TEALS – More Than Just A Color

Those of you who know me have probably heard me mention my involvement in the Microsoft TEALS program before. TEALS is an acronym for Technology Education And Literacy in Schools, and on the chance that you haven’t heard me talk (rant) about it, please allow me to share a little information about the program and what it means to me as well as the students it serves.

What is TEALS?

The link to Microsoft’s TEALS site in the previous paragraph can describe the program far better than I can, but the tl;dr version is this: TEALS connects volunteers (who have some technical aptitude) with schools that are underserved, underrepresented, and would benefit from the volunteer’s involvement. This “involvement” typically takes the form of volunteer teaching or assisting in the instruction of a computer science class or something equally technical or STEM-oriented.

What Does A TEALS Volunteer Do?

A TEALS volunteer typically instructs – or assists in instructing – a regular computer science-related course that’s part of a student’s curriculum. Like most things education-related, the actual “job description” is variable and dependent on the circumstances and the needs of the school to which the TEALS volunteer is assigned.

In my case, the school that I’ve been working with for the 2020 – 2021 school year (Shaw High School in East Cleveland, Ohio) approaches computer science from an “intro to game design” angle. For the first semester, we worked with Snap! – a block-based programming language very similar to Scratch (if you’re familiar with that). In the current semester that’s getting ready to close out, our focus has been on Python and some common programming concepts/constructs: functions, classes/objects, methods, properties, etc.

Although there are several prescribed TEALS curricula, the actual implementation of any specific class is fairly flexible. At the end of the day, anything that fosters an interest and growth in computer science and programming capabilities is the goal. 

Do I Need To Know How To Program To Be A TEALS Volunteer?

The simple answer is “no,” but it definitely helps to have some knowledge and grounding in logic, programming concepts, math, and similar related areas.

It’s worth noting that the curriculum that you’ll (likely) be teaching or assisting with is one that has been developed over time and targeted to either elementary school or high school students. I wouldn’t say that the subject matter has pushed me outside of the zone I’m comfortable with. For most folks who work in an IT-related field, I’d say that the material is extremely straightforward and doesn’t require an advanced degree in order to internalize and guide students.

More than anything, the areas that the students I’ve been working with have needed help with come down to “detail items” and maintaining an attention to detail. One of the hardest lessons for a novice programmer is recognizing that the computer only does what their code tells it to do – nothing more, nothing less. Students who are used to cutting corners or who don’t have an eye for detail, in my experience, are the ones who struggle the most. There generally aren’t shortcuts when it comes to programming – at least shortcuts that can be explained with less effort and comprehension than the original area/concept someone may be trying to work around in the first place.

How Do I Get Involved?

If what I’m sharing sounds interesting and you would like to participate yourself (it’s a great way to pay-it-forward!), you’ll want to use this link to start the process of becoming a TEALS volunteer.

What's The Deadline For Applying?

Technically speaking, the deadline has passed – it was May 14, 2021. Given the nature of the TEALS program and its volunteer basis, special provisions are typically made and all sorts of gap-filling maneuvers are executed. Microsoft says to contact them if the application is closed, as positions sometimes open throughout the school year.

My own situation is a great example of the dynamic nature of TEALS. I had originally signed-up to participate in the TEALS program during the 2019/2020 school year. As we approached the beginning of the school year, the TEALS teacher at the school I was assigned to left unexpectedly; as a result, I was “put back on the bench.” I hoped a school opening would manifest, but I didn’t have the opportunity to volunteer during that school year.

I reapplied for the 2020/2021 school year, and once again it was looking like I might not be able to help a school out. I reached out to Casey McCullough who was the TEALS regional manager (and my contact) for the Cleveland area of Ohio at the time (he’s since moved on) and told him I’d be happy to help any school who would have me. Casey worked some magic, made a couple of connections, and I ended up assigned at Shaw High School.

Do I Need To Live Near The School That I'm Assigned To?

No! Anyone who knows anything about Ohio geography knows that Shaw High School is about four to five hours from my home in Cincinnati. Although I want to make the trip to visit “my” school sometime, it hasn’t impeded my participation with them.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything in the last year+, it’s that much of our work and things previously thought of as being “in-person only” truly are not. Sure, we’re all growing heavily fatigued with Teams and Zoom videocalls, but they have enabled much of the world to continue operating in some capacity during the pandemic. Many of us IT-centric folks, especially work-from-home types like myself, have been living this life for years.

Teaching is another thing that can take place remotely, and I take advantage of that fact to volunteer with the students at Shaw High School. Monique Davis, the teacher I work with at Shaw, has a classroom that is Zoom-enabled. I connect, and it’s like I’m in the classroom. I can see the class, and the class can see me. This arrangement has worked pretty well for us – or so that’s my impression.

What Sort Of Commitment Should I Expect?

Generally speaking, the TEALS program operates within a school’s academic year. As a volunteer, you can expect an assignment to (usually) run from August/September to May/June of the following year.

Having a flexible block of time in the morning that is open (or can be freed up) in order teach/assist in a class is also requirement. The specifics vary in each situation (some classes may not meet in the morning), but it’s hard to truly help in class if you’re unavailable during class time.

When I initially got involved with Shaw High School, I learned that Ms. Davis’ class was meeting four times per week at 9am for about an hour. Two of us (TEALS assistants) were assigned to her class, and Ms. Davis indicated that she’d like each of us in class once per week.

Unfortunately, the other volunteer assigned to Ms. Davis’ class never showed-up or got involved with the class, so I offered to show up in that person’s place. So, I’ve been meeting with the class twice per week.

The specifics are going to vary for each school, class, and teacher. I’m highlighting my experience simply as one potential example.

What Has TEALS Taught Me?

A little bit of (semi-relevant) background about me: I’ve always been one to volunteer for efforts and events that help and serve others. My wife and I met in college because we were both members of Alpha Phi Omega – a co-ed service fraternity founded on the principles of the Boy Scouts. After college, I got the necessary training and became a volunteer firefighter/EMT/hazardous materials technician for a period of time:

Firefighter-EMT

In my experience, I feel that volunteering has provided me with as much as those I’m serving, and working as a Microsoft TEALS volunteer has been very rewarding for me personally.

As I’ve tried to share as much of my technical knowledge with interested students as they can process, I’ve developed a wonderful friendship with an absolutely fantastic teacher (Ms. Davis) who is truly devoted to her students and their advancement. Ms. Davis is the type of teacher that compels you to give your all. She’s that perfect combination of “kind,” “patient,” and “no nonsense” – and uses each of those when appropriate.

I also feel like I’ve also been able to build meaningful relationships with a small number of the students who work hard at computer science and hope to work towards some form of technical career once they graduate from high school. It only takes a few of these types of students to really make the volunteer effort worthwhile in my book.

Would I Do It Again?

In a very practical way, one measure of a volunteer experience is answered by the question, “Would you do it again?” When it comes to the TEALS program, my answer is a resounding “yes!”

I’ve already registered for the 2021/2022 school year, and I’ve indicated that I’d like to be placed with Ms. Davis and her class if at all possible. Ms. Davis and I have talked about the next school year, and I asked whether or not she would be willing to have me back – something, I’m happy to say, she said “yes” to. We’ve already had a couple of conversations on how we might do things differently to better engage and involve the students, so we’re already planning for and looking forward to the next school year and assuming that the “match up” will happen.

Reapplication for the TEALS program as an existing participant is no guarantee of a school assignment, and as a matter of course I generally take nothing for granted. I still have to re-interview and go through the process again; my hope is that it will be streamlined a bit. Regardless,  Microsoft doesn’t want to cut corners on who is assigned to a school. All program candidates are vetted.

Summary

My experience with the Microsoft’s TEALS program is that it has been extremely worthwhile for me, and I’d like to think it’s been the same for the students and teacher I work with.

If you’re technically inclined and looking for a way to use your skills to help those who would truly benefit from them, I encourage you to consider applying for the TEALS program today and give something back  :-)

References and Resources

  1. Microsoft. About Microsoft TEALS
  2. U.S. Department Of Eduction. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, including Computer Science
  3. Microsoft. TEALS volunteers
  4. East Cleveland City Schools. Shaw High School
  5. Berkley. Snap!
  6. MIT. Scratch
  7. Website. Python.org
  8. Microsoft. TEALS New Volunteer Application
  9. Microsoft. TEALS Contact Form
  10. LinkedIn. Casey McCullough
  11. Google Maps. Cincinnati to Shaw High School
  12. LinkedIn. Monique Davis
  13. Service Fraternity. Alpha Phi Omega

Author: Sean McDonough

I am a consultant for Bitstream Foundry LLC, a SharePoint solutions, services, and consulting company headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio. My professional development background goes back to the COM and pre-COM days - as well as SharePoint (since 2004) - and I've spent a tremendous amount of time both in the plumbing (as an IT Pro) and APIs (as a developer) associated with SharePoint and SharePoint Online. In addition, I've been a Microsoft MVP (Most Valuable Professional) in the Office Apps & Services category since 2016.

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