Lessons I've learned from teaching 20 years of IT



I actually started teaching on April 13th 1998 (20 years ago today).

It was my final year as a student at the University of Waterloo, and as I was finishing up writing my final exams I realized that I needed to actually go out and get a real job to support my family (I was married with a daughter at the time).

Prior to that, I had worked on some very cool technology projects for various companies (including some big names like Microsoft, DEC and SUN), as well as worked for the University as a Web developer and sysadmin. I also worked for many years as a teaching assistant and courseware editor for Peter Chieh’s nuclear chemistry course….after all, most of my academic background was in science, which is where most of the computer science talent was back in the 1990s!

So I took a job as a teacher at a private college based out of Newfoundland called The Career Academy down the road in Kitchener. They needed someone who could teach some accounting, UNIX and C programming - all of which was a walk in the park for me. Shortly after I started, the college was purchased by triOS Training Centres (a corporate technology training company that taught mostly SCO UNIX and Microsoft courses). The college portion was rebranded triOS College of Information Technology and ran only technology courses until the dot-com bubble burst and they diversified to include business and healthcare courses. At that point, they were renamed triOS College Business Technology Healthcare. The corporate training continued after the college purchase, so I had the opportunity to teach both corporate and college courses for many years!

I was quickly recognized as one of the top instructors in the company, and I moved into more senior roles within the organization, including Technology Faculty Head (2005) and Dean of Technology (2011), where I continued to teach, but also develop curriculum, manage programs, create student opportunities and maintain vendor/employer relationships. In 2013, I became the very first recipient to receive the prestigious annual OACC Excellence in Teaching award (beating out all other private college teachers in Ontario). For me, this was the ultimate validation that I had succeeded in my teaching career!

So why did I teach for so long?!?

I think i comes down to two things: people and fun. Over the years, I’ve taught and worked with some wonderful human beings, from all walks of life, who taught me as much or more than I taught them. But most importantly…..I had fun doing it. People often tell me they remember my sense of humour and laid-back, positive attitude years after leaving the college. I’ve always gravitated to opportunities professionally that I thought I’d have a lot of fun doing, and it naturally continued with teaching.

So what have I learned from teaching these past 20 years?!?

  • Teaching each class is like putting on a theatrical show. Everything must be timed and executed properly (concepts, topic transitions, breaks). Preparation and organization are key to this! Give students a reason to come to class.

  • The most important quality of any technical teacher is the ability to take complex technical topics and simplify them in a way where students can learn “how” it works, “when” it should be used. You can then safely add the complex details, because students have a core understanding they can easily fit it into.

  • Listening is the most important part of any communication.

  • Never teach with PowerPoints (unless you’re teaching online and using it for structure only). They are a poor way to engage people over a long period of time (PowerPoints were designed as a visual guide for short presentations). Instead, use an overhead projector to show students configuration tasks interactively, as well as leverage a chalkboard/whiteboard for concepts (diagram concepts interactively with class input along the way).

  • You can have three teaching degrees and still be a terrible teacher. No course can teach you how to teach. It’s an art that you have to build with an open mind - some people can do it, and some people can’t. If you want to become a teacher, my best advice is to remember these words: prepare, listen, evolve.

  • If it makes the process of learning more effective for one or more students, allow it in your classroom. If you don’t, you’re impeding progress on many levels and destroying your credibility as a teacher.

  • People learn when they are enjoying themselves - throwing humour or interesting/related topics into the mix at timed intervals makes a huge difference in the classroom.

  • Always have a class mascot (or mascots) to make arbitrary names within examples fun for everyone. I’ve always used the Teletubbies (lala, po, noonoo and tinkywinky), as well as oobla (the giant chicken-worshipping alien from Jimmy Neutron).

  • Change is always good! Learning new technologies requires lots of time outside class, but is very rewarding from a personal growth standpoint (always have lots of virtual machines at home today for this).

  • <SPOCK’S VOICE> The Internet has been, and always shall be, your friend. Leverage it in the classroom, and show students how to leverage it to maximize their resourcefulness (the most important skill for any IT person).

  • All adults have their own problems and fight their own personal battles, which alters their body language and behaviour in the classroom. Be considerate and show compassion in these situations - they may be in a phase of their life that isn’t optimal.

  • Some students will keep in touch with you after they graduate, some won’t (I always appreciate it when they do!). If you run into a previous student in public that recognizes you, but you can’t remember their name, just ask “What was your last name again?” This will make it seem as if you remembered their first name….which you didn’t, but it’s better than nothing!

  • Never accept criticism from people you work with if they don’t understand what you do, or don’t have the ability to do your job.

  • Never be afraid to say “No” to others in your organization. This sets boundaries, and they’ll respect you for it. If you don’t do this, they’ll walk all over you. It’s not rocket science, it’s just human nature.

  • It’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission in certain situations. This is sometimes called “leading by example” ;-)

  • If an opportunity arises that you think is beyond your abilities, accept it anyways. The worst that can happen is that you fail miserably. But most of the time, you just end up growing your abilities and succeeding!

  • Sometimes you just have to let go of something you helped build or create because your organization no longer values it. It is what it is - just continue to look forward.

  • Always do something professionally outside of your teaching career that allows you to stay current in your industry. You can’t teach people how to be a part of an industry that you aren’t still relevant in!

  • And, most importantly…..always have a Linux server in the classroom.