Alabama educator grew up loving technology, but never expected to teach it
This feature first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Center Point is a small city in central Alabama. With a population of 17,000, and a per capita income less than 40 percent of the national average, this formerly middle-class enclave over the past 20 years has experienced a marked transformation.
Perhaps nowhere is that change more noticeable than at the local high school, where 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch and the student body is 94 percent African-American.
And yet, despite its challenging situation, Center Point High School, the only Title 1 secondary school in the district, is a notable success. With 72 percent of students meeting or exceeding proficiency standards in both reading and mathematics, and a graduation rate north of 86 percent, it seems clear that someone must be doing something right.
It’s fairly simple to deduce that the mysterious “someone” is a faculty and staff devoted to and engaged in preparing students to meet the demands of college and career. One teacher who notably exemplifies that effort is Rick Shirley, the Network Systems & Computer Services instructor.
When it comes to hard work, commitment, and dedication to students, Shirley (who is “Rick” to everyone who knows him) is hard to beat. As an instructor he goes above and beyond the usual classroom tasks. In truth, a great deal of his non-school time is spent at school, helping students master the fundamentals of information technology (IT).
Center Point High School has a student body of approximately 750 students and teaching IT is an uphill battle. There is a widespread perception among students that the subject matter is “too difficult.” As a result, Rick works extra hard to fill his classes — without sugarcoating the reality that, yes, IT can be challenging. “IT is one of the most difficult programs at the school, but it’s worth it,” he said.
Rick’s goal is to give students the skills to become happy, successful, and productive adults. In order to achieve that goal, the longtime Alabama educator isn’t shy about pushing them to their limits. He strongly believes IT know-how opens doors to opportunities.
“Seriously, what job today doesn’t use computers? Everyone needs to know this stuff,” he declares. “Regardless of their field of study, the more IT skills a person possesses, the more valuable they will be as an employee.”
A woman’s touch
Industry research consistently finds that fewer than 20 percent of workers across all tech professions are female. In Rick’s classes, it is the exact opposite. Most of his top-performing students are girls, and his higher-level classes are generally between 65 and 75 percent female. He believes this is because of teen girls’ more consistent maturity level.
“IT is hard and to succeed students need to be committed and willing to work. One of the reasons girls rise to the top in my classes is that they are more mature and committed to doing well at an earlier age,” he said.
Rick’s top IT students also perform exceptionally well in statewide competitions. In 2014, Center Point teams began competing in various tech competitions and they have been cutting a swath of accomplishment ever since. Individuals and teams have walked away with multiple bronze, silver, and gold medals at all levels of competition. All six of Rick’s gold-medal winners have been young African-American women.
In 2018, SmurfAttack, an all-girl cybersecurity team, earned a second-place finish in the gold tier of the CyberPatriot National Youth Cyber Defense Competition. Competing in Girls Go CyberStart National Championships for the first time, the ladies went up against 120 other teams, placing first in Alabama and tied for 14th nationally.
Their IT skills paid off in more than just trophies and certificates. Together, the four young ladies amassed 23 in-demand IT certifications and won or were offered scholarships to various universities totaling more than $1 million.
Amidst sweeping community-wide changes, Rick has been a constant. Born and raised in the area, he attended local schools and graduated from Center Point back when it was named Erwin High School. It was at the local Radio Shack store that the IT bug first bit him.
Rick laughs when he describes riding his bike as a “wee lad” to the store and spending a lot of time playing with their computer. “I bought a programming book from them and would type in the programs and run them on their TRS-80 model III,” he said.
Hooked from that point on, Rick soon moved up to a Sinclair ZX-81 from England and began writing programs in his spare time. As his skills (and funds) grew, he upgraded to a Commodore 64/128 and eventually settled in with the hottest PC of its era, Commodore’s still-fondly-remembered Amiga.
It wasn’t long before Rick’s tech acumen got him noticed. As a high school senior, he was helping run the school’s first network and, after graduation, was hired to help secure the Novell server used in the school’s business lab. Somehow, he even made time to partner with one of his former teachers in starting a small software company producing autodial/voice information software for schools.
Using their system, quite advanced for its day, parents could call the school and a computer would report their student’s grades, attendance, and discipline. The system could also automatically call all the parents of absent students, as well as making calls to report important school announcements. This was done with a desktop computer and phone lines, a humble predecessor to today’s sophisticated message delivery systems that can call hundreds of people simultaneously.
As time went on, Rick proved to be a loyal and useful alum for Center Point. As a volunteer, he networked the entire campus, built and maintained all five of their servers, and assembled computers for every teacher.
First-year teaching adventures
Though he always enjoyed helping people with computer problems, Rick never actually considered teaching IT. “No one in my family had any interest in computers,” he said. “Dad was a plumber and mom worked in retail. So, I guess things worked out well for me — I can fix computers and the kitchen sink.”
Serendipity started Rick on his path to the classroom when he found himself in the right place at the right time during the summer of 1998. While Rick was doing some IT work for the school, the principal approached, tapped him on the shoulder, and asked whether Rick would consider teaching IT skills to high school students.
It was an easy decision for a guy who had been passionate about technology for years. “It seemed like it would be exciting, and it was more money than I was making (at the time). Plus, I felt like I was already part of the faculty; I’d been around the school since 7th grade and knew almost all of the teachers.”
Of course, possessing an abundance of IT skills doesn’t necessarily qualify one to teach, or make teaching an easy gig. Rick’s initial go-round turned out to be more of a nightmare scenario than a dream come true. “My first year was horrible,” he said. “I had a bunch of 7th- and 8th-grade students who just couldn’t seem to get the material.”
Building an IT program from scratch proved especially difficult due to a lack of instructional materials. “IT was new then,” Rick said. “I had no real teaching experience, no lesson plans, and absolutely no curriculum to speak of.”
Armed with eight rudimentary computers and some workbooks, the newly-minted Alabama educator rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He initially used a state-drafted course called “Computer Technology,” but it proved vague and uninteresting to the students. Fortunately, his experience in IT helped him make up some of the difference.
“Being in IT, I knew what the kids needed to know,” he said. “I managed to dig up some books about PCs and used them as a guide.”
A Tasty Delicious solution
Things got better and much easier in Rick’s second year when he received a letter from TestOut Corporation. It was an offer to purchase their software training library for less than $20. He was delighted to see that the library included A+ and Network+, as well as numerous Microsoft and Novell training courses. “The software was great, and I quickly incorporated it into my classes.”
By his third year, Rick was hitting his stride and implemented visual basic programming and web design into the curriculum. With support from school administration, he ordered PC components for his advanced students, who built 15 computers that became the school’s lab. Rick’s friendly demeanor, coupled with extensive knowledge of IT, helped him build an easy rapport with his students.
Center Point Assistant Principal Genise Reid said Rick’s thoroughness of instruction and ability to relate to students is second to none: “Rick is completely dedicated to their welfare, making sure they learn and are fully prepared to compete in various tech competitions.”
Like their instructor, Rick’s students have proven to be a boon to the school. “If Rick isn’t available to help with computer issues, we can, and often do, call on his kids to fix our computers,” said Reid.
A significant challenge teaching IT in a Title 1 school is the difficulty students have coming up with money to pay fees associated with classes. Besides computer club activities and buying machine components, other typical expenses include entry fees for state and national competitions, paying substitutes, and renting a bus for field trips. “Fees can add up pretty quick,” said Rick.
Still, Rick isn’t one to let a little thing like money stand in his way. Early on he started brainstorming ways for his classes to earn some extra cash. Because so many students are on federally funded lunches, selling food-related items during the school day was out. On top of that, most students rode the bus, leaving shortly after the final bell, and didn’t stick around to buy anything to eat.
Five years ago, one of Rick’s students suggested selling funnel cakes at home basketball and football games. Once the principal approved the idea, Rick and his kids were off to the races. He bought some initial supplies and ingredients, and even made up T-shirts for class members to wear while selling the cakes. Emblazoned on the front of the shirts is the name “Tasty Delicious.”
Selling funnel cakes brings money to help offset computer related fees, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Rick describes the IT program’s side hustle as a “grueling affair.” Students begin preparing the ingredients at 3:30 p.m. to be ready for a 7 p.m. game time. After the game is over, Rick and the Tasty Delicious team start cleaning up, often not finishing until after 11 p.m.
Bonding in the kitchen and getting certs
Always looking for ways to impart important knowledge to students, Rick manages to insert a few life lessons in the process of hawking cakes. He instructs the kids on professionalism. “I constantly stress the importance of providing the best product and service to customers. They know to be on their best behavior because they represent the ‘Tasty Delicious’ brand.”
Computer club students are also very much at home in the school kitchen. To help build camaraderie, the club regularly holds pizza or sub sandwich nights where they gather to prepare and chow down delicious creations. The holidays are also fun times for baking and decorating cookies for Halloween and Christmas. Rick likes to joke that “we spend more time in the kitchen than in class.”
Students who stick it out through his three-year program will be pushed to their limits and beyond. They start with IT fundamentals, progress to learning about computer management and support, and, along the way, master networking. They also pick up a few in-demand certs, a result well worth the effort.
“Students who stick with the courses all the way through will have a big advantage over other young people when looking for work,” said Rick.
There is plenty of evidence of certs proving valuable. A number of students have graduated with six, seven, and even eight 8 IT certifications. One student is being courted by Cisco; a former student has been tapped to work in cybersecurity for the U.S. Air Force; and a recent graduate was just made captain of the University of Alabama Cyber Security team in her freshman year.
All but his introductory courses follow CompTIA’s certification standards. Unfortunately, students complain that the accompanying exams are dry and boring and, as a result, fail to hold their interest. Another complaint is that CompTIA exams are inconvenient because they must be scheduled and taken at an official examination center, a difficulty for students lacking transportation.
The solution? Rick made TestOut certification exams the final exams in his upper-level courses. He feels the labs are the best part of the software because they require hands-on tasks instead of just memorizing and listing names of computer components. He gets animated when discussing the merits of TestOut’s simulation-driven learning versus CompTIA’s more rigid memorization.
“There is a big difference between answering a multiple-choice question and fixing real computer problems,” Rick explained. “We don’t live in a multiple-choice world! With TestOut cert exams, students perform actual tasks and fix real computer problems.
“A+ is almost all rote memory and multiple choice. There are 2 or 3 simulations among the 75 or so questions, but from the examples I have seen and what students say, they are nowhere near the level of TestOut. There is no motivation for students to memorize all that stuff — it’s hard to keep going when it is so dry.
“My kids prefer hands-on cert exams. You still have to know the technical stuff, but you’re proving you can do it. Hey, the network printer stopped working — no problem, they know how to fix it because they’ve done it a bunch of times in the simulations.”
Instructor, mentor, cheerleader
To help keep his instruction methods current, Rick has established an advisory committee of individuals working in IT. They, too, prefer hands-on certification exams. As Rick put it, “People are amazed to see my kids doing actual work on computers. Committee members have told me how they hire grads out of college and from the IT workforce, but still have to teach them to do the stuff my students are doing in class.”
When it comes to preparing his kids for their futures, there is not much Rick won’t do. He has been known to make sandwiches for students so that they can stay at school to study. On his own dime, he often drives students to competitions, and frequently devotes his weekends and vacations to holding extra study sessions.
If circumstances call for it, he will even be a cheerleader. One young lady felt incapable of passing the certification exam and was looking for a reason to quit. She quickly learned that if Rick believes in you, you ain’t quitting. Sitting the girl down, he made her repeat after him, “I am a strong, smart woman and I will be successful.” She continued saying it out loud until she felt relaxed. Sure enough, she aced her exam.
While many praise Rick’s program and accomplishments, perhaps the best accolade comes from Julian Smith, a former student and current member of the advisory committee. Smith completed Rick’s program 15 years ago and now works as the IT coordinator for a neighboring school district and has experienced firsthand the transformation of the community and the school.
Smith describes Rick as incredibly passionate and persistent about teaching. “As a white male teacher at Center Point, Rick is a fish out of water. He could easily take a job in a more affluent district and have an easier time, but he doesn’t. He stays here, and by staying opens doors for students who really need it.”
Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” Against all odds, Rick is doing just that. Teddy would have appreciated Rick’s hard work and the difference he makes for others.