Washington educator’s long IT odyssey has an unlikely beginning
This feature first appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
In the well-established and widely documented lore of FOX-TV’s long-running animated comedy series The Simpsons, endearing (and enduring) father figure Homer has earned his living by working somewhere north of 188 different jobs. In addition to his long-established job at the nuclear plant, he’s done everything from being an astronaut for NASA to writing fortune cookies.
The scenario is always the same: Through a series of hasty and ill-considered decisions, Homer stumbles into a new “perfect job” and, while his situation is a comedic exaggeration, many (if not most) of us can empathize with his tortuous career path.
We all want to have jobs that are well-suited to our skills while also holding our interest. Jobs that make us excited to wake up in the morning and go to work. Unfortunately, for most the choice and determination of a career typically comes about through trial and error while diligently working at a variety of occupations for years, if not decades.
All the while one remains hopeful of landing in the perfect job. We all want to do something that meets our needs, suits our abilities, and enables us to make a positive contribution.
An unlikely career choice
When it comes to finding the Elysian Fields of employment, many journeys are not only unexpected but also downright ironic. Such was the case for Tanya Knight, professor of Information Technology at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, Wash.
Knight has always believed in the importance of education — as a homemaker and home educator, she homeschooled several of her five children. When her children were older, Knight felt a “yearning” to go back to school. “I didn’t really plan on entering the workforce but felt driven to go back to school just to do something,” she said.
The desire for more education led Knight to enroll at Peninsula College. The school is located on the Olympic Peninsula, southeast of Vancouver Island. The region, bordered by majestic snowcapped mountains, ocean beaches, and old-growth forests, is one of the most scenic locations in the world.
Enrolling was just the first step for Knight — she then had to decide on which class to take. The only thing she knew for sure was that she did not want to learn about computers. “I had no desire to do anything with computers,” she said. “I didn’t want a job just sitting in front of a computer screen. I wanted to work with people.”
Lacking educational guidance, Knight placed the decision entirely in Fate’s hands. Opening the course catalog, she closed her eyes and randomly put her finger down, determined to join whatever class it landed on. Knight herself may not have had a desire to work with computers, but Fate had other plans. Upon opening her eyes, she saw her finger had come to rest on a class about DOS.
Knight’s intelligence, willingness to work hard, and years of hands-on experience raising five children and meeting their constant needs helped her master the subject matter. And it wasn’t long before she realized, wholly unexpectedly, that she had a knack for working with computers.
“It was totally different from the preconceived ideas I had of what working with computers was like,” said Knight. “It was fun, running wire and doing real hands-on networking stuff.”
Dive right in
Upon completing her associate’s degree in 2004, Knight was hired by the school’s tech center to teach computer skills. Three years later, the North Olympic Peninsula Skills Center introduced a networking class and tagged Knight to be its instructor.
The ensuing 12 years were an extremely busy time for Knight. Peninsula College hired her to teach adjunct classes and she eventually worked her way onto the tenure track — while simultaneously completing an undergraduate degree in Information Technology Infrastructure, and a master’s degree in Education.
As a long-intended capstone to her education, she is currently working on a doctorate in Educational Leadership, with plans to one day “be a dean or vice-president, but still teach one or two classes each semester.”
Knight is the type of IT instructor that every student hopes for. Her desire to master the field is infectious. She constantly reads and searches for ways to improve her teaching and help her students achieve certification. “I keep my eyes open and do a lot of research,” she said. “I’m always looking for better ways to teach and motivate my students and help them be successful.”
Knight’s colleagues have also noticed (and appreciate) her constant hunt for more effective ways to help students learn IT. Fellow instructors are quick to praise her efforts. “Tanya’s style is to always be looking for new and innovative ways to teach students,” said long-time colleague Emma Janssen, Peninsula’s interim IT director.
“Everything she does is designed to enhance the learning environment for the student. She is also one of the most passionate and giving people that I have seen come through this program. A selfless instructor who operates for the benefit of the student.”
Learn by doing
When it comes to learning IT, Knight is a proponent of hands-on training. She credits part of her success to a free CD she received while working at the Skills Center, from Utah-based TestOut Corporation.
“I saw an article for a free trial CD and called the number,” she said. “I really liked the lab-based learning and began using the product to prep my students for certification exams.”
Her goal at the Skills Center was to have all of her students earn one or more of the core certifications offered by tech industry association CompTIA, either A+, Network+, or Security+. Before long, she achieved an impressive 95 percent success rate for student certifications.
Although most of Knight’s students pursue an Associate of Applied Science degree in Information Technology, there are those who just want a particular class. Her classes have a duration of 12 weeks and cover a litany of valuable tech topics.
Her usual course load consists of classes for Maintaining and Upgrading Tech, IT fundamentals, Linux, Networking, MS Configuration, Excel, Word, and PowerPoint.
She also teaches Online Success, a useful introductory course that helps students learn how to succeed in an online learning environment. The class is popular with students, and there is always a waiting list to enroll. “It’s an important subject, because presently there are more than 6 million students worldwide taking one or more online classes,” said Knight.
If you feel that customer service is a dying art that needs to be revived, so too does Knight. “I also teach a Help Desk Support Services course where we focus a lot on customer relations,” she said. “It’s a fun course, we regularly pull up a few videos and watch examples of employees who fail when it comes to helping callers with tech issues.”
There are even a couple of sections on career exploration wherein students learn to research a career field. They compile information about what certifications are required, the level of education they need to get an entry-level job, and what to expect while moving up through the ranks.
All-ages IT learners
Knight has a real passion to share her knowledge of IT. “I love teaching something that my students are interested in. And because my classes are predominately elective, I know the kids are there because they want to be there,” she said.
Knight’s classes consist of the typical mix of high school juniors and seniors — many of them earning college credits while finishing their high school requirements — along with a significant number of college freshmen and sophomores.
One group of students that she especially enjoys teaching is older, more experienced students, particularly those who return to school to train for a new career. Students who are at some stage of the same general journey, in other words, that took Knight herself to where she is today.
“I really enjoy older students who come back for retraining,” said Knight. “Because of their life and work experience, they aren’t inclined to just accept that computers work a certain way, they push and want to know why and how things work.”
Peninsula’s student body ranges broadly in age and experience. One semester Knight was surprised to see a retired 85-year-old dentist in her computer application technology class. She asked why he was taking the class.
His response, perfectly exemplifying the fast-moving nature of IT as well as its growing role in our lives, was, “I don’t want to be irrelevant in this world. I want to keep up and not fade away.” Not surprisingly, this particular pupil did very well in the course.
Success with certification
A very high percentage of Knight’s students do complete CompTIA A+, Network+, Security+, and Linux+ certifications, as well as earning one or more credentials from Microsoft. Many also earn TestOut’s PC Pro and Network Pro credentials.
Knight utilizes TestOut’s online practice exams as final exams in her classes. “I like their approach to online learning because it is lab-based, not a brain dump,” she said. “As online learning becomes even more popular, students need those simulated labs.”
Students may retake the final exams as often as they want and, once they achieve an “A” grade, Knight considers them ready to tackle CompTIA’s certification exams.
For valuable real-world IT experience, Knight encourages students to apply for and accept internships and jobs. As her students prepare to interview for various positions, she reminds them to “stress” to the interviewers the certifications they earned in class.
“My students get positions easily, because they bring up their certifications as a way to show they are trained to do the what the job requires.” Knight’s efforts are effective. A number of students have been hired as interns and asked to stay on full-time with various businesses, and even with internet giants like Google and Amazon.
Some students have answered the entrepreneurial call, using their newly earned IT skills to start businesses. One individual who Knight speaks of with pride, decided to help a local retirement community with its IT needs and, in the process, soon found himself helping individual residents as well.
“He had strong skills in tech and in dealing with people,” said Knight. “He would help the older people, doing everything IT for them. He eventually earned enough to get married, had a baby, and is successful today.”
Teaching success factors
Knight sees her role as being more than just an instructor — she is also a motivator, constantly providing opportunities to help students achieve and excel. It thrills her when a student understands a concept she is demonstrating. “I get so excited when I see concepts ‘click,’ ” she said.
The years spent (and lessons learned from) raising and teaching her own children gives Knight a leg up when it comes to appreciating the importance of facilitating a student’s education. “I home schooled some of my kids when they were young and taught them to read, and I always thought, ‘WOW! This is amazing to be part of something bigger than myself and to facilitate helping someone climb higher in knowledge.’ I loved it.”
Helping others climb higher is a touchstone of Knight’s educational philosophy. A constant reminder is a painting hanging on a wall in her office, “The Ascent” by David Linn. It shows a group of ordinary people climbing from out of the darkness and up a mountainside, with each climber reaching down and back to help an – other ascend. “I really like the imagery of lifting others,” said Knight.
Of course, all good IT instructors are usually backed up by a supportive administration and this is true for Knight as well. The Peninsula College administration abets her efforts by providing needed equipment, and by sending her to important industry conferences. In 2017, Peninsula paid for Knight to attend the IBM Think Conference in Las Vegas.
“Our administration is very supportive of my efforts, regularly sending me to conferences and allowing me to network, an important part of building an IT program,” she said.
A well-balanced life
As much effort as Knight puts into teaching IT, she does manage to find some time to relax and recharge by working in her garden, as well as tending a small orchard of fruit trees. She especially enjoys immersing her – self in her lilac bushes. “I’ve always had a garden and really enjoy helping things grow. I spend as much time in my garden as possible,” she said.
Knight also enjoys hiking — and not just a relaxing stroll. She has conquered nearby Mount Storm King, a strenuous hike involving a 5,000-foot vertical gain. “It was pretty intense, but I managed to straddle the crest,” said Knight.
When it comes to the future of IT, Knight sees certifications becoming even more valuable, and is a proponent of increased lab-based testing, especially in the developing fields of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and the Cloud.
“Certifications in the future will prove to be even more valuable if they genuinely assess hands-on skills so that students can step from the classroom to the workplace with little or no relearning and without missing a step,” she said.
Knight comes across a bit shy when asked about giving advice to new students, saying that it sounds “canned.” Actually, it rings with an encouraging and supportive tone. The type of advice an experienced and successful mother and educator is qualified to give:
“Don’t be afraid to try something out of your comfort zone,” she said. “Take advantage of thinking, doing and learning. Follow your dreams and see where they take you.”
It’s said that the difference between fate and destiny is the direction one is facing when pulled into it. Knight may not have been facing her destiny when she randomly pointed at Peninsula’s course catalog, but she quickly turned around and embraced the opportunity. Over the ensuing years, she has shared her IT knowledge and skills with hundreds of students and has, like a good mom, blessed the lives of more people than she ever imagined.
NOTE: Photos of Tanya Knight courtesy of Marina Shipova (1502 Lauridsen Blvd. Port Angeles, WA 98362).