Christopher Kerr’s path to becoming the computer science and information technology teacher at Newington High School was not a straightforward one. A senior software engineer who once enjoyed the highs of creating and using computer technology for more than 10 years, as the industry started to change, he became less satisfied with his work.
“One of the thoughts I took away from my yoga teacher training experience was, ‘If you’re not doing something you love, you’re losing your energy,’” he recalled. “I felt like a sea of my creative energy was uncontrollably pouring out of me.”
He wanted to share all that he’d learned over the course of his career, and he thought the best way to do that was to teach computer science. But despite his education and all his years of professional and practical experience in computer science, he found roadblocks to becoming an educator.
“The challenge is there is no infrastructure or pathway – either eight years ago when I started or now – to transition from being a technical professional in any career to becoming an educator,” Kerr said.
His way into teaching came nearly eight years ago when Newington High School was looking for a computer science teacher. Kerr was able to be hired to teach because of a provision in state education policy that allows professionals with at least three years of experience in a particular vocational subject not traditionally taught in public schools, like computer science, to teach that subject in a comprehensive high school.
Kerr said computer science teachers, if a district has one, typically are educators trained and certified in other subject specialties like math and science first and may not have a specific professional background in computer science and technology.
That made it difficult to find peers and companionship and collaborators within education, he said. Lucky for him, Kerr said he came across a Connecticut Education Association newsletter with an article featuring the state chapter of the Computer Science Teachers Association during his first year of teaching.
“I found fellowship in CSTA,” said Kerr, who now is the president of the Connecticut Computer Science Teachers Association (CT CSTA). “I found teachers like me. A few of them came from the industry and they took the path of least resistance, typically going back to college to become a math teacher who also teaches computer science.”
Kerr is working to change this area of teaching certification. He wants industry professionals who could be great computer science teachers along with aspiring educators interested specifically in computer science to be able to be endorsed in that field first. This would eliminate the current model of “taking a currently trained teacher, providing them a four-week vendor specific professional development experience over a summer, and assigning them a computer science course.”
For Kerr, that looks like computer science teachers being able to obtain primary endorsements in computer science. He currently teaches as a vocationally endorsed teacher, which doesn’t have the same weight as being a certified teacher with the primary endorsements of the subject matter he teaches. He pointed out that neighboring states have such endorsements for computer science teachers.
Kerr also wants to make sure that K-12 schools recognize how important computer science is to everyday life and what role it needs to play in creating what he calls “digital citizens.”
”Computer science is more than programming,” he said. “Knowing how to use and visualize data, expressing yourself in the digital medium, making programming to creating apps – there is so much more than coding”
We need high schools to be offering very diverse computer science classes. We need to teach cyber security and that’s more than just securing your wireless router and passwords. It’s about knowing your digital rights and all about your civil liberties regarding data privacy. It’s about learning how to visualize and make better use of your data.
He said though he grew up as a young person with a lot of technical ability when it came to computer science, he realized quickly that his high school left him feeling woefully unprepared for his first college-level programming class. He said he doesn’t want that to happen to his students or those of any of his fellow computer science teachers.
Kerr is pushing for professional development for high school teachers and curricula for students that are both aligned with industry standards and designed and endorsed by higher education, industry professionals, and certified educators. From there, well prepared educators will have the best curriculums designed to inspire students, he said.
His vision also involves promoting the changing face of technology as a more diverse one that includes women and people of color. In addition to starting an honor society at Newington High, he also created a teacher assistant program as part of his master’s of education research that recruited experienced computer science students to act as mentors to younger students.
Kerr said his whole angle as a computer science teacher is helping his students see it as a new creative medium for problem-solving.
Students that can effectively use technology can bring their aspirations and ideas to reality. They can shape the world to their image.