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“I never want to become a teacher.” — 20 year old me.

I stood at a crossroads as a junior in college. Organic Chemistry had destroyed any hope I had of going to medical school. I had declared Biology as my major, but I began to have second thoughts. I fell back on the thing I was good at, which was Mathematics. Still, I wasn’t sure what I would do with that degree.

I thought about becoming a teacher, but the more I thought about it the more I didn’t want to do it. I thought I would be good at teaching. I might have grown to enjoy it. But, I was pretty sure it would drive me insane. I didn’t want to deal with misbehaving students. I didn’t want to deal with school politics. I wanted something more hands on.

Fast forward to today. I received my Master’s in Computer Science and am employed as a software engineer. I taught a one day class on Javascript at the local outreach college. I’ve done some volunteer work teaching Ruby on Rails to women at RailsBridge Honolulu. I started the local Javascript users group and continue to organize talks and meetups. My efforts have not gone unnoticed and I got an opportunity to teach at Dev League. The offer was to take over the part time class for 3 months.

I immediately said yes. As I tell my students, I have a problem saying no. There were reasons for me to turn it down. I have many side projects that need to get done. But, I wanted to help out a friend and it was a good opportunity to give back to the tech community. Yeah, it’d be 20 more hours per week, but it’s only for 3 months, right?

I started by putting a daily schedule together. I taught twice during the week at night, so I went to the gym in the mornings. I set aside some time on nights I didn’t teach to work on side projects or rest. When class was over, I left to make sure I got enough rest for the next day. I started thinking about the topics we’d cover and what my approach would be.

It wasn’t easy adjusting to the schedule, but I pulled it off. I treated it as another job and made sure to keep my day job and teaching separate. I started losing weight because of my time at the gym. I made sure to get enough rest so I could make it through another day. It all worked out pretty well. During the first 8 weeks, I skipped one day at the gym.

But then something happened. I’m not sure I can pinpoint the exact cause. I think it was one night after teaching algorithms. I told some students that I found discrete math interesting. I recalled a graph algorithm my boss used to schedule our hours. I ended up staying about 2 hours after class talking.

It started to become more than a job. I began to care about my students. I always wanted to help them with their projects and understand the material. But, as I got to know them better, I became invested in their success. I tried to give advice and shared my observations of the tech industry in Hawaii. I told tales of how I succeeded and failed. I empathized with each of the students. It was a lot of fun.

Sure, there were times where things got tough. Coming up with curriculum was difficult. Trying to help 8 students with 8 different projects is a challenge. I didn’t get to all the topics I wanted to cover. The students got to see me mess up on more than one occasion. I hope it demonstrated that even after all that education and experience, it’s okay to make mistakes. I’m still human after all.

Looking back, there were some things we did that worked well for the students.

  1. Standup: Every class day, we started off with standup meeting. Each student said what they did since the last meeting and what their next step was going to be. Since they were doing this part time, they needed to work on things outside of class. This held them accountable and also got everyone to speak for a little bit.
  2. Writing tests for the students: For some of our lessons, we wrote unit tests. These tests gave the students immediate feedback on whether their implementation was correct. We stumbled on tests a few times (I’m used to RSpec), but they kept the students on track.
  3. Personal projects: For the last month, the students worked on their own personal project. We helped the students manage the scope of their projects and kept them on track. We also provided help, but the students had to come up with their project idea.

At the same time, there were things that we could do better.

  1. Keeping people on task outside of class: This was the biggest challenge for the part-time cohort. We expected students to work on projects or assignments outside of class. For the most part, students were motivated enough to find work when they needed to. Still, we needed to do a better job of giving the students work to do.
  2. Managing the group project: The students worked on a group project during the month of February. We split the project up into 4 parts and had pairs of students work on each one. We simulated an open-source environment where the project owners (the instructors) reviewed pull requests. Yet, we did a poor job of time management and could not get the entire system up in a working state. Some of the teams were blocked on others, which made it difficult to keep them engaged. The students did learn a lot from the experience, so I can’t say it was a complete failure.

This was an amazing experience and I’m thankful to Jason, Russel, and Jon for giving me the opportunity. I developed a bond with each student and have become invested in their success. Turning the lights off on the last day was difficult, but we did our best to prepare them for the road ahead.

I can’t wait to see what they do next.

This blog is also cross-posted on Medium.

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Comment by George Lee on April 17, 2015 at 1:55pm

Thanks Joseph, Aaron, and Dongie!

@Dongie: Making a schedule was really important, especially when you're really busy. It even makes it easier to set aside free time, cause everyone needs some of that. The schedule really stuck with me though. I still wake up relatively early in the morning to go to the gym.

Comment by Dongie Agnir on April 16, 2015 at 4:53pm

Thanks for sharing, this was a great read.  Congratulations on your (first?) teaching experience.

Also congrats on being able to stick to your plan!  Whenever things get hectic for me, gym time is the first to be sacrificed unfortunately.

Comment by aaron kagawa on April 13, 2015 at 2:30pm

awesome man. thank you for all that you do for our community. 

Comment by Joseph Lui on April 13, 2015 at 12:05pm

How inspiring--for everyone involved.

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