Teaching at RED Academy: What I’ve Learned
From embracing the chaos to overcoming fears of public speaking, Head of Curriculum and Lead Instructor Mandi Wise shares what she’s learned over the past year teaching at RED Academy.
In July of last year RED Academy opened its doors to its first cohort of students, and I was there teaching the “Intro to HTML” class in our inaugural Web Developer Foundation course.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that almost an entire year has gone by, so I wanted to pause and reflect on what a transformative, whirlwind experience this career transition has been, and how it has also helped me grow as a developer along the way.
When I joined the RED team I was working as a web developer and had no prior instructional experience, but I did have a long-held, latent desire to teach.
In fact, when I was offered a teaching position at RED last spring, I thought I had hit the job jackpot—I was ready to shake things up career-wise and it seemed like the perfect time to finally give the teaching thing a go. On top of that, I’d be teaching at a school that was wholeheartedly committed to delivering radically relevant education to students with a curriculum explicitly tailored to lead them to real career outcomes.
The year that followed has been a bit of wild ride, and along the way I definitely learned a few things…
1. Teaching is Different than Talking
While I didn’t have any teaching experience prior to joining RED, I had made my rounds on the local meet-up and conference circuit delivering a variety of dev talks over the years.
That experience certainly helped me get past any anxiety I around public speaking, but at RED I quickly learned that delivering a polished conference talk and delivering an effective lesson are two completely different concerns.
The classroom experience at RED is focused on active learning, so in fact, as a teacher the less time I spend talking, the better! And I’ve seen the benefits of this method first-hand—the “sage on the stage” approach to delivering a lesson is far less effective (and engaging) than empowering students to roll their sleeves up, try things out for themselves, and then reflect on what they discovered as a group.
2. You Must Embrace the Chaos
I’ll admit to being the kind of person who really likes to plan, systematize, and organize things. And then I really, really like it when things go exactly according to my plans. I bet you’re thinking that I’d be a real riot at a party now, aren’t you?
While preparing lessons certainly involves a great deal of planning (they are called “lesson plans” for a reason), I quickly learned that I had to be more flexible in how I actually implemented that plan on a given day.
Different students can respond to a lesson in remarkably different ways, and you must be ready to react to that by exploring certain topics more deeply, improvising unplanned demos, and even inventing active learning exercises on the spot.
It took a long time for me to get comfortable in the “chaos” of the classroom (or at least that’s what it feels like for a planner like me), but in doing so I’ve noticed that I’ve started to embrace that kind of spontaneity in other areas my life too. Personal growth #FTW!
3. Teaching Makes You Refine Your Craft
And on the topic of how teaching makes you a more well-rounded human, I believe that my skill set as developer has expanded immeasurably over the last year.
Preparing lessons on everything from the basics of HTML to using object-oriented PHP in WordPress plugin development gave me the opportunity to explore the nuances of these topics more deeply than I ever had before. Further, the incredible breadth of questions students manage to conjure up in class require you to dive deeper still.
And what’s more, preparing to thoroughly explain all of these topics in a beginner-friendly way requires that you internalize this information in a way that’s quite different from how you would if you were merely recalling it subconsciously on autopilot as you churn out lines of code all day.
4. Fellow Instructors Push You to Become a Better Developer
I also know that I have ramped up my dev skills as a direct result of the cool people I get to work with on my team.
The other web development instructors—Mackenzie, Ben, and Shawn—all come from very different dev backgrounds. We work together, challenge each other, and collectively invent cool problems to solve every day.
And even though I mostly spent my time with PHP in my past life before RED, over the last year I have seriously upped my JS game with everything from ES2015 to React, and this is largely thanks to being around these awesome guys and their mad dev skills.
5. Being in the Business of “Changing Lives” Changes Yours
And last but not least, I think the most important thing that I’ve learned at RED is how rewarding it is to have a measurable, visible impact on someone else’s life.
It may be easy for some to write this off as a typical teaching cliche, but once you’ve experienced this for yourself it isn’t just the student’s life that’s changed—it will be yours too.
When I worked as a developer I usually felt far-removed from the measurable impacts of my work. The “end user” was typically a fictional person I conjured up and kept in mind as I built out a tool for them to use. And even if I could “see” who they were and how they interacted with what I built via something like site analytics, they still remained largely anonymous to me.
When you teach, you interact with your “end users” directly every day. You see them grow and struggle, and you help them along. Then you get to watch them thrive and start new careers as they embark on new, purposeful life paths. While the students are the ones doing the hard work here, it’s incredibly rewarding to feel like you were a small part of their journey.
In the last year, RED Academy has graduated a total of 153 students from our part-time programs, and 82 students from our full-time programs (with another cohort graduation just around the corner). I have had the opportunity to get to know all of our full-time web development students personally, and many of our part-time students too. I owe all of these people an enormous debt of gratitude for what they’ve enabled me learn about myself along the way.
And with that I’m buckling up and looking forward to the new challenges and opportunities Year #2 brings at RED!
(Oh, and I did I mention that we’re hiring? If “changing lives” sounds like a fun job description for you, be sure to take a look at our current instructor postings.)
Lead Instructor, Web Development
Mandi is one of the lead instructors for our immersive programs. Web developer by day (and usually at night too), Mandi specializes in PHP and custom WordPress plugin and theme development.
Her background in content strategy and web writing has helped her develop a well-rounded approach to her current skill set. When she’s not creating structurally sound websites that work like a well-oiled machine, you can find her making use of a fleet of vintage cameras. In fact, nothing makes her quite as excited as the sound of a Polaroid SX-70 camera the moment it ejects a new photo.