Tough Virginia tech teacher keeps herself (and her students) informed
This feature first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
My first real job was cleaning up in a meat packing facility. Day one was a complete disaster. Everyone else had gone home; I was doing my best and failing miserably. I found myself drenched, cold, and standing ankle deep in water, blood, and fat trimmings. My situation seemed hopeless and, honestly, I contemplated walking out and never coming back.
Then Gino, the head butcher, walked in. He scanned the mess I had made and smiled. Without saying a word, he removed his coat, put on an apron, and commenced helping me.
While showing me how to properly clean, he mentioned that, more than 50 years before, he had started his career in Italy as a cleaning boy. With a touch of sadness in his voice, he said that he originally wanted to be a musician but instead ended up a butcher.
Gino also gave me a few pointers about careers. The one that has stuck with me over the years came as we were leaving. “Don’t think about what happened tonight,” he said. “Instead ask yourself if this is what you want to be doing 50 years from you want to be doing 50 years from now. If it ain’t, then stay in school and choose a career that involves your mind more than your back.”
I was clueless as to what sort of career I would have, but one thing I knew for sure was that I wanted it to be something other than what I had just spent several hours doing.
I was recently reminded of this experience when I spoke with Kari Miller, the Computer Systems Technology instructor at Chesapeake Career Center in Chesapeake, Va.
Miller has a favorite quote to remind students of the benefits of being a skilled IT-professional: “It’s better to have worked on computers than to smell like French fries when you get off work.”
The benefits of working in IT
Miller’s “French fry” quip isn’t meant to disparage fast-food workers, but instead to help students see the benefits offered by an IT career. The benefits are good, things like higher-than-average salaries, the comfort of working in an air-conditioned environment, and, most importantly, the skyrocketing demand for skilled IT professionals.
Although some students often laugh and shake their heads when Miller spouts those words of wisdom, she knows what she is talking about. Her résumé includes her share of physically demanding and unpleasant jobs, including running a cash register, plastic injection molding, answering phones, and even pumping gas. “I’ve always worked,” she said. “Did whatever I had to do to get by.”
This is Miller’s 20th year at Chesapeake. As a longtime teacher, she understands and appreciates the challenges faced by her “kids” (how she fondly refers to her students) when learning a new subject. Her teaching style is influenced by hands-on experience and knowledge garnered along an interesting career path that typically required her to “figure things out on my own.”
After graduating from college, she taught Geography and Physical Education in the Michigan public school system. While she enjoyed teaching, a visit with her younger brother, who would soon graduate college, put her on a different career path.
“He mentioned that, even before graduating, he had a job lined up with Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles working with Electronics Engineering, and that he would be starting at $30,000 a year,” she said.
Shocked upon hearing his starting salary, Miller ran the numbers in her head and was even more shocked when she compared her current salary to his. “I realized that I would have to work as a teacher for 25 years and still would not make his starting salary.”
Navy training and the Year of A+
This financial contrast led Miller to enlist in the Navy, where she became an electronics technician. During her eight-and-a-half year hitch she was stationed around the world in Greece, Puerto Rico, and finally Virginia Beach.
It was at Virginia Beach that the Navy implemented a downsizing program, offering buyouts to personnel willing to leave the service. Miller accepted a buyout and, after an honorable discharge, found herself once again at a career crossroads.
Not one to wait for things to happen, she began and completed a master’s degree in Human Resource Management with an emphasis on education, while at the same time landing a job in North Carolina teaching Physical Education. School administration soon realized Miller’s expertise and drew on her military training by having her teach Electronics.
Five years later, administration asked her to teach computers, but first she needed some training in the subject. “They sent me to a two-week class, and I had to learn as quickly as I could on my own,” said Miller.
After teaching in North Carolina for a few years, Miller moved closer to her home, first teaching Electronics and then Computer Systems Technology at Chesapeake. There was just one condition: she had to become CompTIA A+ certified.
As always, she showed her willingness to tackle a challenge head-on by diving deep into numerous books on the subject. When she needed more information and clarification on a topic, she read more involved texts. No source of knowledge was overlooked in her quest for certification.
“I carried A+ for Dummies everywhere I went for a year,” said Miller. “I didn’t want to fail. I wanted to be sure I passed.”
Miller said she took advantage of every opportunity to study because she was “just too scared to fail.” And it’s that desire to succeed that helps her understand and support her students.
Building a popular tech program
Chesapeake’s Computer Systems Technology class is a popular offering which has just changed to Cybersecurity this year. (Again, Miller is scrambling to learn Networking and Security; she attended a one-week crash course this past summer.) Juniors and Seniors from seven local high schools attend for two-and-a-half hours each day for 180 days.
One big reason for the popularity of the course is Miller. She sees her role as being on the side of the students and doing whatever is “necessary to keep them excited about their futures by providing any information that will help them in their pursuit of whatever it is they want.”
She also enjoys watching as the figurative light bulb “turns on for students,” describing it as the best thing about teaching information technology (IT) to young people. “Watching students finally ‘get it’ makes all the effort worthwhile,” she said.
Miller’s drive is backed up by an administration that support her efforts. “In addition to Ms. Miller’s ability to connect with her students and inspire them to exceed beyond what they can imagine, she is also deeply passionate about the field of Information Technology,” said Dr. Shonda Windham, Chesapeake’s Director.
“I am thrilled to watch her transform our program into the cybersecurity platform. She is a hard worker whose technical knowledge, compassion, and assistance are invaluable to our staff and students.”
Miller’s course was originally designed as a two-year class covering Computer Systems Technology I and II, where students would learn A+ Essentials during year one and A+ Practical Applications in year two. At the end of the first year, students would sit for the 901 Exam and at the end of the second year, the 902 Exam.
There are no prerequisites, but students must complete paperwork explaining why they want to take the class. While anyone can enroll in the class, there is a waiting list, and slackers need not apply. Miller packs in a heavy dose of hands-on learning in the classroom that is designed to make certain the students know their computer components.
When Miller first started at Chesapeake, she was given $75,000 from the school district and told to order computer supplies needed to teach the class. Once again, figuring things out on her own, Miller rolled up her sleeves and got to work.
She wanted students to construct their own computers from an assortment of generic parts, so she ordered enough individual components to build 18 computers. “The employee who ordered it all told me, ‘We aren’t doing this ever again. Next time I’m just ordering 18 computers.’
“I told him no. I teach generic computers, so we have to do it this way.”
Turning students into IT experts
It’s been 19 years, and Miller continues to spend her annual budget for supplies on generic components. “Each year, the kids still build their own machines, and others get to take them apart and reconstruct new machines. It’s the best way for them to learn” she said.
Growing up in our tech-dependent world, the vast majority of young people are comfortable with computers and other electronic devices. Unfortunately, that familiarity can sometimes be a stumbling block to learning, especially if a student thinks they know what they’re doing.
“Some students come in here thinking they know it all and don’t listen for the important details that they really need to know,” said Miller.
In fact, Miller rather enjoys teaching students who have no prior experience with computers. “There are no bad habits to unlearn, and they work harder knowing that they need to learn it,” she said. “I’ve had several students who were originally afraid to take the course because they knew nothing about computers.
“They ended up doing better because they learned what they needed to know instead of assuming they knew so much more.”
In addition to IT skills, Miller’s Kids receive Workforce Readiness Training designed to teach important soft skills like dressing properly, preparing résumés, interviewing, communication, and dealing with co-workers.
“Soft skills are a big problem with most young people,” said Miller. “We want to make certain that our kids can do interviews and deal with others on the job. It doesn’t matter how much you know if you can’t communicate effectively with others.”
It’s also important to Miller that her students learn to reason and problem solve on their own. She is a proponent of making them think for themselves and take responsibility for their own learning.
”I tell the kids that this is their class and that they have to learn to figure out the answers for themselves,” she said. “No one is going to give them the answers on the job, they’ll have to think for themselves and know how to research problems and figure out solutions.”
Mistakes aren’t seen as a problem by Miller either. She uses them as a teaching opportunity and a way to spur the kids on to greater learning. “We all make mistakes,” she said. “I tell them that if they were trying hard to do the right thing, that they can learn from their mistakes.”
Hustle and heal
Recognizing the ever-increasing demand for trained cybersecurity professionals, Dr. Windham asked Miller to teach Cybersecurity. Starting this term, year one of the course will cover the fundamentals of cybersecurity, along with the entire A+ certification, and year two will cover Network+ and advanced cybersecurity.
Mastering so much added material in the same time frame will be a challenge, but one that Miller and her kids will be up to. “My boss really wanted a Cybersecurity course,” said Miller. “So, we are definitely going to have to hustle.”
Hustling is something Miller knows how to do. She was an accomplished collegiate athlete, playing volleyball, basketball and softball at Western Michigan University. While in the Navy, she was named to the All Navy Softball Team four times, and selected three times for the All Armed Forces Softball Team that received an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs each year.
She also played semi-pro softball as a member of the Lansing Laurels of Lansing, Mich. (Though she is left-handed in most other respects, Miller played softball right-handed because the only baseball glove she had while learning the game fit her left hand, not her right.) When able to fit it into her busy schedule, Miller likes to bowl on Thursday nights. Her high score is a respectable 220.
She is also a proponent of natural healing methods. In her free time, Miller enjoys reading and learning about essential oils and herbal medicines. Frustrated with the high cost of health care and seeing so many people living with painful ailments, she believes there are better ways to ensure good health.
“God has given us so many things to help us heal ourselves. The human body is such a wonderful machine, we should let it do its own thing to heal itself,” she said.
Still finding reasons to teach
During her tenure at Chesapeake, Miller has helped a significant number of students achieve IT success. Many have gone on to employment for various companies, or stepped in at university help desks and computer labs, and some have even started their own repair businesses.
Former students are appreciative of the IT skills that Miller helped them learn. A number of them return to class to help mentor current students, conduct career counseling, and keep the kids informed of what is happening out in the workforce. One former student, who has earned a binder full of certifications, even writes labs and loads them onto seven laptops for the students to practice on.
While understandably proud of all her students, one group from last year really made Miller appreciate their efforts. She had a group of six students who worked extra hard and pushed one another to succeed.
“These six students had to work extra hard in class and on their own at home. They helped one another constantly and earned their A+ certifications,” she said. “They were really dedicated, a great bunch.”
(Such a great bunch, in fact, that I decided Certification Magazine readers should find out more about them. All you need to do is turn the page.)
Miller utilizes differentiated learning when working with her kids. “They all learn at their own pace. My job is to guide them and help them learn to solve problems their way, not mine,” she said.
Speaking with Miller, you can hear how much she enjoys teaching high schoolers. “They are fun to be around, and they keep me young,” she said. She pushes her students hard because she knows they are capable of great things.
“I tell them, ‘If you’re going to try, I’ll always be there with you.’ ” Spoken like a true teacher.