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.”


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.

Another Farewell

The other day I got asked why on earth I chose to forsake a significantly higher salary and the chance to do science in order to hang out with teenagers all day.

Well. Because 5 years in, if people ask me what I do I still light up when I tell them I’m a teacher.
Because you can’t argue with a vocation.
Because I want to make a difference.
Because “teenagers” is not an epithet. Teenagers have energy. They have enthusiasm. They have intensity, and that intensity will change the world. And I can help them do that.
Because I still do science, but now I have whole classes full of willing collaborators.
And because it’s more fun!

Tonight is another Valedictory dinner. This will be my fourth, and each one feels like both the first and the last. I came into teaching from academia wanting to be part of something I believed in with all my heart. Wanting to connect. And wanting to make a difference.

But that very connection – that very sense of being a part of these lives, of being allowed in for a year or two or three, of being trusted – makes it really hard to say goodbye.

I put so much of myself into my job – maybe too much sometimes. I’m not very good at balance! But however much I put in, I get so much more back. In the enthusiastic class discussions. In the students who other teachers tell me hardly ever talk, but who engage so intensely with Computer Science that they are voluble, even cheeky in my classes.

In the students who always take an unexpected angle on any topic under discussion, and make me see things in ways I never would have found on my own.

In the students who still send me interesting things they have found that I can use in my teaching.

In the ones who flew from the start, and the ones who needed to be helped up that first step. In the comments in anonymous feedback surveys that make me laugh because I can hear their voices as I read them.

In the Christmas cards that tell me I made a difference. In every student who goes on to do Computer Science, and yes, every student who doesn’t.

Every class is special. Every student has so much potential, today and every day. Some will stay in touch, some might never glance behind them, but all of them will take a piece of my heart with them, whether they know it or not.

I can’t tell you how much I will miss you, my friends, but it’s time. Go change the world! You’ve already changed me.

The promise of Spring

This morning, towards the end of a long, cold, and immeasurably gloomy winter, I dragged myself out for a run. Well, I say a run. It was more of a stumble, really. But it was pre-dawn, I was outside, and the sting of frost had finally faded, to leave a cold but bearable morning.

There was a wispy layer of thin cloud, with pink and gold highlights shyly appearing and disappearing as the sun struggled out of its metaphorical bed. The morning air was still and, while not precisely warm, it hinted at warmth to come. Frostbite, it promised, was a thing of the past.

I run to throw off the shackles of another restless night. To escape the lead weights of insecurity that threaten sink me on many an otherwise unremarkable day. To leave behind the gnawing doubts – am I fit to be a parent? Could I have handled that better? Am I doing enough? Am I doing too much? Am I giving them what they need? Am I a good teacher? Was that class a complete train wreck, and can I salvage something from the wreckage? Have I lost it? Did I, in fact, ever have it?

I run towards a future where I sleep, and I am confident. Where I am fitter, stronger, and more patient. Where I spring out of bed in the morning feeling rested and energetic. I don’t even know if that future exists, but I have to keep running towards it, or like a shark who stops swimming, I fear I will drown.

I don’t run far – yet. But I get the blood pumping and the breath rasping. I run far enough to fog up my glasses when I arrive home.

And I run far enough to see the clouds turn silvery gold in the morning sun. To smell the Daphne and Pittosporum as they promise me Spring in all its glory. To see the blossom trees unfurling in eager beauty, believing in a season we can’t yet see or feel.

I run far enough to find hope in the daffodils and narcissus that force their own way through winter’s dark depression like small, localized sunrises. To feel the warmth on a breeze that doesn’t yet exist. And to know that Spring is coming, both inside and out.