Open letter to my daughter’s high school programming teacher

Dear Sir,

I’m not writing to complain about your choice of programming languages (Visual Basic) or about the A my daughter earned in your class. I’m writing with specific suggestions for how future daughters can have a much better experience in your class than mine did.

First, a little background. I’ve worked in tech journalism since my daughter was still in diapers, and my daughter has had access to computers her entire life. At the ripe old age of 11, my daughter helped review her first tech book, Hackerteen. She’s been a beta tester (and bug finder) for the operating system Ubuntu, and also used Linux Mint. Instead of asking for a car for her 16th birthday, my daughter asked for a MacBook Pro.

My daughter is bright, confident, independent, tech saavy, and fearless. In fact, she graduated high school last May—two years early—and is now attending high school in India as her “gap year” before heading off to college.

So what’s the problem?

During the first semester of my daughter’s junior/senior year, she took her first programming class. She knew I’d be thrilled, but she did it anyway. When my daughter got home from the first day of the semester, I asked her about the class. “Well, I’m the only girl in class,” she said. Fortunately, that didn’t bother her, and she even liked joking around with the guys. My daughter said that you noticed and apologized to her because she was the only girl in class. And when the lessons started, my daughter flew through the assignments. After she finished, she’d help classmates who were behind or struggling.

Over the next few weeks, things went downhill. While I was attending the SC ’12 computing conference in Salt Lake City last November, my daughter emailed to tell me that the boys in her class were harassing her. “They told me to get in the kitchen and make them sandwiches,” she said. I was painfully reminded of the anonymous men who left comments on a Linux Pro Magazine blog post I wrote a few years ago, saying the exact same thing.

That post, Inequality, Choices, and Hitting a Wall, discussed illegal gender discrimination in tech. The next day, comments started popping. Sure, the sandwich ones were easy enough to shrug off at first, but within a few minutes, the comments increased in numbers and intensity. And then the threats of violence started: “The author of this article is a whiny bitch and needs a good beating to be put in her place.” Ten minutes later, the rape threats began, and I shut down our comments site-wide. And then the emails started…

So, you see, I was all too familiar with what my daughter was going through, but I was unprepared for the harassment to start in high school, in her programming class.

I consulted with friends—female developers—and talked to my daughter about how to handle the situation in class. I suggested that she talk to you. I offered to talk to you. I offered to come talk to the class. I offered to send one of my male friends, perhaps a well-known local programmer, to go talk to the class. Finally, my daughter decided to plow through, finish the class, and avoid all her classmates. I hate to think what less-confident girls would have done in the same situation.

I now know that my daughter actually did talk to you about the harassment that semester. She told you that she’d asked the guys repeatedly to quit teasing her. Finally, she asked you to let her address the class about the ongoing harassment. She told me that you talked to the principal next. “And a couple days later, I was in the principal’s office being explained to that it wasn’t my place to do that, and I just mumbled answers to get out of there as soon as possible because I was really, really embarrassed and fighting back tears,” she says. She tried asking her classmates to leave her alone, she reported the harassment to you, and you brought the principal into the mix. Did the students quit harassing her? “They never got better and I didn’t talk to them again,” she says. (My daughter never told me any of this at the time—she says she was too humiliated.)

The upshot: My daughter has no interest in taking another programming class, and really, who can blame her.

For her entire life, I’d encouraged my daughter to explore computer programming. I told her about the cool projects, the amazing career potential, the grants and programs to help girls and women get started, the wonderful people she’d get to work with, and the demand for diversity in IT. I took her with me to tech conferences and introduced her to some of the brightest, most inspiring and encouraging women and men I’ve ever met.

Sadly, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and you created a horrible one for girls in computer programming. I’m no teacher, so forgive me if you think I’m out of place when it comes to telling you how to do your job. But I am a mother, and I’ve spent years encouraging girls and women in IT, so perhaps my perspective will help you. After all, you didn’t mean to create a brogrammer-to-be environment, did you?

Here are seven suggestions for teaching high school computer programming:

  1. Recruit female students. Why was my daughter the only girl in your class? According to her, she only took the class because I encouraged it. My daughter said she wouldn’t have known about the programming class, otherwise. (I’m adding this to my “parenting win” page in the baby book.) Have you considered hanging up signs in the school to promote your class? Have you asked the school counselors to reach out to kids as they plan their semesters? Have you spoken to other classes, clubs, or fellow teachers to tell them about why programming is exciting and how programming fits into our daily lives? Have you asked the journalism students to write a feature on the amazing career opportunities for programmers or the fun projects they could work on?
  2. Set the tone. On the first day of class, talk about the low numbers of women and lack of diversity in IT, why this is a problem, and how students can help increase diversity in programming. Tell students about imposter syndrome and how to help classmates overcome it. Create an inclusive, friendly, safe learning environment from day one. I thought this was a no brainer, but obviously, it’s not.
  3. Outline, explain, and enforce an anti-harassment policy.
  4. Don’t be boring and out-of-date. Visual Basic? Seriously?? Yes, I know I said I’m not writing to complain about your choice of programming languages, even though I’m still scratching my head on this one. Without touching your minuscule class budget, you can offer a range of instruction with real-world applications. With resources like Codecademy, for example, students could try a variety of programming languages, or focus on ones they find interesting. Have you considered showing kids how to develop a phone app? Program a Raspberry Pi? Create a computer game? Build a website? Good grief, man—how were you even able to make programming boring?
  5. Pay attention. I don’t know what you were doing during class, but you weren’t paying attention, otherwise you would have noticed that my daughter was isolated and being harassed. Do you expect girls to come tell you when they are being harassed? Well, don’t count on it. Instead, they pull away, get depressed, or drop out completely, just like they do in IT careers. You want to know what happens when women speak up about verbal abuse or report harassment? Backlash, and it’s ugly. Don’t believe me? That’s because you aren’t paying attention.
  6. Check in. Talk to your students in private to see how class is going for them. Talk to other teachers or school counselors. Had you talked to my daughter’s counselor, for example, you would have known how class was going. The counselor worked closely with my daughter to help her graduate early, and she would have had no problem getting an honest answer about my daughter’s unpleasant experience in your brogramming class.
  7. Follow up. At the end of the semester, take a survey. Allow students to submit anonymous online answers to questions about the class material, your teaching methods, and their experience with other students. Allowing anonymity will help you get honest answers and, hopefully, you can improve your programming class for your next round of students.

Look, you don’t have to tell me how hard your job is or how underpaid and overstressed you are as a high school teacher. I’m a single mother working in tech publishing—believe me, I get it. I like to think what I do is important, but what teachers do has the potential to change the world. No article I write will ever do that, but the daughter I raise might.

I spent 16 years raising a young woman who had all the tools and encouragement she needed to explore computer programming as a career. In one short semester, you and her classmates undid all of that.

I always told my daughter that high school isn’t real life. Unfortunately, your programming class proved otherwise. In one semester, she learned why there are so few women in IT, and no amount of encouragement from me is going to change that.

A version of this article originally appeared on the USENIX Association website.

Rikki Endsley is a freelance tech journalist and editor, the community manager of the USENIX Association, and managing editor of USENIX ;login magazine. Find her online at rikkiendsley.com or on Twitter at @rikkiends.

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