I grew up in New York (Brooklyn actually) and like many New Yorkers I have a distinct bias toward New York pizzas. So a blog post by Leigh Ann Sudol that started off with “So from a link by Coby Loup over at the Fordham Foundation on their new blog Flypaper here’s an article about why NYC pizza is better than anywhere else.” got my attention. The rest of the post as pretty insightful. Not surprising as Leigh Ann is one really smart person whose mind is always running faster than most people (especially me) can keep up with.
So what does she write about? Replication. In more words, what is it that makes teachers in general and CS teachers in particular successful and how can we replicate that to help other teachers.
I get to visit a lot of great teachers in their classrooms. These are teachers whose students are doing just amazing things – things that people don’t realize high school students are even capable of doing. When I return and talk to other people the first question if get is “can we replicate that with other teachers?” And the honest answer all too often is “probably not.”
So much of the success the best teachers have is a complicated mix of things many of which are not easy to replicate. Most people think the top item is huge technical skills and knowledge. But that is not always the case. Some of the best teachers have students who go far beyond them in some number of specific areas.
I think the most important thing a successful teacher does, and Leigh Ann talks about this, is a culture for success. The best teachers are not afraid to admit lack of knowledge, of changing projects or even creating them on the spot as a reaction to events in class, and the create an environment where students feel comfortable during and after class.
Leigh Ann asks “How do we help fledgling or failing computer science programs grow?” so if you have some suggestions drop over to her blog and leave them there. Me? I think the way to do it is mentorship.
When I first started teaching I was working with another HS CS teacher. She was a great teacher and her students loved her even though she worked them very hard. She created an environment that worked. I was able to merge into it, learn it, and make it my own in many ways. Later she left and I hired a new teacher. He and I worked together for a couple of years and together we built on the existing foundation. Frankly I think in many ways he has become a better teacher than I was. But part of that was having a good culture to start with.
Of course for many schools there is one computer teacher and no one to help them learn or create a culture when they arrive. It’s hard to figure out what was there before one came or how to move things in the direction they want it to go. It’s tough. I do think that we need more opportunities for computer science teachers to share ideas and connect with each other. Conferences like NECC and TCEA help some. Education events like the CS & IT Symposium are great as well. So are summer workshops. But far too many people do not have the money or the motivation to attend these. Often they just don’t know what they are missing. Perhaps more online activities (blogs, Twitter, virtual conferences) and the Computer Science Teachers Association can help over time. But we have a way to go.
One thing that is is easy to forget about is a supportive tech support and supportive administration. Though honestly often an administration that is happy with benign neglect is often a start in the right direction. :-)