Errol Shook from Watauga High is one of the most successful teachers I know at preparing high school students for the high tech workforce. Over the past decade, an average of four seniors each year have gone on from his program to internships or paid positions on college or university IT staffs – many of them at Appalachian State, right there in Boone.
I asked him to share some of the strategies he’s used to establish this track record. He goes above and beyond that’s required, and is a wealth of Best Practices for the IT classroom. Here’s our conversation:
Tell me how you’ve encouraged your best students to continue along the IT career path, and how that has turned out for them.
Every year I try to find jobs for students who are graduating from WHS, and who have done well in all of my classes. This year, one student finished an internship at Technology Support Services at Appalachian, and 3 graduating seniors for this school year already have jobs open for them to take or turn down at TSS at Appalachian State University based on the work they have completed.
That’s a great ongoing track record of producing students who go on to tech jobs after high school. What’s your secret?
I have been teaching Computer Engineering courses for 10 years. Networking in various forms during that time, and a Trade and Industry Advanced Studies course that covers UNIX, Programming as Scripts in Python, Perl, Ruby, and C/C++, some Circuit Design and how they relate to truth tables and binary so circuits can be built on screen with logic gates. All teach skills necessary to work in the tech industry.
Once you have a core set of classes that build on each other, you can take that content, and visit the places where you want to get your students jobs. Sell the curriculum to as many of those places as possible, and internships and jobs will come. Employers and colleges won’t know you unless you go talk to them. Build a strong base, and then, sell your students, on working hard to get the recommendation to go to those places.
Are there particular strategies you use in the classroom to get students ready for real jobs?
We do LOTS of labs. LOTS of hands on things, and in as many of those hands on labs I try to set them up as Real Life situations. The curriculum is the material to be covered, but if you don’ take the time to try to apply those topics to what is done at work, it is just a class. I use Linux to teach networking, and to compare differences in Microsoft Environments. Students have to set up and prepare a desktop for demonstrating k12LTSP. We build parallel processing clusters with as many as 42 computers that all classes participate in.
If you limit yourself to the box of the curriculum, students will not think out of it. Use the curriculum, and design a class, that teaches it, and applies the material.
Do you emphasize practical experience? Certification?
The classroom is setup as a fully functional shop. We do repair work and upgrades and virus removal regularly. It becomes more than a classroom that way. And we talk about the importance of certification, and what it means to have the documentation that you have done them.
Can you tell at the beginning of a semester which students are going to do well?
As a teacher, after a few days, its easy to see who has ability and who is going to need to work harder. But sometimes the kids with less ability will work harder though. Its important to watch those early interactions and then pair or group kids so that it is a successful match. I really stress the team work and group interaction. Being a good IT person is great. But you aren’t a great IT person, unless you can relate what you know to users.
If you could say one thing to a new or less experienced Computer Engineering teacher, what would it be?
Don’t ever think you know as much as you need to. This business changes hourly. and you do too. Use the kids to help keep you up to date. Let them research and tell you things. Have conversations with students about technology. There is a classroom of them, and only one of you. They have time to read and be on the Internet. Learn from your students, as much as you teach them.