequisite charisma to teach, since that probably means they have the prerequisite charisma to climb a corporate ladder. All of my favorite teachers have done the job because they love inspiring students and because they love teaching.

I taught programming at the School for Human Rights in Brooklyn, NY, through the TEALS-K12 program. The TEALS program takes tech professionals and places them in morning classes – usually four volunteers to a class – and has them teach programming before they go in to work. They teach not only the students, but also the teacher, with the hope that the teacher will be able to teach the class on their own after 3-4 years of instruction.

None of these volunteer teachers are regulated or licensed, though they are trained. The year I participated, they also expected us to come up with the assignments and lessons for the class. It went… poorly. (Based on our feedback, they’ve hired curriculum developers and really flushed out the materials. Based on their new materials and their progress, I highly recommend volunteering through them if you’re interested in tech education but you can’t quit your job just yet.)  I was lucky that I’d done amateur curriculum design before, and one of my co-teachers had been a licensed chemistry teacher for years. That said, if they tried to hire only programming professionals who had teacher licensure, they’d have just a handful of schools in their program instead of 161.

I think this is a great example of Silicon Valley Jerks who know nothing about education really trying to make a difference. Is it the best teaching experience for the students? No. I certainly floundered a lot when I was learning to teach. But it’s certainly better than no technology education at all due to a lack of resources.

(Note from 2020: The more I learn  about how schools are funded by property tax to specifically benefit rich folks’ schools, the more I strongly believe we need more fundamental reform than just sending Silicon Valley Jerks like myself to go teach at underfunded locations. But it’s a good bandaid in the meantime. You need to treat the symptoms while you treat the cause.)

I’m not sure where I stand on the issue of teacher licensure in computer science and I would love to incite a discussion on the issue. Pros mostly involve better oversight, better instruction technique, and more consistent curricula. Cons involve not being able to move fast and pivot, even more undersupply of teachers, and less learn-to-code startups. Imagine if Salman Khan had to get a teaching license first.

(Note from 2020: I’m back to teaching, but this time I’m actually titled as an “Adjunct Lecturer” at Howard University through a program at Google, where I work now. It’s the same thing: send us Silicon Valley Jerks into programs to help build out the pipelines. We need to do this and ALSO address the underlying economic and prejudice problems that lead to this, by rethinking how we do things like students loans and school funding. I originally had some more topics to cover here, but I think what’s above is good on its own.)

From the Upper Peninsula of Michigan,

Erty

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