Close to 70 Cisco Networking Academy instructors from all over the state assembled in the University Union on October 18 for the annual MSDE Cisco Conference.  Looking out over the crowd, I tried to do a fair estimate of the average age of the attendees.  This was a diverse group of secondary and post-secondary instructors, representing brand-new programs as well as some of the longest-running Networking Academy programs in the nation.  Conclusion:  we are old!

This is a troubling observation on many levels, but not a surprising one. As the Cisco Academy Support and Training Center for our state, we are at the front line of the struggle to find and train new instructors when vacancies occur. Many of our programs, as is the case with many other Career and Technical programs, are “solo spots.” When an instructor leaves or retires, the program is in danger of leaving, too.  Fewer and fewer schools have the luxury of two or more instructors in the technology programs they offer.  More and more schools have trouble in locating and hiring new IT instructors.  Why?

The simplest culprit could be salaries: young IT professionals are well-rewarded in the business world.  But that’s not the whole story. IT-oriented Career and Technical programs like the Cisco Academy, Microsoft Academy, and Oracle Academy have been around for long enough that those young IT professionals today may well have been the high school Academy students of yesterday. Those students have moved through the IT education pathway from high school to college, and then into the post-grad world of work.  Why did they not choose to teach?  Why are they not choosing it now?

There's more than one way to work in IT - you can teach IT to other professionals. Photo Credit: University of Central Arkansas

There’s more than one way to work in IT – you can teach IT to other professionals. Photo Credit: University of Central Arkansas

There are no easy or comfortable answers to these questions.  Many of the Cisco students I taught are now post-grads, working in a variety of technology-related fields.  They still stay in touch; they do many things that gladden an old teacher’s heart, like sending me Facebook posts and endorsing me for a variety of skills on Linked In; not one, to my knowledge, is a teacher. What can be done to encourage bright young folks like these to choose teaching technology as a way of “doing” IT professionally?

Along the IT education pathway, as students begin to think about careers, job shadowing provides a valuable real-world experience. Why not job-shadow a teacher?  School systems invest a great deal of money in IT-oriented Career and Technical programs; why not develop internships with the colleges the graduates of those programs attend?  A student returning to teach within the school system he or she attended represents a great return on investment.

The most important benefit derived from increasing the number of young people choosing to teach technology is that intangible that separates good from great teachers:  passion.  Teaching the thing you love is the best of both worlds.  The work of communicating that passion for IT to another generation can be frustrating and challenging—but never boring.  We need to do a better job of presenting education as a viable career to young people who have the IT “bug.”  If we do, Cisco Academy conferences in the future will sport less gray hair!