Teaching with TEALS 2015-2016

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I’ve spent the last 10 months volunteering as an AP Computer Science teacher at a Chicagoland high school through the Microsoft sponsored TEALS program. It was a huge commitment, but the experience wound up being more valuable to me than I had anticipated. Here are some thoughts on the TEALS program and the school year.

An Opportunity to Give Back

I turned 25 last May, and I remember vividly on my birthday as I was out celebrating with some friends, having an unexpected inner existential moment… I’m a quarter of a century old and yet I do not have any consistent outlets for giving back to the community! The TEALS program was the perfect fit for my desire to give back: it provided a regular, long-term volunteer opportunity where I’d be able to leverage my technical skills in a different capacity than at work. It was a constructive distraction from work that kept me busy through the dreary Chicago Winter months.

Improving my Own Technical Knowledge

This school year gave me true experience with the notion that “You never really know something until you have to teach it.” Teaching a topic requires a different level of understanding: it necessitates deeper knowledge so you can present material with confidence and field questions from students on the fly.

The topics covered in the AP CS curriculum are complex, and clear explanations are critical for students for whom this is their first experience with programming (a majority of our class). I honestly feel that the amount of re-learning that I did while preparing for lessons made it feel like I learned as much as the students this year, and has made me more confident as a Software Engineer at work. This sentiment was validated by my co-teacher this year, as he reported similar feelings.

I recently interviewed for a new position, and accepted an offer starting June 6th. I attribute part of the success of this interview to my time teaching with TEALS: had I not been “studying” core CS topics throughout the year I would not have performed as well at the interview as I did.

Chicago Public Schools and Beyond

Recently, The Chicago Public School Boardpassed a law that makes computer science a core graduation requirement for all students in the class of 2020 onward. The Obama administration is also passing a funding request of four Billion dollars for school districts across the country to institute Computer Science courses.

It’s great to have governmental support, but who is going to teach these new classes? When a new CS graduate can go out in to the workforce and make a median salary of 80k right off the bat at a hip new startup, choosing the teacher’s path becomes difficult. Volunteering as a teacher on the side (employer permitting), however, is both a great opportunity for members of the tech community to give back and is an excellent way to fill classrooms with passionate teachers for schools with budgetary constraints. I have a feeling that programs like TEALS that facilitate this type of volunteerism will become ever more important in the US, as public schools scramble to find the teaching resources necessary to meet new requirements.

Business-Driven Motives?

According to data from TEALS:

In the U.S., there will be 1.4 million CS-related jobs by 2020, yet U.S. college graduates are expected to fill less than a third of those jobs.

And from TechCrunch:

Currently, computer science is only offered in 25% of schools across the nation.

It makes perfect sense that large tech companies like Microsoft would fund programs such as TEALS across the country: if I worked at Microsoft and saw statistics like the ones above, I would do everything I could to make sure our country’s future workforce will be prepared to fill the job openings my company offers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see TEALS-like programs being sponsored by other US tech giants who see this gap as an unfulfilled need in our country.

The End of the School Year

Regardless of any underlying business motives, I think the TEALS program does excellent work. From Summer training sessions for volunteers, to outlines of lesson plans, as well as providing textbooks and t-shirts for each teacher, the program goes out of its way to set up volunteers for success in the classroom. Even though we were the only TEALS group in Chicago, I felt supported by the program and always knew there was a community of other volunteers across the country who I could reach out to if I ever had questions or wanted feedback.

We got an email from one of our students after the last day of school, letting us know that the AP CS course was his favorite class of the year. He noted in his email:

…[Another AP CS student] and I sat together during graduation rehearsal. The dean said that we would loop through our actions a few times. [The other student] and I looked at each other and we both said that a whole program just ran through our minds on how we could code a graduation project. We laughed about it, but later on when I was thinking about it again I realized that taking AP CS actually changed the way we think. I didn’t come into this class expecting such a change by the end of the year.

This is exactly the sentiment I had after finishing my masters program at Northwestern: learning how to code is just part of the value of studying Computer Science. It changes how you view the world, teaches you how to decompose problems in to their core components, and makes you a much more logical thinker. This change in mindset is arguably more valuable than just learning the syntax of a programming language, and getting this email validated that we were able to achieve such a change in at least some of our students this year.

I’m not sure if I’ll be back to teach again next year with TEALS (I’m starting a new job in a few weeks so I don’t know how free I’ll be come next Fall) but I definitely hope to find other outlets for mentoring and teaching in the Chicago area! I would highly recommend attending one of the program’s info sessions if you’re at all interested in teaching for the 2016-2017 school year.

If you have any questions about my experience, or know of anyone looking for a CS professional as a tutor/mentor, feel free to reach out!

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