The looming shortage of coders and programmers in the tech industry has been well-documented. There are about a million (er, give or take) digital job openings predicted in the next decade, which has some schools mandating coding class. But where are the teachers?
“We need to train students today to have the skills that we don’t have,” says Ravi Gupta, founder of RePublic Charter Schools in Nashville. “But we don’t have enough people who have the skills to teach it.”
Schools around the world are trying to respond to tech entrepreneurs, who have been calling for required programming classes. Apple Founder Steve Jobs famously said in 1995 that everyone should learn how to program a computer. Now many people are echoing him, from President Obama to rappers like Will.i.am.
There are several programs designed for kids to teach themselves how to code. But for schools that take the project to the classroom, good luck finding a coding teacher.
Gupta’s schools in Nashville decided to require coding this year, but when he started looking for teachers, he basically found none.
“We all knew that our students needed the skills, but none of us knew how to tackle the challenge,” he says. “So we started teaching ourselves as we teach our students. Not because that’s the ideal situation, but because it is the only way.”
In an echo-filled classroom, Ryan York leads a one-month crash course for a group of teachers who know almost nothing about coding, even though that’s what they will be teaching this year. Day one is animating a cartoon fish.
The teachers hunched over laptops are learning a fairly rudimentary coding language called Scratch, developed by MIT. They’ll work up to projects like building an on-screen piano.
“I’m getting there,” says Ben Keil, one of those hired to teach coding. He admits it may be a long first year.
“I actually roomed with two computer science guys in college and watched them through the whole process,” he said. “In hindsight now, I wish I had done a little more learning from them along the way.”
School leaders are spinning the lack of experience as a potential plus: Teachers can identify with their students because they’re just a few steps ahead.
“This is something where you are learning alongside with your students,” York says. “And that’s a beautiful model that’s at the heart of programming. But it also means there’s a lot more preparation on the front end.”
Around the world, schools are dealing with this circular problem in which kids need to learn coding, but teachers can’t teach it. England’s primary schools have mandated programming classes, but a recent survey finds teachers don’t think they’re ready, calling the preparation “chaotic.”
And when a teacher does master an in-demand skill like coding, will they actually stay in the classroom? Or will they be poached by the higher-paying tech industry?
“We have definitely had that happen,” says Mike Palmer, who runs a teacher training program based in St. Louis called Code Red.
One newly minted coding teacher recently left for greener pastures.
“We basically trained her up to be a coder. She ended up self-training a little bit more, and she ended up getting a job in the private sector,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s us doing our job too well or not, but it’s happened.”
The potential for high turnover is a problem that, at this point, Nashville’s coding education pioneers say they’d be happy to have.
Perhaps, Palmer says, it’s further proof that coding is a skill worth teaching to every student.