Newly Found Respect

I went back to high school in September. Other than parent-teacher nights and occasional class reunions, this is the first time I have been in high school in over 50 years. I am part of a nine-person team (one real teacher) and eight volunteers who are teaching Advanced Placement Computer Science (Java) in one of our local high schools.

No, we did not come up with the idea of teaching Java. We stumbled on a program called TEALS (Technology Education And Literacy in Schools) and each volunteered to give about 300 hours of our time to teach something that some of us actually know quite a bit about. Within our team, we have over 160 years of experience programming computers in a vast variety of environments, but over half of us have never programmed in Java.

When we formed last Summer, we discovered that we had much to learn:

  • How to create lesson plans and homework assignments;
  • How to use Moodle (the school district’s system to support schooling);
  • How to organize what we are teaching and who is teaching what and when;
  • How to create a course syllabus;
  • And some of us (including me) had to learn Java.

And we had to form as a team. Throughout this process, Jenny, the real teacher of this class had to deal with eight chiefs and no clear leader; often not the ideal organizational structure. But she watched, learned and gave us lots of rope and our team started to jell nicely. By the time school started in early September, we had the first few weeks mapped out and a general structure for the entire year. We split the load eight ways, so each of us taught about once every week or so.

I taught a brief piece on the first day and then a full class on the following Monday. I taught again the following week and then had a week off. I was planning to teach one day in week five, but when one of our team needed to deal with an emergency, I stepped in and wound up teaching three days in a row. I was teaching an important topic: Classes and Objects, a fundamental concept in Computer Science. And we had agreed to limit our lectures to give the students the maximum amount of lab time.

On the first day, I am blathering on about properties and methods and I see a sea of blank faces. The vast majority of them weren’t getting it, but that was not unexpected. I managed to get them into lab about 15 minutes into the period where they were still working on yesterday’s assignment. The lab time is fun time for me and, I suspect, for the other members of our team. We get to sit one-on-one with a student and help them solve a problem. Sometimes it takes only a few seconds; “You have a semicolon that doesn’t belong on line 24”. And sometimes it took a bit longer, but in almost every case we could help them light the lamp of learning (couldn’t resist the alliteration). Lab is where their real learning happens.

On Wednesday, the first period class had both sessions and I had to introduce a fundamental piece:  how to create and use a separate class, and I had only 10 minutes of lecture time. In the subsequent lab time they were all over the place; but some of them were catching the fire. One student completed the assignment and his eyes lit up proudly, so I challenged him to go beyond the assignment and create another class definition. He took the challenge and 20 minutes later he was one happy camper. I could feel the buzz growing as one student after another got the problem working.

By the time I got home on Thursday I was feeling exhausted. I had been pulled in several directions that week, but the teaching was almost an adrenaline rush, and I was experiencing the inevitable crash. I realize that I now had 120 pieces of homework to review and grade and I was developing a new found respect for Jenny. She was learning Java along with the rest of the class and she had class periods for the rest of the day. Every day.

Although the TEALS team are all volunteers, we are really the dilettante teachers. We can come and go as we please, but Jenny has to do this every day. We had moved into her classroom and completely reshaped it, but it was still her classroom that we were invading. Even though she has lots of experience teaching teens, leading a bunch of geeks was not in her repertory. And she had to learn to teach this material next year.

So my hat is off to Jenny and her fellow teachers who have the heavy lifting work of teaching in underfunded schools and crowded classrooms. It’s a real pleasure to work with you and with the rest of our team. Only 34 weeks to go!




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