“It was a jump in with both feet”

By Sian Williams Page & Amy O'Meara. Posted

Sian Williams Page and Amy O’Meara spoke to five educators to find out how – and why – they switched subject specialisms to computing

Many teachers working now didn’t have the opportunity to study computing when they were at school, and weren’t aware of it as a subject at university. We wanted to hear what it’s like to transfer into teaching computing from another subject area, and why some teachers make that choice. We spoke to schoolteachers and volunteers in extracurricular clubs in the UK and Ireland, and heard a diverse range of stories. Some teachers had loved tinkering with computers since they were young, but didn’t have the opportunity to study computing themselves. Others picked up an interest only after covering computing lessons because of timetabling constraints. We heard about numerous challenges — of learning to program alongside students, and of surprising changes to some students’ behaviour when switching from a PE field to a computer room, to name just two — but we also heard about the joys that teachers found in applying their skills to a new field, and in helping their students create things with technology.

“A level computer science is an incredibly wide-ranging subject”

Simon Baldwin, Abbeygate Sixth Form College, Bury St Edmunds, and Landmark International School, Cambridge

Simon Baldwin enjoys learning alongside his A level students

When I was a kid, I had an 8-bit computer in my bedroom and learnt how to code, but computer science wasn’t an option at my school, so I didn’t really know how to pursue it as a subject. I did a PGCE straight after my physics degree, and then went straight into science teaching; I was a physics teacher for 20 years. Then, in 2013, I started to think I should really be doing what I enjoyed most, and I was reading magazines about computing rather than physics, so that was more of a passion for me. We didn’t have a computing teacher at the school where I was working, so I asked them if I could retrain. 

My school was really supportive, so I did a software programming course at the local technical college, which was in C#, and we bought a Raspberry Pi, initially just for me. And I also went on some Python teacher training courses. Within a year, we had a class set of Raspberry Pis and the computers in the lab were running Linux. In 2019, I became a National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE) associate facilitator for computing.

This year I’m teaching A level computer science, and it’s an incredibly wide-ranging subject: bits of it are like science, bits of it are like maths, and bits of it are like social sciences as well. We do a lot about the implications of computer science, about how it’s changing the world, and the ethics of it. 

I particularly enjoy teaching the bits that maybe I’m not as familiar with, where I’m learning with the students. Recently, I’ve been doing a project with my A level students on HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. You become more of a guide, more of someone alongside the student, and you’re teaching students how to learn as much as just distributing knowledge.

I actually think in some ways it’s a healthier way to teach, because you’re still directing, but it’s fresher and it’s more fun. You just have to celebrate the students who know more than you about a particular area. 

“Mentoring is more than just knowing what the correct answer is”

Sandra Maguire, champion of CoderDojo Dún Laoghaire and Coolest Projects International team member 

Sandra Maguire founded the Dún Laoghaire CoderDojo

After I left school, I worked at Ulster Bank, and then I decided I wanted to travel somewhere. So I managed to get myself a job in marketing in Wall Street, New York. While I was there, I studied marketing at New York University, and then came back here, and ended up in stockbroking.

Then my kids came along, and my husband works in film, so it was really challenging to keep two heavy jobs going. So for a long time I was at home with the kids, and doing part-time work. I was always into computers, so I would do things like accounts for people, or design newsletters; anything they would pay me for. I was volunteering at my son’s school and the principal asked if I was interested in covering for the school’s secretary, so I went for it, and I ended up staying there for a year. And I kind of liked the whole education thing — and while I was there, I computerised everything in sight!

Around that time, I learnt that it was very difficult to get programmers here in Ireland. And if you could get them, they cost an absolute arm and leg. In Ireland in 2012, we had about 15 percent unemployment, but we were importing programmers and tech specialists. I have no problem with people from other countries coming to Ireland, but I thought it was a shame that kids growing up in Ireland didn’t have the skills that we were crying out for. In early 2012, I went to a Web Summit talk and I heard James Whelton talk about CoderDojo. And I just thought there should be a CoderDojo in Dún Laoghaire. So that’s kind of where my whole background brought me to — thinking that learning to code would be really good for young people. 

When we started, the mentors at the club were spending a lot of time helping the children with Scratch, but they wanted to be able to show more advanced stuff. So we offered to teach the parents Scratch, so that then the parents could be Scratch mentors. We started the normal sessions a week later in the next term, so that we had a session just for parents instead, which I joined in on, getting a basic training course in Scratch. I’ve learned more since from watching mentors show how to use various types of technology. 

Now, the kids might ask me something and I’ll be like “Ah! They’re asking me something!” and I’ll be thrilled with myself if I can answer it. But I also learnt that mentoring is more than just knowing what the correct answer is. I am able to help them learn how to find a solution, and I can teach them how to help each other.

The CoderDojo at Dún Laoghaire, where Sandra Maguire supports young people to learn to code

“I had so many ideas, I said OK immediately”

Richard Amponsah, St James’ CE Primary School in Bermondsey

Richard Amponsah supports other teachers at his primary school with implementing the computing curriculum

This is my fourth year at my primary school, and my first year as computing lead. I have a background in sports coaching and special needs. 

Before teaching, I was doing community work for Millwall Football Club as a teaching assistant in a school for children with autism, and spent three years as a sports mentor at a pupil referral unit. 

We have an IT coordinator at my school, who deals with making sure the tablets are all sorted, the WiFi is working smoothly around the school, and other important aspects to ensure that technology is working efficiently. There were some days where she asked my class to try out something new, and I showed an interest. And then, last summer, the head teacher called me and said, “I’ve seen that you’ve been quite interested in IT. Would you want to be our computer lead?” I said OK immediately – I had so many ideas.

Over the holidays, I took a couple of Raspberry Pi courses: one about computing with SEND, which was amazing, and one that included a lot of Scratch as well. I also took about six different STEM courses, and I use Teach Computing, and Barefoot for resources. I have decent IT knowledge, but I didn’t have curriculum knowledge, so it was really good over the summer holiday to go and get those CPD courses in. They showed various ways of making computing more interactive and engaging, and not stressful or strenuous. You can actually teach computing without exclusively saying, oh, this is a computing lesson. 

In this generation, a lot of children are good with tablets, and games, and coding, but they’re lacking Microsoft Office skills, like Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. When you get to secondary, you tend to move away from an iPad to a computer, and there are just so many differences, like the shift button on the computer might be different to an iPad. The Caps Lock button might be different on a computer compared to an iPad. So there are so many things that we need to start teaching them.

Getting staff on board and excited about computing will ensure the children are excited too. I was pretty excited to get started and share some ideas. I’m looking forward to what the computing future holds.

“Coding is another language, music is another language”

Helen Brant, Co-op Academy Priesthorpe

Helen Brant went from teaching music to computing

My degree was in electronic music, but it was right at the start, when we were still using 3.5-inch floppy disks and DAT recorders — no one had an iPhone or GarageBand. Eleven years ago, I moved to my current school to be head of music, and I taught a lot of music technology. We had computers that could run music software like Logic Pro and Sibelius. 

I took on an associate senior leadership position in ICT, and then, when the school was really struggling to find a computer science teacher, I started teaching computer science as well as music. When the head of computer science left, I was in the playground and I jokingly said to the assistant principal, “Oh, maybe I should just go be head of computer science for a bit”, as I wanted a new challenge. She said, “Would you do it?” and I was like, “Oh? OK!” I took a temporary contract for the role, and I switched to teaching computer science and media.

I did the NCCE Computer Science Accelerator course. My school allowed me to go to the face-to-face and online components, and by the summer, I had done the exams. Last year I had to reapply for my job, because it was only temporary, and I’ve got it permanently now. 

Teaching music is much more me jumping up and down at the front of the classroom, and computer science is much more, “Sit down and get on with your work”, but there are definitely similarities. Learning to program: it takes practice, and that’s the same as learning a musical instrument. Coding is another language, music is another language: you can’t just do it one day and then you’ll be OK; you’ve got to do it daily. 

I’ve spent so much time being creative in teaching, because in music you’ve got to be creative, and it was quite nice to be doing that with unplugged computer science lessons. The computer science teachers I’ve worked with are very much of the mindset that we sit down and get on with work, whereas I’m like, “No! We can do it like this, we can get sweets, we can do networking by getting them to stand in a line, we can get Lego out.” I was doing a lesson on logic gates, and we did it as a dating app. When we do flow charts, we do how to dab, or how to do the Fortnite dances — the students do a flow chart, and program it, and then get someone else to follow the flow chart, spotting why it doesn’t work. When we’re doing the different schemes of work, we try to make it more fun: playing with micro:bits, making Tamagotchis, and it’s more about them taking ownership and experimenting.

“I’ve gone from shorts to shirts”

Richard Bateman, Alderman White School, Nottingham

Richard Bateman spent 20 years teaching PE before becoming head of computing at his school

I went into teaching PE straight from school. So I’ve never left school, and I taught PE for over 20 years. Then, about five years ago, I started picking up some computing on my timetable, because there were too many PE teachers and not enough computer science teachers. I really enjoyed being in a classroom for a change, after so many years on a field. I was looking at it, thinking, “It’s getting colder and wetter outside; I need to go do something else.” And then this opportunity came up to go in as head of department. Now I’ve gone from shorts to shirts. 

When I started teaching computing, it was a jump in with both feet. When I started picking up some lessons, it was teaching by PowerPoint — with the idea that students could get on with it, with a teacher just watching. But I wanted to be a bit more into it. So I learnt coding with them — that started my interest in computer science. More recently, I’ve done a few Computing at School courses, and I did the NCCE Computer Science Accelerator course during lockdown. 

I’m quite prepared to learn from the pupils. Sometimes I’ve got them to share their screen with everybody else and they’ve taken over the teaching role. The PE style of teaching was like, “Can you do this? Right, show everybody else”, so I’ve taken that into computer science as well. 

There are so many resources available to help teach computing, it’s almost like being in a candy store. And that’s a great thing, but I’ve found myself picking lots of things. So I need to focus on picking what works well – it’s a balancing act.

I certainly found that some of the pupils who were really engaged in PE, if I sat them in a computer science classroom, they were completely different, and sometimes they were the worst-behaved. And I found it was different teaching mixed groups; in PE I was mainly teaching an all-boys group or an all-girls group, not mixed groups, and the dynamics change a lot. 

If anybody else is thinking of changing to computing, my advice would be that if you’ve got some free time, try and get into people’s lessons and gauge your interest. That’s how it happened to me: I was made to teach it and it was like, “Oh, I like doing this."


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