The following is the text from my speech to the Ocala Early Bird Toastmasters on May 19, 2018.
My name is Andrew Comeau and I am … a public school teacher?
I say it that way because It’s been a study in irony for me. If you told me just a couple years ago that I’d be teaching a nighttime programming class for vocational students, I’d have laughed. When others suggested I should be a teacher, I said it wasn’t for me.
Then when I was told that a new programming course was needed in Ocala and I had the choice of designing and teaching it myself or hoping someone else did it well, I automatically said Yes.
It quickly became my life. I’ve left jobs that demanded less of me than this, citing work-life balance. When I found myself on 1 a.m. conference calls at a previous job, I took it as a sign that things had gotten out of control at that company.
Then, during the first week of classes last August, I woke up in the early morning hours and realized I was talking in my sleep about programming principles and my cat was on the bed next to me listening curiously. This job has shown up in my dreams more often than my last three jobs combined. This time around, I took it as a good sign.
I’ve worn many career hats over the years – programmer, consultant, author, engineer – but this is the role that is currently eclipsing everything else in a way that none of the others have.
The difference is that teaching is more than just my current job or career choice. It’s my current mission and the next step in using the skills that I’ve been developing since I was a teenager.
For the most part, I’m actually self-taught in technology. In high school, I got access to one of the old Tandy color computers and started teaching myself the old BASIC language because it was fun. I spent more time working on my college programming classes than the Accounting courses I was actually majoring in.
Over the years, I moved more and more into technology, taking on unofficial support responsibilities and then working my way into the I.T. field and then into my first official programming position, still mostly learning from being able to demonstrate my experience.
A few years ago, I started a networking organization called the Ocala I.T. Professionals when I realized that Ocala didn’t have a way for I.T. people to come together and share ideas. I made contacts with the city and then with Marion Technical College which led to me accepting the teaching position.
I’ve been interested in sharing what I know for many years, designing websites and writing books on database design. I plan on going back to writing and publishing at some point but the experience of directly interacting with students and explaining some of these concepts on a one-to-one basis has given me a level of feedback that you just don’t get from readers.
I’ve seen how my own technical expertise can sometimes be a weakness when it comes to communicating with those who don’t have the automatic curiosity that enabled me to pick up so many things on my own. I’m hoping that this experience will make me a better author next time around.
Teaching a programming course at a vocational college has been about a lot more than preparing lesson plans and grading papers. I’ve been asked to take an active role in the promotion of the courses and occasionally speak to groups of high school students about careers in I.T..
I’ve always stayed far away from sales jobs but this has given me experience in the kind of quick, dynamic presentations that are needed when you have 24 hours notice to come up with something that’s going to hold the attention of a group of high school juniors who have already sat through a half-dozen other career presentations and are just interested in getting lunch and then getting back on the bus. Through constant repetition, I’ve developed the ability to deliver an engaging presentation about my program that will speak to specific students, even when the projection equipment fails and I have to wing it.
Coming up with presentations quickly sometimes applies to lesson plans, too. When you’re teaching a programming class and the Internet suddenly goes down for the evening or life intervenes and you just haven’t had time to put together a plan for that day, class preparation becomes a little like Table Topics. It helps to have a storehouse of past work experience to draw on and I’ve enjoyed pulling some of my own past challenges out of storage and seeing how the students handle them.
Of course, you can’t teach a subject without learning more about it yourself and one of the benefits of teaching in a technical field like software development is the opportunity to constantly refresh your skills. Teaching programming means constantly looking at the rapidly changing technologies and making sure you know enough about them to answer at least most of the students’ questions. Sometimes, when the students are working on an assignment, I’m working right along with them so I can give them pointers and show them my own approach.
I’ve also avoided management roles over the years and now I’m managing a classroom of programmers-in-training and finding myself sympathizing a bit more with some of my previous managers. When I created this program, I promoted it as being similar to a real-life software development environment and over 90% of the class time is spent with the students working against project deadlines. In addition to keeping them focused and productive, I get to enforce all the other workplace rules, hear all the excuses for missed days and incomplete work, filter directives from “upper management”, deal with administration and facility issues and even face the occasional human resources problem.
The biggest irony for me is that I have a love-hate relationship with technology. For all that I do with it and as much as I enjoy it, I don’t fully trust it. Even as I’ve ridden the wave of technology and it’s enabled me to do so much, I also understand that it’s easier to develop technology than it is to develop ourselves as individuals. Therefore, on some level, reliance on technology can weaken us as humans. It’s also important to continually ask ourselves if specific technologies such as social media are serving us or if we have begun to serve them.
Nevertheless, technology is here to stay and grow and technology is what I excel at so whether I’m teaching in the classroom, writing new material or networking with others, I will continue my immersion in it and do my best to teach others to use it well.
Want to find out the rest of the story? Check out The Accidental Teacher, Part II.