Reflections on Work Experience

Year 11 are out on work experience this week.  It’s a double-edged sword for teachers: we’re pleased to have a little breathing space but concerned about the time they spend out of lessons.

Work experience, if it goes well, can be memorable and beneficial.  When I was at school we did 3 weeks in year 10 and I went to the local sailmakers, Hood in Lymington.  They’re no longer there but this more recent image from Sanders Sails in the same town shows the interior of a sail loft.

My students last week were horrified to learn that for the 3 weeks I was on work experience I had to be in work at 8am and didn’t finish until 5:30pm.  The siren at Berthon Boat Yard that signified the start and end of the working day still echoes round the town now.  I had a 15 minute break morning and afternoon and half an hour for lunch.

Yet I thoroughly enjoyed it.  As the most junior person there I had to sweep the floor every morning but was also taught how to use the enormous and high-speed sewing machines and by the end of my time could sew a reasonably straight seam up a 10m main sail.  Spinnakers were a different matter.  I also used the laser cutter to cut sail parts and numbers.  They were kind enough to give me the pattern to make a sail for my own little Cadet dinghy and I made it, completely by myself!

I was looked after by a girl who left school the year above me with minimal qualifications and was doing well as a machinist.  She took me under her wing and we went back to her house at lunchtimes in a cloud of cigarette smoke (hers not mine).

I enjoyed it so much there (I was a 15 year old sailing nut which helped) that I asked for a Saturday job there.  I knew at that age I wanted to go to university and do a professional job but those 3 weeks at Hoods were an eye opener into the world of work and one I remember fondly.

Nowadays work experience is shorter and more formalised (probably rightly so).  Students only do a week and are generally shown around the whole company.  We’ve had students blog from their time at St. David’s Hall and Western Power recently.  I hope they all enjoy it and make the most of this unique experience!


Advice to potential Computer Science teachers

The UK Government has announced today a scheme to entice Computer Science graduates into teaching in England with a £20,000 incentive.  I am delighted by the message this sends out about the importance of Computer Science.  I hope it doesn’t detract from the very important job of retraining hundreds of excellent ICT teachers to teach Computer Science.  I also hope that Computer Science graduates in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be similarly tempted soon!

7 years ago I started a PGCE in ICT after a career in industry.  Several of my friends have sought my advice about going into teaching and it’s always the same, do it, but do some preparation.

Before applying to do the PGCE I spent a week in a secondary school (coincidentally the one I work in now).  The school and department were kind enough to plan a programme of lessons for me to observe and even take part in.  I was able to find out about the curriculum, the way it was applied and the pressures of teaching.  I could also observe the rhythms of the teaching week.  I started the week with the determination not to see it through rose tinted spectacles and finished it more enthused about it than before!

I was on maternity leave at the time so time off work wasn’t an issue and I managed to sort childcare for the week and I know for some of my friends, the ability to take time off work is limited.  Consider this though, a week of unpaid leave is NOTHING compared to the fact that your salary in a years time will probably be 1/3 what it is now.  If you’ve made the right career choice then that won’t matter to you but if it was the wrong decision – it’s a costly mistake.

  • Find out about your local secondary schools (this link will help)
  • Check their website for the name of the head teacher
  • Write to them enclosing your CV and ask to spend some time observing lessons, point out your expertise
  • You don’t need a CRB check to work in a school if you are not alone with children – a qualified teacher will be with you at all times
  • Check how much input the teacher wants you to have during the lesson (we’re all different)
  • Go round the room and speak to children about their work – get involved!
  • Ask if there is anything you can help with during lunch time or after school.
  • DON’T tell them that they’re doing it all wrong and when you start teaching you’d wipe the slate clean – we’re in a state of curriculum flux in ICT/Computing in schools and we know how to handle it!
  • Remember that this could be a week-long interview if a job comes up later (it was for me!)

Teaching – as if it were industry

Having spent roughly the same amount of time teaching as I did working in IT as a programmer / analyst, I thought I’d summarise what the teaching day is like for these new would-be Computer Science teachers.  It’s a tongue-in-cheek analysis!

You arrive at work at about 8-ish and spend a little time preparing for the day.  At 8:30 you have a 1 hour meeting.  During this meeting you need to impress people.  The attendees don’t especially want to be there, although some of them are quite excited, but it’s important that they know more and can do more at the end of the meeting than they could at the beginning.  You spend most of the meeting walking around the room.  It’s a good idea not to talk for a long time yourself but instead to ask questions of the attendees.  Make sure you ask well thought out open questions and ensure all the attendees are called upon to respond.  You need to have thought up some stimulating activities for these attendees to do during the meeting as well.

As soon as that meeting finishes you have a second meeting.  The format will be largely the same as the first although the attendees will be different and the subject matter will vary.

At the end of the second meeting you need to go to a third, shorter meeting (only 20 minutes this time).  To get there you have to walk up a 50m corridor which is about 1.5 m wide.  The difficulty is that about 200 people will be coming the other way.  Most of them will not be looking where they are going and 3 of them will be swinging their bags.  At this third meeting you have 20 minutes to make announcements, find out why some people didn’t attend meetings, and sign forms for 25 attendees.  You are also supposed to pray for a bit.

Finally you get to have a cup of tea after this as you have 20 minutes without meetings!  A large room is allocated to this but only a small corner has been given over to the facilities to make the cup of tea.  It seems to have been designed by someone who has never made a hot drink.  Nevertheless the 40-odd people who use this space perform a daily dance around each other and manage to make some sort of drink.  If you are lucky you will get to drink it too.  Try to fit in a loo-stop before the next meeting.

Once a week however you can’t put your feet up during this session as you have to stand outside and watch some of the meeting attendees running around, or instruct them on queuing procedures.

After this well deserved rest you will have another 2 hours of meetings back to back before lunch beckons.  You may find however that you spend much of this lunch “hour” talking to meeting attendees about why they didn’t pull their weight in your meetings.  You don’t have to do this of course but it’s quite hard to do your job well otherwise.

After lunch, another meeting.

During any of these meetings, certain unexpected things might happen which you should be prepared for:

  • attendees are sometimes late
  • someone might cry
  • someone will probably sneeze all over you
  • you will have to ask someone to wash their muddy hands before touching your keyboards
  • someone might say “I dont gedddd itttt” in a really whiny voice despite you having explained “it” in 4 different ways and asked them to stop looking at their hair in computer screen 3 times
  • someone will delete all their work without realising it and claim the computer didn’t save it

Occasionally you will find yourself with an hour (10% of the time) where you have no meetings and can do some work.  The work you have to do comprises planning for meetings and assessing what went on with them as well as countless other tasks.  Hopefully coming from industry you will be familiar with the concept of hotdesking.  This will be useful to you as the first 10 minutes will be spent finding somewhere to work.

Sometimes you will be able to leave at 3pm – like you might have done on Fridays in some industry jobs.  More likely you will be there until 4:30 or later catching up on work.  You will also do a bit more work later that evening.  From time to time you will have meetings with the parents of your meeting attendees.  This will involve 3 hours of 5 minute appointments.  Most of the people you see you will talk about what a great attendee they are raising.  The ones you need to talk to won’t be there.

You will get lots of holidays and your friends will probably moan about this.  Holidays are when you catch up with the work you don’t have time to do at work.

Of course, while all of this is true.  There are some genuinely great things about teaching (which mean that I won’t be heading back to industry any time soon).

  • year 11 coursework deadline isn’t going to move and isn’t going to be shelved due to a changed business direction or a takeover
  • you won’t be lining the pockets of an already rich industrialist
  • very often some of your pupils will absolutely “get it” and be delighted to show you their progress
  • one of your pupils will make you laugh out loud in a good way every day
  • occasionally pupils will come up to you after the meeting and thank you for a great meeting
  • you get to go on school trips to interesting, cool and fun places
  • you get to take part in madcap charity fundraising events (1:36) which gets over 8,000 YouTube hits
  • you are challenged, every day, in a way you often can’t predict

Ada Lovelace Day 2012 – Marissa Mayer

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day to celebrate the achievements of women in science, engineering, technology and maths.  Ada was the daughter of Lord Byron and friend of Charles Babbage and is often cited as being the first computer programmer.

Marissa Mayer is president and CEO of Yahoo but before that worked for Google as Vice President of Maps, UX, Gmail and a host of other well-known Google products.  We’re all well aware of the men, the brogrammers who have founded the big IT companies, Larry Page & Sergey Brin of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook etc. but definitely less aware of the women who although in the minority, hold senior positions in these companies.

I’ve picked Marissa Mayer mainly because she’s a dedicated Computer Scientist.

Unlike the Pages and Zuckerbergs, Marissa Mayer finished her undergraduate degree at Stanford and also her Masters in Computer Science, specialising in artificial intelligence for both.  As a teacher it’s quite often hard to motivate students to further study when they see the route to success being that of dropping out (it only works for a few!) .

from the Guardian

From what I have read about her, she seeks to understand the way in which people use the products she creates.  Her profile in Vogue from 2009 even suggests that she refused to get broadband at home until 2004 when over 50% of Americans had  broadband.  That’s a little extreme but given that even at that point, she was a wealthy woman, it’s a sentiment I admire.  She probably did all her Googling at work anyway.

Slightly controversially, I also applaud the fact that her appointment at Yahoo was announced at the same time as her pregnancy (she had the baby a couple of weeks ago).  I do think when discussing the issue of women and careers at any point, the baby can become the elephant in the room.  Sure there will be comments about her ability to afford a whole host of nannies and housekeepers, the fact that she might work such long hours she’ll never see the baby but that’s her business and nothing to do with me.  What I celebrate is that her confidence in herself and her abilities is such that it’s not an issue.  It’s another step towards company boards seeing that hiring a brilliant woman in her childbearing years is a good thing if that’s what that woman wants.

Gender, Computing and Culture

This annoyed  me today in Tesco.

 In case you don’t quite see it, Wired is placed in the “Men and Bikes” section of the magazines, in between Viz and Loaded.  Presumably this kind of thing has been annoying female bikers and readers of smutty humour for years but I’m less concerned about them.

Wired magazine in Tesco

Computing is a serious academic discipline.  The wider IT industry employs thousands of people in the UK and contributes billions to the economy. We have a serious lack of young women taking Computing as a subject in school and university.

There are lots of magazines aimed at computing enthusiasts out there.  I read Wired – I subscribe – as it goes beyond the “how to” and product reviews and looks a little wider at issues to do with computing and technology more generally.  I bring old issues into school for students to look at but I’d be horrified to recommend this to ANY student locally.  Can you imagine, suggesting a teenager (of either gender) going into their local supermarket to buy a magazine their teacher had recommended and being faced with THIS?!

Seemingly minor things like this are the reasons why girls aren’t going into Computing in any numbers.  There’s no one big issue.  To borrow a phrase I’ve used before and paraphrase it badly, it’s the aggregation of marginal losses.