Teaching for WTM: Just do it!

My journey with Women Tech Makers of Berlin started with answering a post on Facebook. I was more than thrilled to get involved and help anyway I could. The original idea was for each of us to teach our area of expertise. This idea didn’t pan out for multiple reasons. No harm done, I was still on board with the idea of teaching. However, I would quickly be taken out of my comfort zone when it was decided that we would teach Go. I have never worked in Go. But knowing a few other programming languages and having a good grasp of web development in general I thought I had nothing to loose. I went through a couple of tutorials and off I went to our first class to meet our students.

While it would not be my first experience teaching I was still filled with excitement and nervousness. This time it would be different, this time I would be giving back to the tech community. I was lucky to have some great mentors and teachers when I was beginning my career in technology, even now I have a few mentors I regularly touch base with and ping ideas off of, but there comes a time when you have to pay it forward and give back to the community. My time had come.

Every time I teach I find I learn more from the students that attend than probably do the students. I often say sorry to my students because, I must admit, I teach from a personal perspective, it is raw, and unfiltered. And quite frankly, I am okay if I have to answer with “I don’t know”. It is from this place of not knowing that you truly start to understand. It is often said; you must understand a topic inside and out to be able to teach the topic to beginners. And as a “non-professional” educator/teacher, I don’t profess to know all there is about teaching. I only have my own terrible school experience to know what doesn’t work. I was one of those terrible students who floundered in most traditional educational settings. Even being told at one point, it was useless for me to learn anymore maths. Pure memorization never worked for me. Examples of practical applied use cases were what excited me. Solving real problems. Even today, I can be heard cheering at times when I figure out a hard problem. I still get pleasure from this. I unfortunately don’t have all the answers, but I thought, if I could at least bring my enthusiasm for technology and engineering then I could start the students on their own paths of exciting discovery.

As a teacher, especially in beginner coding classes, it is not the syntax, libraries and even the language that is important as these things will and can change over the course of your career. The goal is to pass on your love of technology. Pass on that spark you get when you finally find that bug that no one else could find or getting your micro-controller to interface with a new peripheral. To start developing, can be a steep curve, especially if you didn’t come from a computer science background. I know this all too well. Don’t tell anyone, but my degree was in the social sciences. I had some decent exposure to electronics and computers as a youngster, though none of it coding. Remember back to when I mentioned that I was told not to study math anymore; well from that time on I just put aside any ambitions to be in the sciences (I wanted to a veterinarian), but maths was a barrier I just couldn’t see past at the time. So of course anything to do with electronics or computers was out of the question. Don’t let this stop you ever. I made that mistake for too many years. Until, I started to ignore that little voice and was forced to take a stats course for my degree. Well, darn it, my math fear was so strong, I would do so many practice questions that I ended up being 2nd in my class.

Don’t let fear stop you. Whether it be teaching or being a student. Coding is not magic, ok, I lie, it is: Well to me anyways. Though this magic can be learned. And in the case of coding the magicians are willing to teach you the magic tricks. If they refuse, then go find a new teacher! So far I have had the pleasure of being involved with three groups of WTM students on two different platforms/languages: Golang and Android.

Nothing strikes fear in a teacher more than not knowing all you can about the topic you are about to teach. Faking it until you make it I am sure is a truism many teachers feel. I am not a professional Golang developer. So how do I teach something I don’t know all that well? Simply you start learning along with your students. And a loop is a loop is a loop. We all took turns lecturing and all did one on one tutoring with students in class. Some lecturing on basics with good one on one coaching worked. Not all people wanted to ask questions in the open. That is fine. Just ask your question at some point. No judgment here. Once a few students were comfortable with asking, then others would come forward to ask. Remember, these courses are meant for beginners. Though it is still a good idea to read a bit before you come; this applies to both teachers and students.

DO NOT go into deep discussions about syntax/language history or comparing to other languages. Get to learning and doing. Nothing scares and bores new developers more than listening to a bunch of “old time” devs arguing about something you could care less about. The goal is to make the class exciting, fun and engaging so that people leave with a sense of accomplishment and a desire to keep at it. Remember the focus of WTM is women. We need to make sure we engage the few women that do show up. If that takes more one on one, then do it. Each class and group of students will be different.

All three groups I taught were a mix of genders and experience levels. This is probably the most challenging aspect. Realise that you may need to explain things that you may think are basic. Don’t assume that everyone will understand or catch on immediately. I enjoyed all the students that came. There were few that do stick out and will leave an lasting impact. One lady told me quite a sad story, I can not unfortunately reveal too much. But her desire to study and learn engineering despite her challenges made me even more determined to teach and pass on my love. We all face different barriers and challenges. Though together we can overcome these challenges. WTM is about community. About encouraging. If you are an experienced engineer, especially if you are female, then teach and mentor. Remember those moments when you wish you had someone to talk to and encourage you. If you are new to development or technology then just jump in. You will find people wanting to help and teach you.

I look forward to teaching my next class of students. I can not say enough positive things about programs and organisations like Women Tech Makers. They offer opportunities to give back, but also to learn. Get involved and do your part.

Sarah Kraynick is an Mobile (Embedded) Engineer at Leafy Forest. Follow her: @luvnumberz.