Teaching Is Wonderful

I had an enriching experience, but also I did a bad thing...


A couple of weeks ago I registered to join CoderDojo as a mentor. CoderDojo is a community of programming clubs for young people, between 7 and 17, to learn how to develop websites, apps, programs and games. I'd seen the sessions running while I was at university and wanted to be a part of when I felt I had enough experience and time to offer. Experience? Probably. Time? What is 2 hours honestly?

The first session was today. I went in just to get my Working With Children Check application filled out. To my surprise though I was offered the opportunity to hang out and help out some of the kids attending. When I say surprise, I mean surprise. I didn't feel at all prepared to teach children all of a sudden. I also realised I have no idea how to even talk to kids. Turns out... it's remarkably simple. Just speak to them like people (not sure if that's even a strong suit of mine either, but we'll roll with it for now).

For a couple of minutes I nervously circled the room checking everyone's screens to see if anyone looked stuck. For the most part the kids were learning with Codeacademy and Scratch. I'm not a particularly huge supporter of Codeacademy due the the copy & paste nature of the lessons I'd seen people doing in the past. Scratch I was entirely unfamiliar with. With these compounded I had a flash of anxiety that I'd be of no use as teacher. Then I had the legendary idea to just sit and chat with two of the kids to ask what Scratch was all about and what they were working on.

Now I'm no good with guessing ages but - I was blown by this 9-year-old's succinct explanation of what Scratch was. He taught me in under a minute and I was suddenly ready to lend a hand. He had a friend with him who had never done any sort of programming in the past, though you wouldn't have thought it from the way he was using Scratch.

Another kid in his early teens was learning web design on Codeacademy. He said he didn't feel he was learning much from just copying and pasting the code samples it provided. I told him to bear with it for a few lessons just to get the basics down. The look on his seemed unenthused. How do I reach these kiiiiids? I got back to him after a while. He had typed code but had no context for it's use. I opened up a plain text document (re-titled to *.html) and had him type some content into it. When he was done he doubled clicked the link and it opened in the browser as a webpage. Just like that he'd created a website. His face shifted completely to an uncontrollable smile. I knew the smile... The power was all in his hands now.

By the end of the session the kid who had never programmed before had an amazing start on "flappyBat", a Flappy Bird clone. He personally approached me after the session to thank me for all the help. It was overwhelming that I had something so meaningful to give. Doing it was incredibly enriching and I'm keen to return for future sessions.

But now let's change gears into 5th at 20kmph with a confession: As the session drew to a close I was struck by and deeply disturbed by the realisation that I had not offered help to any of the young women attending. My internal monologue at the time was "someone else is helping/will help her", "she's probably busy and wants to be left alone" and the absolute worst "boys are like me so they're easier to talk to". The underrepresentation of women in the field of computer science is something I am passionately against. That I would have so easily contributed to this systemic issue was like a punch in the stomach and I feel terrible. I am wholly committed to never letting it happen again.

Update (19/03/2016): I did not let it happen again!

-Bob Hayden