Rick Shirley loved to teach — remembering a dedicated IT instructor
NOTE: Calvin initially visited with Rick for a profile that was published in the January issue of the Certification Magazine. Click here to read it.
Writing a profile of an information technology educator, as I do four times each year for Certification Magazine, is an enjoyable task. I get to speak with men and women who are dedicated to sharing their love of IT with a new generation of students. Two of the best parts of our interviews are learning how they chose their career and having them share the accomplishments of their students.
My regret is that I only really know these wonderful women and men on a surface-level. I so enjoy visiting with them that I sometimes feel sad when the article is written — I wish I could visit longer, maybe even become friends. Sadly, life moves on, new semesters begin, and the demands of work conspire to make our connections all too brief.
Such were the parameters of my too-brief relationship with Richard “Rick” Shirley of Center Point, Ala., who passed away unexpectedly at age 52 on Sept. 23. I wrote about Rick was profiled for the January 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. He was the longtime IT instructor at Center Point High School, where his teaching, inspiration, and support for students literally changed lives.
IT is a tough subject for many students, but Rick made it comfortable, helping kids realize that with “a little effort and faith in themselves, they’d do well.” His approach worked. While many students were initially hesitant to enroll in one of his classes, once they saw the world of IT from the inside, they didn’t want to leave.
Colleagues recognized and appreciated Rick as an “information technology teacher extraordinaire” who always went above and beyond to help students and anyone else who needed help. Teaching is a tough job accompanied by a host of challenges, but Rick never shied away from the hard stuff.
His work was his passion and, according to assistant principal Genise Reid, “He was truly accommodating to others. If I had a technological needs, Rick was always intent on being the problem-solver.
The student first and always
Teaching at a Title I school where the student body is 94 percent African American might have made a lot of middle-age white guys uncomfortable, but not Rick. He wasn’t just color-blind, he truly loved the teaching IT and cared deeply for his students and co-workers. “I don’t care what color someone is, I just want them to learn IT,” he told me.
When I was doing research for Rick’s profile, I spoke with Julian Smith, a former student who works as an IT coordinator for a neighboring district and currently serves on the school’s IT advisory committee. Smith raised Rick for the job he was doing with his students.
“As a white male teacher at Center Point, Rick is a fish out of water,” he said. “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.”
Another thing Rick paid no heed to was the overrepresentation of males in the IT industry — by most estimates more than 80 percent of IT workers are men. Yet the majority of his Rick’s top-performing students were girls and enrollment in his higher-level classes averaged three to one in favor of the ladies.
When not in class, Rick made time to coach “SmurfAttack,” the school’s competitive cybersecurity team, and he was immensely proud of them. In 2018, his all-female team earned a second-place finish in a national youth cyber defense competition. The same team placed first in the state and, out of 120 competing teams, tied for fourteenth place in the Girls Go Cyber National Championships. Together, the four team members earned 23 IT certifications and won or were offered scholarships to major universities that totaled more than $1 million.
Empathy was another one of Rick’s characteristics, particularly for the financial challenges his students faced. His solution for covering fees associated with computer classes and competitions was “Tasty Delicious,” a successful effort where students sold funnel-cakes at school sporting events.
Always setting the example for his kids, Rick worked alongside them in the Tasty Delicious venture. He believed that work done well could teach young people important life-skills that they couldn’t learn anywhere else. He always stressed being professional and providing the best product and customer service when working.
When it came to helping his students prepare for their futures, there wasn’t much that Rick wouldn’t do. At his own expense, he made sandwiches for students who stayed after school to study. “It’s hard to focus when your stomach is making noises,” he said.
As much as Rick normally did, he shifted into high gear when it was time to prepare for competitions. He would sacrifice weekends and vacation time to hold extra study sessions, and he also drove students to competitions, at his own expense.
A good teacher’s legacy
More than just an “admirable intellect,” Rick was a skilled musician, and an accomplished video gamer. He also had a delightfully dry sense of humor. During our interviews he told how he enjoyed solving computer problems as a kid, but never considered teaching computers.
“No one in my family had any interest in computers. Dad was a plumber and mom worked in retail. So, I guess things worked out well for me — I can fix computers and the sink.”
Rick believed strongly in the power of IT as a path to a fulfilling career and a better life for everyone. He viewed having a working knowledge of IT as being important for everyone — a brand of knowledge that could open doors of opportunity. He constantly reminded his students that, regardless of their eventual field of work, “the more IT skills they possess, the more valuable they will be to their employers.”
The word “trophy” derives from the Greek “tropaion,” which in ancient times meant a “turning point,” typically in a battle. It was a spot on the field where a man did something significant that turned the tide from defeat to victory. To signify that man’s deed, the victorious army would pile up enemy weapons and banners and dedicate the trophy to the man.
Rick Shirley may be gone, but his deeds in the classroom turned the tide for a lot of young people. His “trophy” may not be physical, but it endures in the lives of his students and their future accomplishments.