So you want to teach computer science?

A number of years ago after being laid off from a job developing software I went into teaching. I taught a year in a pair of elementary schools and then spent 8 years teaching high school computer science. It was awesome. One day I want to get back into the classroom full-time. Over the years I have met more than a few people who have also made the transition, life style change really, from the computer industry into teaching. These are some of the best computer science educators I know. But it is not an easy transition and it is not for everyone. The education establishment doesn’t always make it easy to make this sort of career change for one thing. For another thing not everyone is cut out for teaching. But for those who are cut out for it and who do make it through the hurdles it can be a wonderful thing. Because I have been though it I get asked about making this transition on a regular basis. I thought it time I wrote out some of what I have learned. Not that I have all the answers but I do know some of the questions.

First off is this something you really want to do? The pay is not going to be anything like what you are making in industry. Can you deal with that? Is teaching something that will give you satisfaction? Can you take what you know and translate it into language that students can understand? How do you know this? For some people it is well worth trying teaching on a smaller, less than full-time scale. For some this means helping with an after school program or a summer camp or some other experience that lets them keep their day job. One truly amazing program that I wish we’d had years ago is called TEALS.

TEALS (Technology Education And Literacy in Schools) is a grassroots employee driven program that recruits, mentors, and places high tech professionals who are passionate about digital literacy and computer science education into high school classes as part-time teachers in a team teaching model where the school district is unable to meet their students' Computer Science needs on its own.

Right now TEALS is running in Washington State (near Seattle) and near Washington DC but looking to expand. For some people this is an opportunity to have their cake and eat it too! Keep your day job but help with the critical shortage of qualified computer science teachers. It’s also a model of a possible way to “get your feet wet” and learn how to teach for real.

If you decide you do want to go into teaching full-time you have some more decisions. I’m assuming secondary school (or maybe younger) for now. If you want to teach at the university level you probably need a PhD for full-time teaching and there are other differences. Your first choice is public school or private. What’s the difference? Well for one thing you need to be certified (or be working though the certification process) to teach in public schools. Private schools, especially religiously affiliated, are more able and in some cases more willing to take uncertified teachers. Career technical schools, what we used to call vo-techs, also have more flexibility where it comes to certification even though they are public schools. The certification process can take a couple of years and require some formal training before you even get to teach the first class.

So how do you get certified? Well, that depends. Each state has different requirements. This is complicated by the lack of a clear computer science certification path in most states. The CSTA (Computer Science Teachers Association) has done some research for you and I recommend you start looking there. Information on state certification requirements and research on Computer Science Teacher Certification Requirements. You should probably join the CSTA while you are at it so that you can get full access to their resources. Membership is free! Another resource about certification requirements is any school of education that prepares teachers for certification in your state.

Even if you decide to go the non certified route and look for private schools having this information will tell you a lot about what you need to know to be qualified to teach. So do your homework. Any school you interview with is going to ask you why you think you are qualified to teach and you need a good answer.

Now you need to find a school that needs a computer science teacher. Many states have teacher job repositories online. In New Hampshire, where I live, we have for example. A school of education in your state (try the state university system) will likely have a list of job hunting sites and other resources that you can access. Networking, as in any job search, can also help. There may be a local CSTA Chapter that you can contact. 

The scary thing is that many schools don’t need (or at least have enough courses to require) a full-time computer science teacher. A lot of CS teachers also teach other subjects. Sometimes they are related like applications (think Microsoft Office) and other times it is something like Math. The Math/CS combination is VERY common.  So if you can teach Math or some other subject your job hunt gets easier. Not easy – just easier. Schools who need a computer science teacher are probably having trouble finding qualified people but that doesn’t mean they will jump at the first person with professional background who comes along. (Before I forget – all schools will perform a criminal background check before making an offer. Expect it – it’s the law.)

Things you will be asked on the interview include:

  • Have you taught before? Training you have presented in a professional capacity to other professionals counts. It’s not the same as teaching teens but it is still teaching.
  • What are you qualifications? This about what you know from education, on the job training, and other life experiences. It includes not just technical things but soft skills like presentation skills, planning and organization, and previous experience dealing with the age group you would be teaching.
  • How will you handle classroom management? This is a tough one to answer if you don’t have experience teaching or dealing with large (> 2) groups of student age people. Buy and read a book. or three.

Make friends with a teacher and have some long talks about teaching. Find out what is involved besides standing in front of a room moving your mouth. There is a lot more to it and the more of it you understand before entering a classroom the better off you will do in the job and in the interviews. One could write a book about this and this post is long already. You’ll also want a mentor for your first year or three of teaching. Year one is a killer and a support system is critical.

The long and the short of it is that you don’t just decide you want to teach and the next day send out resumes. I really lucked into my situations – the first principal who hired me had been hired as principal by me (in part) when I was a school board chairman. I’d also had a long involvement with the school and had taught some classes as a volunteer in the school. So it was a process as it is for most people. Expect to have to do your homework. Expect a life style change. On the up side, expect to be able to make a difference is student’s lives.