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How Our Staff Embrace Change to Teach Students What Really Matters

By Flatiron SchoolMarch 18, 2019
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Below, Erin H. discusses how she became a Technical Coaching Fellow (TCF) at Flatiron School Seattle and how she embraces change. As a TCF, she helps students understand why they’re learning what they’re learning at Flatiron School.

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Erin’s journey into tech wasn’t her original plan. She got her start after almost failing her theater class as a sophomore in high school. Erin needed to try another elective. Her friend recommended AP Computer Science, but she was skeptical. She wasn’t sure if she could see herself as a CS student. Did she really want to “hang out in the windowless CS classroom with a bunch of smelly boys?” Despite her initial hesitance, something sparked in Erin that fired up her passion for code. She enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of the class and how she could use her new skills in a practical way. By the time she graduated, Erin worked with fellow students to build an iPhone app for the athletics department and an ASP.NET website for the admissions office. After high school, she started her journey toward becoming a software developer. Erin worked on everything from hospital accounting software to mobile apps for blind people. She even interned at Facebook, making internal tools and features for their Android app. While she was succeeding in a traditional software engineering path, Erin found herself gravitating toward research. She started working on her PhD in Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington, with the eventual goal of finding a balance between code, research, and education.Erin is currently on a break from her doctoral program. Her decision to go on sabbatical and focus on teaching came after becoming frustrated with grading exam papers and having to pick a topic for her doctoral thesis. “I was at a point where the ambiguity of deciding what to study for my dissertation was overwhelming,” she recalls. “I found myself delaying milestones because I wasn't sure what direction I wanted to take.”

What made you try teaching in the first place?

The professor I already worked with on a research project was hiring teaching assistants, and asked if I wanted a second job. I thought I would hate it, but I liked the idea of a little extra cash, so I figured “why not.”  It turned out that I really enjoyed the teaching component!  Since then, I have also taught at the Community Data Science Workshop at UW (which teaches scientists how to use code to run more sophisticated analyses), mentored at hackathons, TA-ed design classes at UW, and taught Intro to Programming to high schoolers at Lakeside School. I love it.

To many people, change can be an intimidating and scary thing. There’s a lot of uncertainty and doubt. Despite that, you’ve gone through several changes in your academic and professional life. Why do you think it’s important to embrace change?

It's important to work on different projects with different teams! I gained a lot of experience trying out new technologies and expanding my horizons by competing in hackathons. At Flatiron School, we have students do a new project every three weeks. I think that it's even better to add a mixture of personal projects, hackathon projects, and contributions to open source. That way you get a better idea of what you actually like doing and you have examples to pull from if you get a “tell me about a time when...” question in a job interview.

What led to you taking a break and joining Flatiron School?

I don’t know if I want to be a professor or work in the tech industry when I'm finished. I want my dissertation to be perfect and I don't think I'm in the right mental space to make that happen yet.I also realized that I was spending my time dreading grading, to the point that I was starting to lose interest in my classes and my research. At that point, I agonized over the decision of whether to quit grad school, but my advisor suggested that I could take a break instead.When I started looking for job opportunities, the Technical Coaching Fellow role at Flatiron School seemed perfect. Instead of feeling like I'm constantly fighting with students about their grades, we're all on the same side, and trying to ensure that students succeed.

What’s been a recent highlight at Flatiron School?

I love it when a student is having a problem with their code. I can spot it immediately and I can guide them to the right documentation or the right interpretation of the error message so that the student figures out the problem on their own. The student is learning why things happen the way they happen and not just being told the right answer. Recently, one of the project groups was trying to write this complex nested iteration to find every comic associated with a given Marvel character, and when I told them they could just write character.comics their minds were blown. They had this real moment of understanding why they had learned what they had learned, which was amazing to see.

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