Spreading my wings

Seven years ago I leapt out into the great unknown that was High School teaching. I’ve had a fabulous time. It’s been the most incredible privilege to work with these amazing young people.

I’ve developed Computational Science projects that have enabled my year 11s to make real and ongoing contributions to cancer research, neuroscience, marine biology, conservation, and more.

I’ve developed an innovative Data Science curriculum for year 10s that gives my students experience with real data sets, data visualisation, and meaningful projects.

I’ve worked with some extraordinary students, some incredibly supportive academics, and some truly fabulous teachers, especially this year.

But for some time it has been bothering me that the problem with Computer Science – with teaching technology in general – is not solved in my classes.

It starts right back in Primary School.

It starts with the lack of teachers trained in the area.

It starts with teachers, parents, and kids who are scared of code.

It’s a problem I think I can fix.

I have the place to stand.

I just need to find the lever.

So I am leaving John Monash Science School. It makes me sad. There have already been tears. There will be many more.

But I am excited. It’s time to take what I do to a much larger audience. I’m going to spend some time figuring out the best ways to do that, but there are a few projects I am already committed to that I’ll talk about more when the time is right.

Stay with me. Talk to me. Engage with me on this journey. Kids with better tech skills will change the course of our future. Let’s make it happen.

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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.”

Ask me no questions

One of the first things I do in my new classes each year is ask them if they trust me. If they believe me. They are lovely, polite kids, and they usually say yes. And I tell them not to. I tell them to question me. I tell them I can be wrong, misguided, or foolish.

I tell them that if I say something that doesn’t sound right to them they should call me on it. That if they’re not convinced by what I say they should ask for proof. And seek proof – or proof to the contrary – for themselves. The best classes happen when I am forced to reconsider some dogmatic statement. When someone proves something can be done that I said was impossible. Or when someone comes up with evidence that shows I am wrong. I love that. And I reward it.

I’ve known teachers who weren’t up for that. Who consider themselves autocratic, godlike figures who hold truth and wisdom in their own hands. Who take a challenge to their words as a sword to their heart, and must crush dissent with chilling ferocity, simply to protect themselves and their power.

But with everything that is happening in politics today – both in Australia and abroad – I have come to realise that there is nothing more important that I can teach my students than to question. To ask for proof. And to dissect that proof meticulously.

The people who will hold the line against evil, who will challenge accepted “wisdom”, and who will ultimately change the world, are the people who ask questions. The questions that no-one else is asking. The questions that we are told are unacceptable. The questions that other people don’t want to hear.

Those are the questions that need to be asked most of all. Those are the questions that will save lives. That will hold the line of compassion, of reason, and of justice.

If you have students, teach them to challenge you. If you have children, make sure they know that no-one – not even you – is inviolate. That no-one is perfect. That asking questions can be a difficult, even dangerous road at times, but that there is nothing more important for our growth – for our survival – than this.

I’ve worried about how to respond to what’s happening in the world, but it has become ever clearer that it is our immense gullibility that is the greatest threat. My work year starts today, and this has to be at the forefront of everything I do. The truth may be out there, but we won’t find it without asking a lot of tough questions.

Ask me no questions, and you will believe all my lies.

 

 

Failing to succeed

It’s nearly that time of year again, when year 12 results come out (or have already come out, or came out and went back in again, if you got caught up in the glitch!). As usual there’s a lot of talk of of defining moments. Of deciding your fate. Of doors opening or slamming in your face, depending on the outcome.

Earlier this year in a school assembly, I was inspired to out myself. Here I am, passionate (verging on obsessive) Computer Science teacher, researcher, and writer. Absolutely where I want to be, doing what I love, and feeling as though I can make a difference. There is nowhere I would rather be.

But my first preference was medicine.

So was my second.

I didn’t get in.

I failed.

Oh, I didn’t fail my VCE, but I failed to get the score I needed to do medicine.

A better thing could not have happened to me. I drifted into a science degree intending, in a vague and fairly uninspired way, to study Genetics. I took Computer Science as a fill in subject because I had always liked machines that go “Bing!”

By third year I was studying nothing but Computer Science. I was never going to do honours. Certainly never going to do a PhD, and no way would I ever become a lecturer. All of these things inevitably came to pass. Quite quickly, really.

I suck at predicting my future.

I’ve always been faintly astounded by people who have 5 year plans and the like. My planning mostly consists of noticing an open door and flinging myself through it.

Occasionally I have to dynamite the door to make sure it’s open.

The point is that I thought I knew what I wanted, but not getting it turned out to be the best thing that could possibly have happened. It took a while, but now I am right where I want to be, doing something I love with a slightly obsessive passion (I may be lying about the slightly part). I’ve taken a strange and winding path to get here, but every step of that road helped to give me skills and attributes I would not have had any other way. I doubt I would be this happy, or this useful if I hadn’t failed to get into medicine.

Tonight my year 12s graduate at our school’s presentation night. (I know, I don’t teach year 12, but they are still MY YEAR 12s. Hush.) It will be a minor miracle if I don’t cry, because every single one of them has performed amazing feats just to get where they are.

So if you’re waiting on your final school results, remember this: there is nothing defining about these numbers. You are so much more than a number could ever express. Whatever happens, your future is in your hands, and you have extraordinary potential. Go get ’em, Tiger.

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?