On Teaching, Mentors, and Role Models

Yesterday over at AVC Fred blogged about the AFSE graduation and posted a transcript of the speech he gave. It's well worth a read.

Some of the comments touched on mentors and role models so I though I'd talk a little about that here.

I've always believed that as a parent, modeling - that is, how we behave is one of the largest shapers of our kids. It's one thing to take your kid to a museum because that's what you should do as a good parent and another if you think - "I wants to go to that museum and damn it, I'm taking you along." I'm no psychologist but my gut tells me the former is good but the latter is better.

This of course extends to schools. As teachers we deliver instruction but we also communicate through how we behave. Students are very perceptive and we can have influences that we don't even know. I remember a parent who thanked me because their child started exercising and being more active because of me. It's not something I ever talked to the kid about but I would run after my classes at Stuy, ride to school and in class I might give an exercise anecdote or two. Just by doing something healthy and positive where kids can see it led to some good.

Now, as teachers, we have limited reach and just as in many cases where a child won't listen to a parent and needs a friendly teacher to weigh in, there are plenty of times a student won't really listen to a teacher, particularly in CS. Most CS teachers don't have extensive CS backgrounds and self taught kids frequently feel they know more. Even when a student believes that a CS teacher's got the goods, they're skeptical - teaching as a profession has been so beaten up many students will have a ""so why are you teaching and not working at Google" attitude.

Even with the best intentions from parents and teachers, for many students, particularly those from poor backgrounds there are limits to our influence. If a parent has to work multiple jobs at crazy hours, they have less time to be a positive role model. If they've never been to college or worked in a white collar profession they won't have the connections and resources to effectively guide their child through the education to profession maze.

This is where mentors and role models become so important.

For me, I first saw this when I was a young teacher. My graduates hadn't gotten to the real world yet and I hadn't developed a reputation. I'd have friends come in to give tech and industry talks. What I found was that in addition to being inspirational, it help authenticate me as being legit. When they would talk about a best practice that I had already taught them, the classes got the idea that maybe I did know a thing or two about this CS stuff.

You could see the impact when we held "Tech speed dating" events where I mixed current high school students with professionals.

So many comments afterwards like "I didn' know I could do that in CS," "now I know what I want to do…." Slam dunk!!

Of course, you have to curate your volunteers. While a guest talk from a very senior, very established adult can be inspiring some times, they can be so far removed from the kids next steps, it can actually be intimidating and a turn off. As a side note, I don't think that this would be the case at all with respect to Fred's graduation speech. His overall sincerity and the fact that he's so connected to the school and known to the kids made sure of that.

When I made my first Hunter college event, I wanted to kick start and excite the current students and also give myself some CS street cred so I carefully selected the participants for our first panel / mixer. I had:

  • A young VC
  • A mid 30s CTO of a mid size company
  • A mid 30s Facebook engineer who also spent time at Google
  • Assorted recent college grad tech people from big companies, start ups, and everything in between.
  • I tried to have a diverse crowd.

I wanted a couple of more senior people to show the end of the road but I wanted most of the people there to be at "the next rung in the ladder." All indications were that the event was also a slam dunk.

Through all of this it's become pretty apparent to me that bringing in adult mentors and role models can be even more important than covering every little bit of whatever curriculum you're teaching. Some people say that we need more female High School CS teachers and while I agree with that sentiment, I'd rather have the best CS teacher I can get regardless of background as long as I have amazing women in tech to provide for my students as role models.

This led me to think about a couple of the CS Ed programs that I support. TEALS and ScriptEd. I like both, but they're different models. In TEALS the volunteer works with the teacher. In ScriptEd, the volunteer is the teacher. I have many former students that have volunteered through TEALS but I don't know any who've done SciptEd so I don't have the same "inside" info.

For TEALS, those volunteers are also role models. Every day that Etsy engineer is in the classroom those students see and hear from a tech professional. What's more, they see and hear from one who's taking the time to be with them.

Of course the same is true for ScriptEd but I wonder if after some time the students view the ScriptEd volunteer as the teacher rather than the tech professional.

There's probably some interesting research in there.

Finally nothing is better than really being able to hook kids up with long term mentors. This is something that I think AFSE's been able to do but it's an expensive proposition. It's something I'd love to see more of at schools and as part of the basic budget but with all the money wasted on things like standardized testing and flawed teacher evaluation systems, I don't see it coming any time soon.

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