The Accidental Teacher, Part II
The differentiated individual is free of boredom only when he is engaged either in creative work or some absorbing occupation or when he is wholly engrossed in the struggle for existence.Eric Hoffer, “The True Believer”
This weekend, I dismantled the last visible remnant of one of the most creative periods of my life. Now that I put it that way, I actually regret it a little but not too much.
It was a public Trello board that I maintained while teaching a program in software development at a local college. I needed an easy way to post assignments and resources for everyone in the class to see and Trello seemed as good a resource as any. The format wasn’t ideal but it got the job done. Every new assignment and exercise received its own card on the kanban board and students could use the cards to upload their work and collaborate.
I had never stepped in front of a classroom before that job. I was hired based on my business experience to design and teach a vocational program in database programming. I spent the first several months figuring out exactly how to do that as I used every bit of my past programming experience and scoured reference materials for the best class resources. I got very familiar with the state curriculum framework that we’d chosen and the Microsoft certifications I was going to be preparing the students to receive. Both sets of requirements needed to be woven into the program so that the students could earn the certifications and individually sign off that we had covered the 130+ state requirements. Meanwhile, I had to take online courses and pass state certifications of my own so my temporary teaching certificate could be extended. It all kept my brain pretty active.
In retrospect, I’m amazed that I thought I could do it but then maybe the greatest accomplishments need to be accompanied by foolish optimism or, at least, a blind eye toward the dangers. Really, I saw the choice between doing it myself and hoping that whoever else the school hired would do it well. I also recognized that there was a decent paycheck involved and decided to take the plunge.
I really had no clue about putting together classroom lesson plans and didn’t receive much instruction on how to actually do that. That was okay because the few that I did put together in advance didn’t survive contact with actual classroom conditions anyway, especially after the entire program was moved to a new classroom across town that lacked any kind of projection equipment.
Three months before starting, we weren’t even sure we’d have enough students and another teacher was trying to get me reassigned as his assistant. We finally did start with 14 students and lost the first one after the first week when he realized that programming wasn’t really what he had wanted to begin with. The school was more nervous about that than I was, even as we lost more students for different reasons.
Even though I didn’t have many official lesson plans, I had developed an outline and other materials to follow so the next 16 months became a seat-of-the-pants exercise in developing plans for each day, mostly involving having the students work through exercises and challenges I devised, sometimes from my own experience. I did very little lecturing; I prepared printed reference materials and showed videos as needed. YouTube really is a goldmine for the teacher who knows how to use it.
I don’t regret a bit of this format; as a programming instructor, my job was as much teaching them how to teach themselves programming. The technology is always changing and I wasn’t going to be around forever.
One exercise occurred to me as I was driving away from my bank one afternoon and realized that the students should be able to handle programming a mortgage calculator. Not only would it be a great programming exercise but these students, most in their late teens and early 20s, would learn something about mortgages which they undoubtedly hadn’t learned in high school. I gave a diabolical little laugh and wrote up the assignment. I had great fun writing up some of those assignments and I’m sure the students had more fun completing them than they’ll ever admit. Well, maybe not much more.
That job invaded my dreams more than all the other positions I’ve held combined. In most cases, this would be the sign of severe workplace stress and require counseling. This time, I took it as a sign that I was truly enjoying myself. Two days after the program started, I woke up in the middle of the night babbling about database principles to my cat. He understood about as much as the students did at that point.
Fortunately, the students made a lot more progress than the cat did. In six months, the ten students who remained had a very solid grounding in SQL and relational database design and were ready to take the first certification. All passed on their first try. Several months later, the five who remained at that point had a decent grasp of C# programming and were ready for the second cert. One person had to re-take it but they all passed.
That’s right, the program had a 64% washout rate which I’m also not ashamed of although the school was a lot less comfortable with it and it’s one of the reasons there wasn’t a second run of the program.
This was a very intense programming and engineering course in which most of the students had no prior programming experience (or even Windows experience in a couple cases). We got whatever students we could in order to justify starting it and then had them in class for five hours, four nights a week under a first-year instructor who liked to give weekend assignments.
Only two or three actually dropped because they couldn’t handle the material; most dropped for other personal and job reasons. I could talk about a lot of things that were done wrong but, in the end, the nature of the program simply wasn’t suited to the operation and needs of that school which is probably why I only found two other schools running the same state curriculum.
As I said, there were a lot of factors involved in cancelling the program, including mismanagement and the unique brand of politics found in education. It was a long time before I could even look at the materials I’d developed for the course without doing a slow burn so I put it aside for a long time as life gave me other things to work on. The fact that I can write about it here with such a lighthearted tone tells me that I’ve actually reconciled it somewhat. A couple of my former students have contacted me since to let me know that they’ve found ways to use what they learned in my classroom.
Not everything in life goes exactly as we want it to but we take what we can from it and keep going. The most productive periods in our lives are often the hardest and the most frustrating. They’re the times that make us think on our feet and adapt to changes and, as much as we resent the pain at the time, we often look back with a satisfaction that we don’t get from the easy times.
I’ve been feeling the need to do something new for a long time now and I’m just getting to the point where I have some inkling of how to do it. It won’t be easy but think I still have some of that foolish optimism on hand. Now I just have to keep showing up.