I never envisioned when I accepted a job offer from Cisco 12 years ago that I would be able to squeeze in a career as a teacher as well (without moonlighting). For the last three years, I've had the privilege of being a Citizen Teacher in Oakland and San Jose schools. This is thanks to Citizen Schools, a Cisco sponsored nonprofit whose mission is to expand the learning day for middle school students in low-income communities. They do this by engaging an army of professional volunteers as "Citizen Teachers" to spend 10 weeks teaching what they already do, know or love.
Initially the idea of teaching middle school students was quite intimidating; I wondered what I could teach that would be valuable and meaningful. I learned in the schools that Citizen Schools target, there is a gap in elective curriculum in topics like robotics, blogging or painting, which more affluent schools take for granted. I eventually chose to teach STEM related topics -- Science, Technology, Engineering and Math-- because they hold great potential for education and career opportunities. There are currently 26 million STEM-related jobs in the United States alone. And it is expected that, by 2015, roughly 90 percent of professional jobs across all sectors will require technology skills.
My first class was on blogging and culture. Over the course of a semester, my students published their own blogs on the culture of a country they were interested in. They learned how to research, write and publish their own articles. Most recently, I taught "Technology is Everywhere" with a group of Cisco Connected Women volunteers to an all-girl class.
Our objective was to foster early interest in STEM careers, which is still a predominantly male field. Women make up almost half of the American workforce, yet hold less than 25 percent of STEM-related jobs. And while girls earn the majority of college degrees, only 12 percent are computer science degrees (and that drops to three percent for minority women). The topics in our class varied each week, from IT to marketing to engineering, depending on each volunteer's area of expertise. The students were eventually introduced to 10 different career options and the class culminated with a field trip to Cisco's Executive Briefing Center, where the students were able to experience our telepresence video technology, which they anecdotally related to "Star Trek."
Over the course of a semester I witnessed the students' level of interest and excitement increase. I saw a new awareness develop around what was possible that they did not envision before. Engineering, marketing, and IT were now added to the list of careers our students wanted to pursue when they grew up. A few even decided they wanted to work for Cisco. We were able to explain the critical role attending college would play in making those dreams a reality.
While creating a very, very early recruitment pipeline for Cisco was a nice side benefit, the true value, I discovered, in being a Citizen Teacher is not what we taught, but who we were and that we were there. We were caring adults that represented new, tangible and viable options. We were models, in the absence of professional models in their own communities. In some cases, we looked like them, and even had similar backgrounds, and because of us, what wasn't on their radar before was now accessible in a very real way. This a true example that -- regardless of the socio-economic circumstances surrounding these students' lives -- given the access, we can begin to close the achievement gap by closing the opportunity gap.
The challenges we face in education reform -- declining graduation rates, teacher tenure, class size, pay for performance, the lottery system -- can seem daunting. As I've come to find, however, this work is not only the responsibility of teachers, administrators, and education professionals. As citizens, we have enormous power and opportunity to provide true value as mentors, tutors, and buddies. We can create real impact in the midst of all the debate where it matters most: the lives of our students.