Harvard grad leaves Microsoft to teach at Issaquah High School

September 11, 2012

By Lillian O'Rorke

Brett Wortzman, to give his students an idea of what it takes to write a program, pretends to be a computer that is being instructed to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich Sept. 6 at Issaquah High School. By Lillian O’Rorke

A glob of peanut butter piles up on Brett Wortzman’s finger as students in his intro to computer science class shout commands at the man who left his job at Microsoft to become a teacher.

“I’m making half the money I used to make … it’s often dark when I leave in the morning and dark when I come home, but it is all worth it,” Wortzman said. “I am so much more happy now.”

It shows.

It’s the first week of class at Issaquah High School and Wortzman is pretending to be a computer. He has instructed his students to walk him through making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He grins at the Jif on his hand. It is a casualty of the lesson as the students figure out through trial and error that their commands need to be precise.

“If you tell a computer to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich it doesn’t know what you are talking about,” he tells the class, “there are a finite amount of instructions you can give a computer and everything else has to be built up from those instructions. What you just did is come up with an algorithm.”

Wortzman moves around the room, garnishing his words with hand gestures as he speaks from his head, not notes. He explains to the students that computer science isn’t programming but is a way of thinking. He talks to them about the Greek mathematician Euclid and tells them about how he spent more time at Microsoft trying to correct mistakes than writing new code and how the cancellation of “Jersey Shore” was a victory for smart people everywhere.

“Mr. Wortzman is a great guy … he knows his stuff,” said Austin Hutchinson, a junior in the computer science class who is considering a career in the field. “Knowing that he actually worked at Microsoft in the profession is awesome.”

It was 10 years ago that Wortzman first got a taste of what it was like to be on the other side of the classroom. He had just finished his freshman year at Harvard and signed up to be a teacher’s assistant for the summer in one of the university’s intro to computer science courses — which had a similar structure, he said, to the two Advanced Placement computer science classes that are now part of his daily lineup at Issaquah. Wortzman like helping in the classroom so much that he spent five semesters at the post.

He graduated in 2006 and found himself a few months later on the other side of the country working for Microsoft. But after a few years, he knew he wasn’t in the right place.

“I’ve always been kind of a social person. I was always out and about looking for people to have conversations with,” said Wortzman, who describes the typical programmer as more introverted. “I was getting bored at Microsoft and I knew I wanted to do something else.”

That’s when he said he got lucky and was in the right place, at the right time.

Issaquah High School

The TEALS program — which stands for Technology, Education & Literacy in Schools and gives Microsoft computer scientists a crash course in teaching and places them in classrooms — was just getting off the ground. Wortzman got involved as fast as he could.

Unlike his cohorts, though, he resigned from his job and went back to school in both respects. At the same time he started at Issaquah as a TEALS instructor in fall 2010, he also began work on his master’s in education at the University of Washington.

A year went by and once again Wortzman found himself in the right place at the right time.

It was a week before the 2011-2012 school year was set to begin and Issaquah High had an emergency vacancy for a math teacher.

“I got along well here at Issaquah and they knew I was trying to become a teacher,” he said, adding that he was also terrified but took the leap anyway. “I really had trial by fire, which in a lot of ways was good.”

With a conditional certification, Wortzman was teaching math throughout the day, while still slipping in one TEALS computer science class and loving it.

By early June he had finished his master’s and immediately hit the books again, this time at Pacific Lutheran University to get certified. With TEALS behind him now, this year Wortzman is teaching Web design, AP computer science and intro to computer science. And all the while, he plans to devote much of his free time to finishing his certification.

“It’s been kind of a crazy three years,” he said. “I’ve bumped up from volunteering to being a classroom teacher with volunteers from the TEALS program coming in.”

The program, which started out with one local TEALS instructor and 12 students in 2009, has now spread across the country and has an estimated enrollment for the 2012-2013 school year of more than 2,000 students.

“If not for TEALS, I wouldn’t be a teacher yet,” Wortzman said. “I’m very lucky. I really enjoy teaching and I hope I live up to the opportunity I’ve been given.”

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