Computing · Teaching

Why CS graduates don’t teach

I read an interesting article on the BBC website this morning which quotes many recommendations from MP’s on the Commons Education Select Committee. Although this is a general article about all subjects, it explains precisely why the top Computer Science graduates are not taking up teaching jobs – or more colloquially, why geeks don’t teach!

Of the people who were on my degree course for Computer Science, only three that I know of besides me are now involved in education. Two are qualified teachers (although one does not work as a teacher), and one is not a teacher but is pretty heavily involved in school education, especially in Wales 😉 Obviously I haven’t kept tabs on absolutely everybody I went to uni with so there may be others, but I’d say that is a pretty poor conversion figure – two teachers out of perhaps ~200 people.

So why is it that top Computer Science graduates choose not to teach?

 

Personality

I found that the Computer Science graduates from my course fitted into one of two categories. They either chose CS because they thought it could make them a lot of money, or because they were a  bit of a geek and they were into that kind of thing. The first group are lost already – you don’t earn anywhere near as much in teaching as you potentially could do in industry. The other group by their very nature are usually not particularly comfortable with social situations, and may find it their idea of hell to stand up in front of lots of people, let alone do it every day as a job. I’m not saying everyone shuffled around staring at the floor wearing 2 week old clothes and grunting for social interaction, but putting oneself on show in such a manner as teaching demands is not usually within a geek’s comfort zone – unless of course the room is filled with other geeks, which at school it definitely isn’t.

“The MPs also say all applicants for teacher-training should be observed taking a class before being offered a place.”

If the Government want to encourage Computer Science graduates to teach, this idea is a disaster. As @mwclarkson points out, it essentially equates to saying “we don’t want people who can’t teach already on PGCE courses”. Then what are they there for? I’m not afraid to admit that my first PGCE lesson had a script. Yes, like a play. *facepalm* I’d like to think that the PGCE taught me how to impart my knowledge a bit more appropriately! I hope he won’t mind me mentioning this, but my friend @simonw ‘s first attempt to teach PHP to some other undergraduates did not go very smoothly at all – and yet he is a very highly regarded programmer and public speaker. (The teaching profession has missed out!) Not all CS graduates would make good teachers, but if you put off the ones who want to try with a hurdle such as this, you will never find the hidden gems.


Other teachers

“We are concerned that the pay system continues to reward low -performers at the same levels as their more successful peers”

At present, we have a workforce of ICT & Computing teachers of whom some are excellent and some of whom are frankly pretty shocking. It makes me cringe to receive flyers in the post from OCR advertising a “skills course” to “help you with some of the more difficult aspects of AS ICT coursework”. COME ON!! Seriously! If you were a Maths teacher and you had to go on a course to figure out how to do integration or something, you’d be laughed out of the Maths office. At the very least an ICT/Computing teacher should know how to Google “how to do X in program Y” if they don’t know. (Check out this XKCD comic for all of your ICT training needs.) So why would an outstanding Computer Science graduate choose to use their skills to teach (for less pay than they would probably receive in industry), and receive the same pay as someone who can’t even figure out how to do a vlookup?

Geekery

“It is crucial that we have an educational system which celebrates great teachers, keeps more of them in the classroom, supports their development and gives them greater status and reward.”

Of course it is! Everyone wants to know they are doing a good job, and that they are advancing within their career and that they are respected by their peers. I realised the other day when I was talking to my friend who is a pharmacist, and who hangs out with pharmacists and doctors and the like, that they all seem to “get” each other. They all trained in the same area, because they are interested in the same kind of things. At school, no one “gets it”. The majority of people I work with see computers as “those annoying things that break all the time”, and not “an instrument of incredible coolness”. They do not appreciate how freaking cool it would be if Year 9 could write their own Android apps. They are not pleased that I have figured out the CSS to do gradients, or impressed that some primary school visitors programmed a Scratch animation in less than an hour. They do not see online gaming as a valid excuse for not going to the pub. They are the other half of the 10 types of people, the ones who don’t understand binary.

And yet…if you’re a teacher, you’re shunned by the real geeks too. Most of my uni friends are developers, and whilst we all started out with broadly comparable skills when we left uni, 6 years after graduation my skills are extremely out of date whilst they have years of developer experience under their belt. I don’t fit in any more, I’m not credible *because* I only just figured out the CSS to do gradients (that’s so last year). Why would you expose yourself to the geek version of social death?

So what can we do?

Well, it clearly is possible to be a geek and be a teacher at the same time – and I’m somewhat preaching to the converted, as many of the people who will read this are probably both geeks and teachers. However, specifically for investing in future Computer Science teaching, I’d consider the following things if I were an MP:

  • Curriculum – the curriculum as KS3 & 4  is dire. Make it something people are excited to teach, and this will translate in students who are excited to learn
  • Create a PGCE in Computing (unless one already exists, in which case I apologise)
  • A better curriculum will mean more teachers will be needed in the Computing department, resulting in a higher concentration of geekery –> happier geeks
  • Encourage students to try “teaching” at university as part of their CS degree. (I worked as a paid lab tutor, as well as founding the Computer Science Society where we as students ran our own courses to teach others about aspects of Computing we were interested in.)
  • Acknowledge that the world of Computing is constantly changing, and provide money or time for teachers to keep up to date with their geek skills
  • If you do implement the previous point, don’t make other teachers cover for the Computing department in order to facilitate this 😉
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8 thoughts on “Why CS graduates don’t teach

  1. I’m a CS graduate and have worked in schools for the last 6 years, for that much lower pay you describe, but I’m not a teacher. In fact, I don’t even earn as much as the IT teachers. I’m the Network Manager at my school.

    However, I have been asked repeatedly over the years whether I’d thought about becoming a teacher (often by desperate heads of IT who are about to face their yearly ordeal of teaching programming), so I’ve had plenty of time to come up with an answer. Before that though, I’d like to respond to some of the good points you’ve made here.

    The ‘other teachers’ point is a particularly painful one for me. I have seen first hand a lot of really awful IT teaching, made worse by the fact that you are absolutely spot on about the cesspool of a curriculum. Even the two best IT teachers I’ve worked with would – by their own admission – struggle to teach Computing. The rest were so utterly terrible at IT they should have been removed from their posts. I’m not sure whether you bring up differentiated pay as a solution to that, but if that is what you’re getting at, I disagree. In fact, the real problem is just the lack of IT teachers at all. Schools often have no choice but to take whoever they can get, or simply whoever has frees on their timetable from another department. Solve the numbers problem and the crappy teachers will be be gone, without having to dabble in the dark arts of performance related pay.

    Another aspect to your ‘Geekery’ point is that in addition to social death, you also run the risk of career death. I’m still using all my technical skills, but I’m well aware other employers don’t see it that way. The last time I applied for jobs, I applied to both schools and equivalent jobs in industry. I was offered interviews by every school I applied to. I beat 92 other applicants to get my current job. But I didn’t even get a single reply from the industry jobs. Recruiters routinely write off school technical staff as they think our jobs are so far below the industry in difficulty that we would be useless to them. It’s that bad for techies, let alone teachers. Forget losing the respect of your geeky peers; you also lose the respect of employers. Changed your mind about teaching? Good luck getting another IT job.

    Those points aside, I still have another reason why I don’t want to be a teacher. While I’ve endured a lot of bad examples of IT teaching, I’ve also had the privilege of working with a lot of teachers in other disciplines who are awesome at teaching. I’ve also seen the increasing bureaucracy they have to deal with. I’ve seen the erosion of their pay & conditions by successive governments looking for a quick budgetary fix. I’ve seen them having to deal with monstrous displays of misbehaviour by unruly pupils, and worse by the parents. What I’ve seen is all the things that get in the way of them being awesome.

    And I’ve decided that is not for me.

    The biggest challenge to recruiting teachers in any discipline is convincing them that the bad bits of the job are worth putting up with, even before we get to all the points covered above. After 6 years in schools I’m even less convinced that when I started. I salute those that do the job – but I don’t envy them one bit.

  2. I have to agree with the comments.
    I applied for teacher training about two years but was rejected on the grounds of inexperience with kids. I was coming from industry, what were they expecting?
    Instead I persuaded my employer to let me work four days a week and I spent the other day helping in the classroom, finally taking redundancy a month ago to spend more time in the classroom.
    I have now been accepted onto a teacher training scheme but no bursary for me because I didn’t get a first class degree nearly 30 years ago. And all for a job paying less than half what I was earning.
    Good thing I’ve paid off the mortgage, have a very understanding partner and love working with the kids.

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  3. I have a pretty odd situation, instead of tech or teaching I ended up in admin! Now I’m working with heavy amounts of school data but lack database experience due to proprietary software packages (SIMS to be precise). The job also seems much “looser” with no real emphasis on data quality or research methods. It’s merely set up a means of getting the data, scrape some figures from a shoddily designed government website and whip the occasional teacher into giving you what you want. I certainly lack the courage to try an industry position even with years of schools experience behind me! As for the real geeky tech skills, I waved goodbye to those long ago. The PC I am typing on I’ve only delved into once to fix a loose drive cable.

    My own school has a rather more dangerous turn of events for the ICT Curriculum. At KS3 they used the “discrete curriculum” concept that throws ICT out the hands of the professionals and in to the other departments. Want to learn to word process? English do that. Want to know math-based IT stuff? Maths department can do that. Want to program a really awesome app and do something cool in ICT? Uhhh, wait until your options in KS4. Oh wait, uptake has plummeted…

    And let’s not even start on the suppliers. Actually no, let’s do so because a lot of them are swindlers that create solutions which get in the way and have prices many times higher then they should be. Schools are still viewed as an open chequebook by unscrupulous firms and one company that shall not be named was swindling schools out of tens of thousands of pounds to relicence software they already own. Their excuse? Anti-competition rules, somehow.

    So we have staff trapped in the cycle who can’t leave, the subject deteriorating and losing it’s importance and companies abusing the sector like a money-printing mill. I’ve already had chats with my boss about Gove’s new ICT initiative and neither of use know where the skill to teach it will come from. I was meant to teach him some basic programming concepts and a bit of HTML to drag the class away from Dreamweaver but I’m leaving for another school and both of us are too damn busy anyway being buried under spreadsheets and petty requests from people who refuse to learn themselves.

    Fun quote to end the post (not my boss) :
    Me – “I am leaving to work in another school soon. I’ll show you how to run this report and drop the data into the spreadsheet to update the PivotTable yourself.”
    Assistant Head – “ME? Do the PivotTable MYSELF?!”

  4. Thanks for the great article. Clearly there is a huge demand for computer science graduates and along with that has come the need for more teachers. But I agree with your points of why so many choose not to teach, and those who have the gift of teaching should set aside the higher wage and give back what they have received from their teachers. There is a wonderful book about the psychology of software engineers that is written in a non-technical way entitled, Digital Work in an Analog World: Improving Software Engineering Through Applied Psychology by John R. Fox. His book helps you to understand what drives software professionals. You can find the author’s website here: http://www.analogdevelopment.com/

  5. Brilliant article (I live your writing style BTW) I wholeheartedly agree with your lesson observation point for teacher training but do think they should be observed in a classroom situation like helping in an ICT lesson. Not everyone can interact with young people and you can’t learn that.

    The comments here are spot on! As a CS grad myself I couldn’t agree more.

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