Another farewell

Every year we farewell the year 12s with a valedictory dinner and a whole host of other celebrations. Because I teach at a senior secondary school we only have them for 3 years, and I don’t take year 12 classes, so I only ever teach them for 2 years at the most.

But they’re formative, those years. They lay the foundation for an almost unimaginable future. For growth, and change, and becoming someone new. Someone better. Those years together are the start of something significant. For me, at least.

Every class teaches me more than I thought possible. Every student changes me, and helps me grow into a richer, more complex human being.

We are all the sum of our experiences. Of our interactions. The people around us shape us every day.

How lucky am I, then, to be shaped by these extraordinary young people?

From the ones I travelled with, who made me so proud, and looked after me at least as much as I looked after them. To the ones who wrote every program in the craziest way possible.

From the ones who spoke up constantly in class with great enthusiasm, with amazing ideas and fresh perspectives, to the ones who spoke rarely but had extraordinary things to say.

From the one who nailed the subject without ever being able to come to class, to the one who made every function recursive, just to see if he could.

From the ones who pushed me to find a better explanation, to the ones who explained new things to me.

From the one who gave me a sonic screwdriver because he thought I’d looked down lately, to the one who gave me a Dr Who cookbook “because you just had to have it.”

From the ones who coded like maniacs before they ever took my class, to the ones who were meeting code for the first time and rose to the challenge with bravery and brilliance.

From the one who built drones to the one who built amazing websites.

Every one of them changed me, shaped me, and gave me the precious gifts of their attention, their enthusiasm, and their hard work.

We did amazing things together, and they will do far more amazing things without me.

They may not technically have been my students this year, but in my heart they’ll be my students forever. Some will stay in touch, some won’t, but I’ll always remember them. And some day, not too far away, I’ll hear what they’ve achieved and I’ll be as proud then as I am now to say “They are my students, and they’re extraordinary.”

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So angry about girls in STEM right now

I tell you, if one more person tells me that they think girls aren’t into tech because girls just don’t have the aptitude for it, I am going to go off like a firecracker. In fact, I think it’s firecracker time right now.

I can hardly believe that we are STILL, in 2017, saying girls go into biology because they are more nurturing, but I have heard this line repeatedly over the last few months. First of all, saying that boys are less nurturing is simply absurd and offensive. And secondly, suggesting that nurturing people should not go into computer science is how we wind up with software like Centrelink’s robodebt system that completely fails to take actual people into account. In an age of ever increasing artificial intelligence, we need a diverse and compassionate Computer Science workforce more than ever before, lest we  wind up with our whole lives controlled by systems that are rigid, uncompromising, and quite antithetical to human happiness.

Now, leaving nurturing natures aside, it is true that girls in STEM overwhelmingly go into Biology-based areas, and that “harder” sciences such as Physics and Computer Science have far more men than women. This is often touted as proof. Women, they say, just aren’t choosing Computing and Physics. They’re just not that into it.

But here’s the thing. As a society, as an education system, and as parents, we are constantly pushing girls towards “girly” things, even without realising it.

Quick: Picture a Computer Scientist. One of my students recently told me that when I asked him to do that, he pictured me, because I’m the only Computer Scientist he has met, but it seems he’s in the minority. A google image search for “Computer Scientist” produced 33 men on the first 8 rows, to only 6 women. That’s actually a much better ratio than I was expecting. Trying it with “programmer” got 35-3. Google, society, and almost every film or tv show we’ve ever watched is telling us that Computer Scientists and programmers are men.

Interestingly, a similar count for “Biologist” shows 24 men and 23 women, despite the fact that women make up 58% of Biology graduates in the US. Go figure.

We give boys tech toys, we give girls barbies and soft toys. And even if we try to be gender neutral in our own parenting, the gifts they get at birthdays will be overwhelmingly gender-skewed, and they will constantly see the kids around them playing with the things they are “supposed” to like. This kind of thing has a powerful impact on a child’s developing sense of identity. Girls who manage to break out of this mould and choose “boy” games/activities/clothes/hairstyles get sooo much pushback (having a daughter with short hair I can attest to this personally) that it is even more unlikely that other, less bold girls will take the risk.

It is, I admit, possible that gender plays a part in aptitude, but you can only say it’s proven if you provide a level playing field, with equal pressures and opportunities from birth and then see a gender difference. We are so far from this, worldwide, that we couldn’t even see it with a telescope.

Studies overwhelmingly show that we hire people who fit our stereotype, and our stereotype of “technical people” is men. We judge competence based on gender all the time, while being completely unaware that we are doing it. Even women in tech are more likely to judge a man than a woman as competent, even when all other factors are identical. We have been really well trained.

Girls are also pushed out of STEM by “invisible” factors, such as vocal boys in class who know a lot of tech stuff already, and therefore leave girls (and also inexperienced boys) feeling as though they are no good at it. They are pushed out by teachers subtly implying that they don’t belong. They are pushed out by all the people who are surprised that they are studying “boy” subjects. They are pushed out by being the only woman in the room. And they are pushed out by their male colleagues who tend to belittle and underestimate them because of their gender. Not to mention outright sexual harassment.

But the final nail in the coffin of the gender based aptitude myth is Harvey Mudd College. When Harvey Mudd decided 10% of CS graduates being female was not enough, they tackled these factors directly. They asked the more vocal, advanced students to keep their questions for afterwards. They hired more women to teach the courses. They stream their courses so that people with no programming background can learn without feeling inadequate next to people who have been programming forever. And it worked. Fast. Harvey Mudd now has 55% female CS graduates.

It’s not rocket science. But we have to stop saying “we shouldn’t push girls into careers they’re not good at” and we have to start saying “what are the factors keeping girls out, and how can we change them? ”

What if, for every time girls get nudged away from technical areas, they got nudged back?

What if, instead of saying “Oh, there just aren’t any women interested”, engineering companies went out to schools and started trying to recruit girls into STEM early. What if every girl, at some point in her schooling, had an engineer (or computer scientist, or physicist) (whether male or female) look her in the eye and say “You could be an engineer/computer scientist/physicist.” And mean it.

It’s so much easier to be complacent and say “there is no problem”. Companies, and universities, need to put their time and energy where their complacency is. Get out there and actively recruit women. Have “professional experience” days for girls so they can find out what it’s like to be an engineer. Give them engineers to talk to. Take girls seriously.

In my Computer Science classes in both year 10 and year 11, I have beginner girls who are picking up the concepts super fast. And, despite myself, I’m still surprised by it. As a female in Computer Science, I am still deeply conditioned to accept the stereotypes. If we don’t force ourselves to see beyond them, we can’t possibly make change.

Even if there’s a gender skew in aptitude (which, given that Computer Science was largely founded by women, I find difficult to believe), it means nothing in any specific case. A bell curve of aptitude tells you about populations, but not about a person.

So it’s time we started believing in our students, both male and female. It’s time we actually believe it when we tell them they can be anything they want to be. And it’s time we gave them the opportunities to find out what that might be.

 

Every single valedictory

Monday marks my sixth valedictory dinner. The sixth class of year twelves who will take a piece of my heart with them as they fly free into their amazing futures.

For my first valedictory dinner as a High School teacher I sang in a choir of people who felt more like friends than students. I couldn’t wrap my head around saying goodbye to them, even as I dwelt on their extraordinary potential.

It was impossible to imagine feeling that way about another class. They taught me everything about becoming a teacher, a huge amount about being human, and quite a lot about computer science – PhD or no.

Yet every year a new class enmeshes itself in my heart – winning my admiration, my trust, and my affection. I know teachers are supposed to be dispassionate – calmly objective observers of studentkind – but I can’t operate that way. Each new class has a claim on my heart like no other.

I don’t teach year twelve classes, but my year elevens are profoundly special to me, and I love seeing them around the corridors once they move on into year twelve, and finding out what they are up to. I always get teary when they leave. With any luck next year I will see them around Facebook, or when they come back and visit, so that I don’t really have to say goodbye.

Last year’s year elevens taught and challenged me in a host of new ways. They took on extraordinary challenges and produced amazing results. From the ones who were outspoken and passionate during class discussions to the ones who sat quietly, and when pressed would add just one well chosen but deeply insightful comment that sealed the debate.

From the ones who had been programming for years and took on the craziest problems, to the ones meeting programming for the first time who came away with astounding skills. Not to mention the one who wasn’t actually in the class but aced it anyway.

From the shy ones to the ones who are still seeking me out to talk to me about their projects. From start to finish, pass to high distinction, these are my people.

We shared insights into the nature of intelligence, and the need for privacy. We solved problems and questioned orthodoxy. We evaluated some amazingly unusable websites, and learnt new approaches to user centered design. We tackled real problems in computational science with some very bizarre data sets. And we gave variables some truly inexplicable names.

We stretched and challenged each other, and we laughed quite a lot. We searched, sorted, and danced our way through Computer Science and out into a wider understanding of ourselves, computation, science, and the world.

In just a few short days they will be done with school, and face the relentless barrage of those daunting exams, but whatever the outcome each and every one of them is a searingly bright star in the firmament of the world. Each and every one of them will light up the world in their own unique way.

Some of them will no doubt go on into Computer Science, and some won’t. But if they learnt as much from me as I learnt from them, they’ll have a great foundation for whatever they choose to do.

 

 

Teaching myself not to burn

Tomorrow I start work at 8:20am, teach solidly all day, including over lunchtime, hurtle home from work to pick up my kids, drop one to drama, scoff some dinner and then hurtle back for parent student teacher conferences until 9pm. Being part-time my interviews only run from 5:45 until 9, over which time I will conduct 30 interviews with students and their families. I will likely finish later than 9 – oddly enough,5 minutes is just too short for some conversations – at which point I get to stagger out to my car and try very hard not to crash it on the way home. We are two days away from the end of a term that has been, for various reasons, one of the hardest in my teaching career.

The thing is, I think I have said that about every term since I started – except for the first couple which were, since my teaching career was at that point quite short, the hardest in my life. I don’t remember a term where I finished bright-eyed, bush tailed, and full of energy and ideas for the next term.

And it’s probably true that every new teacher reaches the point where they realise that they simply do not have the resources, either within themselves or within their school, to teach the way they would really like to. There is not time to prepare. There is not funding for resources. We don’t have the time or the energy to give the care and attention to every individual student that they need and deserve.

It is true that I am absurdly passionate about my job. I give it everything I have, which is probably unwise. My boss last year described teaching as akin to fly-in-fly-out work – we work chaotically hard for 10 weeks, and then collapse for two weeks and do it all again. It’s not a healthy work model.

At some point it becomes necessary to pull back and rationalise resources. To slow down. To say no to some opportunities, even though you would love to make them happen for your students, because it would take more than you have to give.

And that’s terribly easy advice to give, but remarkably difficult to apply. “How much is too much?” is a question akin to Piet Hein’s famous grook:

There’s an art of knowing when,
never try to guess.
Toast until it smokes and then
twenty seconds less.

I think last year I toasted until I smoked. And I’m still wandering round dazed and rather singed. I’m trying very hard to adhere to the “20 seconds less” this year, but unfortunately it’s a measure that tends to only become obvious as the smell of smoke fills your nostrils.

This, sadly, is the school model we have built. We are burning our teachers. And every year the government demands productivity improvements in exchange for wage rises. And that sounds great. I’d like to see some productivity improvements. I’d like to see less teachers burnt out. I’d like to see less kids fall through the cracks because their teachers are simply too overworked to see them clearly. I’d like to see teachers ending the term with the energy to plan for the next one.

I’d like to feel as though I have the time to do my job properly, rather than having to settle for second best because it’s all I can manage. The system is so broken that I’m not sure I’m making a difference anymore. I’m ending the term in pieces – again – and I still have tomorrow’s insanity to go. Tell me again how I can be more productive?

Work-work balance

Anyone who knows me, reads this blog, or makes the mistake of asking me what I do for a living knows that I love my job. I will rave about it endlessly at the slightest opportunity. To be frank, I’ll rave about it even if the opportunity is not presented. I sometimes think I need to wear a warning label when I meet new people. “Caution: do not get me talking about teaching. I never stop. Back away. Don’t make eye contact. Sorry.”

I am aware of the concept of work-life balance, in much the same way as fish are aware of hats. They might know hats exist, but they don’t see the personal relevance.

I am technically half time, but for the last 5 years of my career – my first time teaching in a High School instead of a University – I have used my days off as time for meetings, lesson planning, marking, and creating bold new units that have never been taught before. Chatting with an academic recently about a new Data Science unit I’m planning, he commented that it was fairly ground breaking teaching that sort of stuff at undergraduate level. Teaching it at High School is entirely terra nova. Which is fine, because everything I’ve done so far at my school is terra nova.

And I love that. I really do. It’s thrilling for me, interesting for my students, and a massive sea of opportunities open to us all. It’s a really wild ride. But it takes time, and vast reserves of energy. I could not do so much innovative stuff if I were full time, and even part time I find I am pushing myself to the limit and beyond far too much of the time. I end each term exhausted to the point of illness. I end the year with absolutely nothing in reserve, and deep in energy debt. And I’m not alone in that – I see it all around me in the staff room every December.

I’m becoming aware that I can’t keep working this way. It’s sheer delight having a job that I want to really throw myself into. But I can’t keep flinging myself at it so hard that I smash when I hit the end of term wall. It’s not good for me, and it’s incredibly tough on my family. When I pick my kids up from school I need some energy left for them, and all too often that’s just more than I can manage.

It’s simple enough to plan boundaries and specify ground rules, but they crumple in the face of opportunities. I just can’t say no. If there’s an opportunity for my students I’ll take it, without stopping to think about whether I have time. If a student needs extra help I’ll give it, and around yard duties and only being at school half the time, that sucks up my free time really fast. Being there full time wouldn’t help, though, because then I’d have twice the teaching load.

I guess what it comes down to is that I have to learn to compromise before I am compromised. I have to learn that I can’t do everything all at once, and that as one person I can’t offer everything either. Sometimes that means this year’s students won’t get every opportunity. Sometimes it means the curriculum won’t change as much as I want as soon as I want it to. Sometimes it might have to mean that while help is available in class time, I can’t offer up every one of my lunchtimes.

Balance doesn’t come naturally to me. If my students need help, or want to do something extra, I want to make it possible. So I’m looking for tips. How do you manage balance? How do you avoid burnout in a job you are passionate about? The last thing I want to do is become someone who is just marking time, but there is surely some middle ground I could learn to inhabit. Who has some clues?

 

 

 

 

 

The end of the year, the emptiness of the tank

I don’t even know how to begin to describe this year. I feel that way at the end of every year, but this year has been more momentous than most.

I had year 10 students who couldn’t code at the start of the year, who came to me after the end of the year to say “I didn’t think I could do that! It was awesome!”

I had other year 10s who chose our “real world challenge” and worked with academics from the Monash Department of Physiology to create simulations of muscle activation, multiple sclerosis, and brownian motion and cell diffusion, just to name a few. They did extraordinary things, completely vindicating the leap of faith we took in offering the project.

I had year 11s who worked with Earthwatch and their Climatewatch program to create programs to verify, analyse, and visualise their data. I had other year 11s who worked with Neuroscientists to analyse and visualise some of their data.

Some of these real projects will receive a bit of polish and go on to be used by our partner organisations. Imagine doing a project in year 11 that gets used for actual scientific research!

I took 4 amazing year 10 students to SC15, a huge supercomputing conference in Austin, Texas. We met researchers and business people. Listened to talks. Recorded masses of footage of people talking about their amazing projects, and ended the week equal parts exhausted and exhilarated.

I had 5 students create the most awesome sensoring project, that won first prize in the senior category at the Victorian Young ICT Explorers competition, and went to the inaugural National Finals.

I designed and ran the Science Communication Challenge at the International Student Science Fair, held at my school in December. The communication challenge was a new event, unlike anything that had been run before, and the students did amazing things with it.

I’ve farewelled too many much loved and incredibly talented colleagues, applauded the graduation of some extraordinary year 12s, made friends, made contacts, started writing a textbook, started building a network of people interested in high school computer science curricula, taught, marked, written reports, and completely collapsed.

And that’s just work. And just the big stuff at work, come to that.

We don’t often do this – put our achievements and efforts down in a big list, but seeing it all lined up like that makes me realise it’s actually been a huge year.

Some days it all got a bit scary, a bit daunting, or oppressively overwhelming. And every time it did there’d be someone there pitching in, supporting me, and making it all possible. Former students. Current students. Workmates. Former workmates. Friends. Family. All of the above. Really, it’s my support networks that make everything I do possible.

Every time I stumbled, somebody was there to pick me up. Every time I felt like I couldn’t go on, somebody made it possible. At home. At work. Online. You know who you are, and wordy though I am, I can’t even begin to tell you properly how grateful I am. You’re all amazing, and knowing you’re around me means I can do it all again. Thank you.

Are we afraid of connecting?

As my year 12s finished school this year, they gradually found me on Facebook. I’m loving this different way to connect, and the confidence that we will keep in touch. These people have a special place in my heart, as all my students do. Once you’re one of “my kids” it lasts a lifetime.

It’s been interesting connecting with them and flicking back through their timelines, because I have learnt a lot about them that I didn’t know before. I suspect some of them have learnt a lot about me the same way.

For example I now know that one of them plays the piano alarmingly well – and although I had a great relationship with this student, somehow I’d never found that out.

I also know that another is a lot more politically aware than I ever realized – and that our politics are very closely aligned. Think of the conversations we could have had!

I know that still another came from a school just around the corner from my house, and that we have friends in common. Also that he is a loyal and loving friend (which, to be honest, did not come as a surprise).

I know that another is an amazing athlete, has a part time job, and stayed up all night to finish one of my assignments (sorry!).

And one has the most incredible artistic talent – how did I miss that??

I know which ones are in long term relationships, which ones have strong ties with friends from their previous schools, and which ones have pets. I know what music they like, what issues they are passionate about, and what they believe in.

Of course, not everybody posts much on facebook, but for the most part being connected this way has enhanced my understanding of them – and no doubt their understanding of me.

Yet there is an unofficial, unwritten rule that teachers don’t friend students on Facebook. And I can understand why – kids don’t need to see pictures of their teachers getting blind drunk on Saturday night (although really, if that’s what’s going on your Facebook feed then you’ve got some serious questions to ask yourself, teacher or not). But in this increasingly public and online world, not much is private anymore. The chances are that students can find those pics of you if the pics are online, especially if someone else put them there and they’re not careful with their privacy settings.

I also understand that there is concern about blurring the boundaries between teachers and students. That some people feel the more formal, distant relationship maintained by using teacher’s surnames and never seeing them outside the school grounds is an important ingredient in maintaining discipline and avoiding “inappropriate” relationships forming, especially between young teachers and students who may be only a handful of years younger. Yet going on camps inevitably blurs these boundaries anyway – sometimes first names are allowed on camp, casual clothes are worn, and interaction is inevitably more casual and less constrained.

The truth is that we are all going to have to be professional and draw the line at times, whether we are connected on facebook or not. And it’s true that sometimes knowing where the line should be is tricky.

But I do wonder if we are losing opportunities to reach our students, to build meaningful connections and understand them better. Of course I know that sometimes teachers and students cross the boundaries, but I am becoming more and more convinced that in trying to avoid that we have swung far too far in the other direction. We have all but banned touch between teachers and students, and if you are never allowed to pat them on the shoulder, hug them in times of stress, or hold their hands when they are scared, surely touch becomes far more highly charged and problematic when it does happen?

And, as teachers, our duty is to support and nurture our students as much as to educate them, and as social mammals, touch is a crucial part of that.

One of my students was once so overwhelmed by having passed an assignment that she cried out “oh! Can I have a hug???” and I gave her one. Telling this story in the staffroom later got a whole lot of horrified looks. “oh, you took such a risk! I’d never do that!” they said. How tragic it is, and how impoverished our interactions, that this is where we have arrived. In a place where we can’t touch, mustn’t acknowledge each other as human beings with lives outside the classroom, and draw careful boxes around our private lives. We are more concerned with not putting ourselves “at risk” of an accusation than with the emotional needs of our students.

Similarly never interacting outside school, never recognising that we are multi-dimensional human beings, not simply students and teachers, might actually create an unrealistic portrait-style image of each other that intensifies the risk of unrealistic and inappropriate relationships.

I think these nice safe lines that we are drawing are far outside the range of what’s reasonable. I think that in protecting ourselves we might just be leaving our teaching impoverished.  As one of my former students said to me last night (on facebook, as it happens): “But to be honest, I reckon I’d be way more likely to pay more attention in class and have a better attitude to learning if I had a better relationship with my teachers.”

I’m really not sure. Social media is a whole new minefield that we, as a society, have yet to really understand, for all we have dived into it headfirst. We don’t actually know which way these connections might lead us, so maybe it’s sensible to plump for the most conservative option.

So what do you think? Have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater here? Are we protecting our kids, or are we actually depriving them of meaningful connections with their teachers?