There was an interesting bit of chatting going on over Twitter about the importance of teachers as role models over the weekend. A lot of people think that having more computer science teachers of color and more female teachers would lead to more diversity in students. It’s a theory but I haven’t seen much evidence that female teachers have many more female students than men do. Not as a general rule that is. There may be some data out there but I haven't seen it.
There is a real shortage of computer science teachers of color and I don’t know much about their enrollment either. But at least one person on Twitter was adamant that having a teacher “that looks like you” is critical for women and minorities. And it is hard to argue with someone who speaks from their own personal experience.
So what is a middle aged white computer science teacher to do?
Let me start by saying that I strongly believe that male teachers have an important role is changing the culture of computing. Computing has become, in many companies and even universities, a female unfriendly, even misogynist environment. We can theorize all we want about how it became that way but I think it is clear that it is the case. And it is hurting our ability to attack and retain smart talented women into the field.
It is important that we recognize that computing is a field that desperately needs more diversity. We need more women. We need more people of color. We need more people who would not fit seamlessly in with the characters in the Big Bang Theory. Changing the environment is key, in my opinion, to getting this diversity.
All teachers can do a part to make this happen. A lot of attitudes are developed by school aged students. We can all do our part to make students comfortable and help them to feel safe in our computer labs. We, especially male teachers, can make it clear to male students that making the girls feel uncomfortable is not ok. We can make it clear to girls that they are just as good, just as important and just as valuable as anyone else.
Some people think that means that girls and boys should be treated differently. Some people think it means that boys and girls should be treated exactly the same. I think it means that all students have to be treated as unique individuals with individual needs, individual strengths and weaknesses. It means not writing off any student because they are not easy to teach or they don’t fit a specific pattern or personality. You know, it’s like being a real teacher in a real classroom.
We also have to make all students aware of people of diverse characteristics – race, color, religion, and more – who are succeeding in computing. No one can be a role model for all students but we can all share individuals who can be role models for everyone. I’m never going to be a young female of color. What I can be is a white male who respects young women of color and is accepting and encouraging of them (and everyone else) in my classroom and my chosen career.
I can share stories of women I have worked with. I can use videos from groups that work specifically with young women and who provide mentors to those young women. I can invite people into my classroom. Any women want to Skype in to my classroom and tell their stories? I think I’d like to try that next semester.
An important motto at the school where I teach is that “every student is known, valued and treasured.” I can make sure that is true in my lab/classroom. I can make sure that treating any student without proper respect is not acceptable. I can make sure that all students know I am on their side. I may not be able to be a role model that looks like them to the girls or to the minority students. One thing I can be is a role model for the white male students on how they should respect those who are different from them. I think we can all do that. And maybe if we all do that we can change the environment beyond our schools over time. It’s worth a try.