Bridging The Distance

Apr 9, 2020
Andy Collins

You never know how strong you are, until being strong is the only choice you have.”

-- Bob Marley

I am an instructor in Nashville Software School’s full-time, web development program. It’s the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had. Along with an amazing instruction team, I get to actively participate in helping people improve their lives. I get to help them learn and grow. There’s nothing quite like standing in front of a room of eager learners helping to illuminate the odd corners of JavaScript promises or C# generics or some other cryptic thing. I love rolling out the whiteboard and scribbling some boxes and arrows in response to a student’s thoughtful question. And then there’s the one-on-one time. The majority of our coursework is hands-on, so there’s lots of time for individual coaching - sitting side-by-side looking over some code, drawing out a diagram in a notebook or just talking about an abstract concept. Much of the real learning happens in these moments, and it’s a privilege to be witness to it.

I love to be there. In the middle of it. Present. I love to see their faces when the light comes on. And, I love to meet them deep in the pit of despair and assure them that this too shall pass. I thrive on the human connections that being in the classroom provides.

Maybe I should say I loved to be there. Because that was before.

Before it came. The virus. This damned pandemic. It came and drove us all into our homes. Locked behind webcams. Forced to interact with once close students and instructors who are now, suddenly, confined within two-dimensional boxes on our screens.

I don’t like the virus. I don’t like it at all. It’s mean.

There’s a lot of chatter in the dev community about remote work. A very vocal contingent of developers love it. At times in my career my voice has been part of that chorus too - singing the virtues of remote work. Focus. Comfort. Flexibility. And, while I’ve never had (nor desired) a fully remote job, I’ve been fortunate that most of my previous dev jobs have allowed me to work from home when I needed to. I think there can be a lot of value in remote work for software developers and others in our industry.

It’s no surprise that NSS has attracted both students and instructors who are drawn to the physical classroom."

Teaching at NSS wasn’t like that though. Not before anyway. Of course we are familiar with online learning. It’s a perfectly legitimate approach that helps boost millions of people each year into more fulfilling careers and better lives. I remember - thinking back some 25 years - that online learning was one of the major promises of the web. It’s no knock on online learning that NSS was founded as an in-person learning environment. Our founder, John Wark, was thinking locally. He was building a community in Nashville. It’s only logical that his vision led to a brick and mortar building. And, with this starting point, it’s no surprise that NSS has attracted both students and instructors who are drawn to the physical classroom.

As I said, I am one of those instructors. I can recall - before the virus - having conversations with a few fellow instructors about in-class vs online learning. The consensus was it would be impossible to do what we do outside of the classroom. We told ourselves we needed the in-person, human connection. We needed the face-to-face. Before all this we were pretty well convinced that we knew where the magic of NSS came from. We thought we understood the formula for success. In-person lectures. Whiteboards aplenty. Co-located project teams. Everything on wheels so we could transform the space at a moment’s notice. Sitting side-by-side with a a a a building.

We’re remote now, but we’re still teaching and learning."

Well, it turns out the ancient wisdom that warns us that our best-laid plans will often go askew might just be onto something. These days there’s another piece of wisdom I find myself holding to: we’re always stronger than we think we are. This virus has hit us hard, but we’re still standing. We’re remote now, but we’re still teaching and learning. We’re still helping each other and getting a little better each day. We’re using tools like Slack and Zoom and Visual Studio Live Share. We share a screen instead of firing up the projector. We draw on a virtual whiteboard. We collaborate with Live Share. We have one-on-one time and work within project teams using Zoom breakout rooms.

The fact is the past few weeks have proven that we were wrong. As much as I love a physical whiteboard or a face-to-face technical much as I love to look out across the room at students as I much as I appreciate the sound of laughter on the occasion I tell a good joke... it turns out that none of that is the magic of NSS.

Well, you ask, what is the magic?

To be honest, I’m completely not sure. I don’t really know. Not certainly, anyway. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and I’m happy to share my thoughts. Feel free to nitpick, disagree or even “well, actually” me if you want to.

I think the magic of NSS is about fostering connections. From the first day of class we invite students to share with each other, the instructors, career development and other staff members. And, we, as NSS staff, reciprocate by talking a little about ourselves. From those first tentative ice-breakers, the bonding among students, and between student and instructor, takes hold quickly. It’s fascinating to watch and to be a part of. Complete strangers become friends - seemingly overnight. People who, outside of NSS, would never cross paths form deep connections to one another as they struggle toward the common goal of understanding. As instructors, we have the privilege of being a small part of these interactions, but also get the added benefit of connecting one-on-one with each student.

Those connections that students make at NSS - most importantly, the vulnerability required to make those connections - are what help make the space for learning to happen."

Learning is about forming and refining mental models. It’s about building object graphs of concepts and relationships among them. The first step toward developing a mental model is to make room for it. Clear a space in the front room of the mind. That might mean moving some previous programming experience into the back bedroom or putting that goal of building an iOS game at the top of the attic stairs where you can easily find it after the course, but it almost always means gathering up ego, self-doubt, that fear of math your middle school teacher gave you and tossing it in the trash. And just like in a real house, clearing out a room is easier with help. Those connections that students make at NSS - most importantly, the vulnerability required to make those connections - are what help make the space for learning to happen.

I mentioned some of the tools we are using - and those tools are vital to our remote work - but they are just tools. It’s what we do with them that matters. We are using them to create and maintain connections. The connections that are essential for our success. We’ve learned that those connections are a bit more fragile these days - they must be handled with more intention and more care than when we were physically together - but they can still be formed and they can still grow, even when we’re remote.

It's not about being in the same spaceTurns out, it’s not about being in the same space. It’s about being on the same journey. The successes of the past few weeks make it clear that we can do this remotely - that we are doing it remotely. It’s not easy, but we’re doing it. With the connected efforts of strong and tenacious staff and students, we’re doing it.

Ah, yes, back to strength. Toughness. Grit. It’s clear we’ve got that. If I may brag a little...

The staff. We’re not big fans of tooting our own horns. You don’t work for a nonprofit to be the center of attention. But I’ll just say it’s been a big challenge for all of us. And all of us - Operations, Career Development, Data and Web Development Instructors and the Senior Team - have risen to the occasion. And we will continue to face the challenges that will no doubt come our way. I’m proud to be a member of this team. It’s an honor to work with these fine people.

The students. Let me talk about the students. If I ever find myself feeling low with all this bad news around - if I ever need a boost - I look to them. They are unbelievable. They’re just as determined and unrelenting as ever - maybe more so. They came to NSS with their eye on success and there’s not a thing that will stop them. It’s a powerful thing to see and to be a part of. 

(It occurs to me that saying something like the paragraph above might sound like hyperbole. And, honestly, had I written it before the past few weeks, it would have been. But this is literally a global pandemic and these students are showing up every day ready for what’s next. It’s inspiring.)

So, we persevere, and in doing so we reflect. Though this is not what we’d choose. it’s not so bad. We will all grow from this experience. We are measured by how we respond to challenges and we are stronger than we think we are. No matter what is thrown at us, the staff at NSS still have a mission. The students still have a passion to learn and achieve. We are connected to one another in our joint goals and in our collective humanity, and we will get through this, together.

Topics: Learning, Web Development