This feature first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Spanish novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón wrote that "destiny doesn't make house calls; you have to go for it." Going for it is a great way to describe Linda Brown, a veteran computer science and information technology teacher in Washington County School District (WCSD) in St. George, Utah. Throughout a 24- year teaching career this Utah tech teacher has definitely gone for it.
It was during her senior year at Box Elder High School in Brigham City, Utah, when destiny knocked — or, to be more precise, threw a users' manual her way. Brown was spending part of her days as a teacher's aide in the business department when the school purchased its first computers.
At the time, Brown was also known as an extremely quick typist, tapping out a blazing 103 words per minute. (The average teenage student clocks in between 37 and 40 WPM today.) She even won the statewide Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) typing competition that year.
Back then, having computers in school was not a common occurrence. Most staff didn't have much of an idea about how to operate them, nor did they have the time to learn. Acknowledging her dependability, willingness to learn, and certainly her typing speed, the department head tossed Brown the users' manual and told her to see what she could do.
There were six computers, along with a bunch of those old 5.25-inch floppy disks, Brown recalled, and I had to read the book to figure out how to set them up and then use them.
Jumping into the world of computers
One aspect of computers that Brown found especially appealing was word processing. I realized I could type even faster on a computer and it was so easy to erase errors, she said. No more having to use whiteout on a page.
Hooked on the possibilities of computers and holding a strong interest in business, Brown went on to attend Utah Technical College and later transferred to Brigham Young University to earn a degree in business education. During college she helped makes ends meet as a Senior Technical Support Operator for the WordPerfect Corporation, where she again showed her self-learning moxie.
"They gave me a manual to read and three days later I was on the phone troubleshooting for customers," Brown said.
As a tech support worker, Brown became a fluent problem solver, tackling software issues and troubleshooting challenges, while continually encountering new technologies. She was thrilled with the experience. "I loved the feeling of empowerment that came from fixing things that were broken and educating others who were using the technology on ways to avoid future problems with their equipment," she said.
By 1987, Brown had moved to Oregon and become a WordPerfect Certified Instructor — one of only two people in the country, at the time, to hold that credential. She soon found herself very in demand.
During that time, Brown worked for a computer training company. As a WordPerfect Certified Instructor, she had the freedom to create her own information technology (IT) curriculum and training manuals. Most training sessions were on client premises and would last anywhere from one day to several weeks.
One of her more interesting sessions took place on the Warm Spring Indian Reservation in north-central Oregon. Teaching Wasco, Tenino, and Paiute students meant loading her computers and associated peripheral equipment into a van and heading off to remote and rugged country. It was a great experience, she said. The reservation had a small motel and I would stay there for four to six weeks holding classes.
Brown also took time out of her busy schedule to volunteer teach computer science (CS) skills to youth in lock-up facilities. In the process, she managed to inspire a love of computing in a few of the students.
Her efforts to help young people are a byproduct of her own childhood. Coming from a dysfunctional home, Brown was blessed with a couple of high school teachers who watched out for her. They took me under their wings and really helped me make it through some difficult times, she explained. I'm grateful for all they did and because of them, I want to help other young people.
Teaching high school students
As a mother of two girls and one boy, Brown left the corporate world for a time until her children were older. Then, inspired by her past experiences teaching youth, she returned to college to get her teaching credential for public education and CTE (career and technical education).
In 1996 Brown returned to her old high school in Brigham City, where she worked in the computer lab. Her primary responsibility in the lab was helping students write research papers. When things were slow, however, Brown found that she just couldn't resist the urge to fix any broken computers.
Eventually, the district's computer technician noticed that Box Elder's computers, somewhat mysteriously, seemed to always be in proper working order. He asked to meet the culprit and, after a quick confab, encouraged Brown to apply for one of two open technician positions within the district. Though 62 individuals applied, Brown landed one of the jobs.
Diving back into full-time CS work was exciting and demanding, and Brown carried a very heavy load. It was a lot of work. I was responsible for more than 1,800 computers at 14 different schools, she explained. Worlds removed from the six total computers of her own high school experience.
Brown enjoyed the work and was good at her job, but her appetite to teach full-time remained strong, until one day she pitched the idea of starting an IT program to a principal at one of her schools. He grasped her vision and Brown was soon back in the classroom teaching programming, computer repair, and networking courses.
Despite her bundle of IT skills, Brown's greatest strength is connecting with young people. She will go to almost any length to help them learn, including once dressing in a chicken costume on Halloween with a sign that read, This hot chick loves technology. The students will never forget it, she said, but looking back on it now, I'm mortified that I did it.
By 2010, Brown relocated to southern Utah to revamp the CS program at Desert Hills High School in St. George. A few years later, she was splitting her time between two school and teaching a plethora of CS courses including Computer Programming, Web Development, AP Computer Science Principles, PC Repair, Networking, Information Security, and, for good measure, Video Game Development.
In order to keep pace with her many and various subjects, as well as stay certified to teach them, Brown has been continuously enrolled in university courses. She is always learning more about computer science and IT.
Helping students excel at working with others
Years spent working in the private sector taught Brown the value of teamwork. To ensure that her students learn those same lessons, Brown's curriculum has always stressed the district's four Cs: collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.
These skills are very important for success in the workforce, she explained. Employers tell us all the time how these skills are lacking in young people today.
Brown emphasizes the four Cs with a classroom exercise she refers to as Help calls. Using Google Hangouts, she sets up a phone call to one of her student technicians. Both she and the tech wear headsets with microphones and role-play various scenarios — none of the calls are easy for the student tech, and some are downright stressful.
By constantly switching up scenarios, the students get a taste of real-world communication challenges. At times, Brown is a stressed-out customer, very upset and not at all pleasant on the phone. Other times, she is the customer that clicks on things the technician didn't tell her to. I might even be the customer who knows nothing about computers and needs everything explained to me, she said.
If a student struggles to come up with an answer, they are instructed to politely place the caller on hold and ask classmates — who are listening to both sides of the conversation — for suggestions. It's a great activity and a lot of learning takes place for the entire class. It makes class fun and allows me more involvement in the course, said Brown.
Help calls are a simple and inexpensive way for Brown to help students build the confidence and professionalism they will need in order to interact with real people in uncertain situations. It's a skill set that will benefit students in any professional field, even the ones who don't ever take jobs in IT or work in a phone support position.
Build skills and get certified
Brown also includes opportunities for students to earn industry certifications in her classroom. She begins by explaining to students how difficult it is to get hired in technology jobs without any experience and then tells them about the benefits of being certified.
I tell them that certifications help you get a job because they are a fantastic way to prove what you know, she said. I also tell my students that once they are certified, there's no reason to take minimum wage jobs because now they can start their own businesses and build and repair computers.
Her students are able to complete up to three TestOut IT certifications: PC Pro, Network Pro and Security Pro. Individuals with these credentials are able to find employment in entry-level information technology jobs like PC repair technician, help desk technician, network administrator, web developer, and even information security analyst.
Many of Brown's certified students have gone on to impressive careers in the military and private enterprise. Several have gotten great jobs with Google, Apple, and Amazon and are very successful. I also have one former female student in the Navy whose job is programming missiles on a submarine, she said.
Brown makes certain to explain to her students how millions of CS and IT jobs go unfilled each year because there aren't enough skilled people to fill them. She tells them that certifications are a great shortcut to a profitable career, because workers with the right skills can bypass four years of college and go straight into the workforce from high school.
Employers can't just look for college graduates to fill their jobs, said Brown. I believe more employers will continue seeing that industry-certified students aren't just book smart, but that they have the skills to step right into a job.
Coping with coronavirus
In March, the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a body blow to in-person education, leaving teachers scrambling to compile packets and create online learning opportunities. Brown's biggest challenge during the school shut-downs was being unable to have students do actual, hands-on tear aparts of computer hardware.
Fortunately for her students and their nervous parents, Brown had an effective long-time teaching aid that she had been utilizing for almost two decades — TestOut courseware. I came across TestOut materials at a teaching conference back in 2001. I love it and have been using it in my classes ever since, she explained.
TestOut's LabSim learning platform is especially effective, as it saves instructors a great deal of the time and effort typically required to scrounge up actual computer equipment for students to work on.
When I first started teaching, I had to dredge up equipment to simulate labs on my own. Doing so took a lot of time, space, and money just to gather outdated equipment, she said. With LabSim, there are no worries about how to expose students to all the different types of hardware they need to learn.
LabSim also plays an important role in student internships. Brown would video students doing simulations and share the recordings with businesses that were considering accepting interns. At first, businesses weren't sure if high school students would have what it takes to intern at their company, Brown explained.
When I showed them videos of students mastering simulations, every business we were hoping to work with welcomed the students.
Moving on up
Brown's commitment to teaching and students has been recognized a number of times. She was Utah IT Teacher of the Year in 2008, and in 2017 received the Utah CTE Lifetime Achievement Award for excellence in CTE education.
After 24 successful years of classroom instruction, Brown has been asked to share her knowledge and teaching skills with other CTE instructors. She accepted and is now Washington County School District's Computer Science Coordinator, with the weighty responsibility of helping other teachers become better instructors.
In 2019 Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed the Utah Computer Science Grant Act, mandating that within three years CS training will be an integral aspect of every discipline in every classroom and for every student in the state, from kindergarten through Grade 12.
The effort is funded via a grant program to provide hardware and training materials to the school districts. Private companies are also supporting the initiative with donations of hardware, software, and money grants of their own.
While school districts throughout the state are working diligently to implement the governor's goals, none are doing it more than WCSD. The administration is 100 percent on board, working hard to gather funding and hire great teachers.
Brown eagerly accepted the responsibility because, for her, CS instruction is much more than teaching students to use computers. She is convinced that studying computer algorithms, processes, designs, applications, and the impact of technology on society, will enable young people to develop lifelong problem-solving skills and critical thinking strategies that can be applied to any personal, environmental, community, career, or social challenge.
The solution to CTE success in WCSD, according to Brown, is Dave Gardner, Director of Technical Education. Dave hires good people, gives them what they need to do their jobs and then stays out of their way, she said.
Gardner also recognizes Brown's importance to the effort. It's difficult to do Linda Brown justice, he said. She's the all-purpose tool in our instructional tool chest — that half-inch wrench that gets used for every job.
Education at the best of times, and under the best of conditions, is always an uphill battle. Knowledge alone isn't nearly enough. Being a successful teacher requires dedication, commitment, a ton of sacrifice, and a desire to give young people the tools to succeed in an ever-changing world.
Linda Brown has done all of that for 24 years and, with a supportive administration at her back, she will continue to do so. The parents and students of Washington County School District will benefit for years to come from her diligent efforts.