Danielle Mateo of theCoderSchool: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System

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Education majors also need some really good hands-on internship training like physicians get. They need to be put into classrooms with mentor teachers and trained on managing what they will be dealing with daily. There are programs that recruit bright college students to become teachers, but from what I have seen, they have a “sink-or-swim” mentality and just place sheltered top college students into some of the toughest schools expecting them to just “figure it out.” Most of these programs don’t stay in the profession. You can be the smartest person in the room. Still, you will fail if you don’t know how to manage a classroom of kids with different backgrounds, temperaments, home issues, emotional issues, and academic levels.

As a part of our interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system, I had the pleasure to interview Danielle Mateo.

Danielle Mateo has been a public high school teacher for 23 years in Hawaii and Nevada and has owned theCoderSchool Las Vegas and Henderson with her husband since 2018. She has a Bachelor of Business Administration with a double major in marketing and international business from the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and a Master of Business Administration in New Venture Management and a Master of Arts in Urban Leadership from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Before entering the teaching field, she worked in the financial and hotel industry.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

After graduating from college in Hawaii, I worked for a financial firm and later worked as the financial analyst for a luxury hotel. My husband also worked in the hotel industry, so we both worked long days. I gave birth to my daughter and only had six weeks of maternity leave, so I returned to work immediately. However, I had a hard time emotionally leaving her at daycare, and one day when I picked her up, she called me “Auntie” instead of mom (in Hawaii, children call other adults auntie and uncle). So I decided that I needed to stay home and raise her.

Living in Hawaii was very expensive, so I still needed to work. I had to find a decent-paying job conducive to raising children. At that time, teaching was the only option. I was reluctant to become a teacher because I had a college degree, did well in school, and always thought I would have a more prestigious career. Sentiment has changed a bit since then, but in the 1990s, being a high school teacher was looked down upon. It was reserved for people who couldn’t do anything else, which is one of the main problems with education in the United States. Teachers are seen as less educated professionals than other professions. They are seen almost as semi-skilled laborers.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The most significant event that affected education was, of course, the Covid lockdowns. In March 2020, all the schools were shut down in my state, and teachers were told to work from home. We did not return to our physical school locations until fall of 2021, so I taught six high school classes through a computer screen for a year and a half. The main thing I learned teaching virtually was that computers are never going to be able to replace teachers. Before Covid, it was a prevailing thought that children didn’t need teachers and could learn everything they needed from online tutorials and the Internet. Three years later, everyone can see that kids need good teachers to learn.

When online learning first began, it wasn’t too bad. Teachers were allowed to require their students to have their cameras and microphones on, enabling us to interact with them. But as the lockdown continued, privacy issues were raised, so we were no longer allowed to require students to interact with us. Because of this, students became bored quickly and learned that they could log in to class, turn their camera off, not be present in class at all, and still receive full credit for attending. Also, some of my classes had over 50 students because there were no seat limitations. So, I was forced to talk to 50 little avatars for the entire school day with almost no student interaction. I couldn’t tell if they were there, but I had to continue my live lessons. Trying to teach computer science to over 50 kids with different academic levels who were not “present” was impossible. Probably three-fourths of them failed.

However, two positive things did emerge from the Covid quarantine. First, it forced schools to join the 21st century and update all their technology. Before Covid, most schools did not provide laptops for their students, and most teachers had little tech knowledge. Teachers still had students read printed “chapter books” and complete printed handouts. Students had very little interest in learning that way because they were used to the multimedia stimulation of their smartphones. Now all the students are issued Chromebooks, the teachers are a lot more knowledgeable about using technology, and we are allowed to purchase technology to teach students in the multimedia way they are used to learning. Also, now everyone knows how good, qualified, and experienced teachers improve a child’s education.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

In October of 2021, I was diagnosed with cancer and have been in treatment for the last year and a half. I am now in remission but still undergoing immunotherapy since my cancer was very aggressive. To keep myself sane, I continued to work through my cancer treatment. I only took time off when I was very sick from chemo and needed to recover from my surgery. Now that I have recovered, I appreciate life a lot more and have learned to slow down and enjoy what I have. Moving forward, I would like to open another theCoderSchool in Las Vegas because there is a real need for computer science education in my community. My son graduated from the University of Nevada with a degree in management and marketing last year. He had taken over some of my responsibilities at our theCoderSchool franchises while I was ill. Las Vegas is growing rapidly in population and expanding geographically north. Maybe in a year or two, I would like to help my son open a school in the northern area of the valley.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?

I have been a public high school teacher for 23 years in Hawaii and the third largest school district in the United States in Clark County, Nevada. I also own, along with my husband, two computer coding schools for kids called theCoderSchool. When I started teaching, I taught algebra and geometry for a small rural high school in Hawaii. I thought I would never leave Hawaii, but my husband started traveling to the “mainland” for business trips and would come home and tell me how exciting and less expensive it was. After my son was born, we decided to move to Las Vegas so that our children would have more opportunities. I applied to the Clark County School District in Las Vegas and was hired over the phone a year later. I researched the Clark County School District from Hawaii while trying to figure out where we wanted to move. The district has some significantly cutting-edge and innovative schools and programs, so we moved to Las Vegas because I wanted to teach in the Clark County School District. In addition, I wanted my kids to attend one of their amazing public magnet schools.

I was hired initially to teach business classes at a “credit retrieval” public high school in east Las Vegas that was specially created to facilitate at-risk students so they could catch up on their high school credits. The school only met for four and half hours per day, the class size was limited to not more than 20 students, and they used an enrollment model where students could complete four classes in a semester so that they could complete eight courses per year instead of six (or at least four if they dropped out). We also offered a “sunset” school at the same facility in the evening with the four-class model for students working during the day. In addition, the school had an onsite daycare that allowed students to bring their children on the bus with them and had students assist in the daycare so that they could learn how to care for their children. I was scared to teach there when I realized where the school was located. After a few weeks of teaching, one of my students approached me and said, “Sorry I’ve been absent, miss. I was shot by the police.” However, the campus was brand new with new computer equipment and an aesthetically beautiful campus, something I was not used to coming from the Hawaii public school system. Plus, we had good on-campus police, so they were there to handle a fight or other problem in my classroom immediately. Unfortunately, the school was across town from my house, so I later transferred to another public high school in Henderson designed for a completely different student demographic. This school was initially created to teach in the classical method like private schools, using Socrates seminars, teaching Latin, Greek literature, and even Roman Sports. Though we no longer are required to use the Socrates method, we still teach Latin, and I have been teaching there ever since.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

I would give the US school system a “C-“ because there are some great schools in the US and some awful ones. Public schools are run locally in the US, which is good because students’ needs are local. To educate children, you need to have a firm understanding of the community your school is a part of, but that means that the quality of the school your child goes to depends entirely on who is running the school your child is zoned for.

Can you identify five areas of the US education system that are going really great?

It’s hard to have a list of five things. Teachers do great things for their students on a very individual level if they love what they do. I hate to say it, but if anything is done is “really great,” it is despite any centralized district control or the US Department of Education. A teacher volunteering to run the robotics club and spending her weekend selling fireworks to fundraise for the club is really great. A teacher organizing a field trip for the introverted gifted kids to Hoover Damn is really great. A teacher staying after school (after paid hours) to tutor kids struggling in algebra is really great. My son’s band teacher taking the band kids to Spain to play in the Mozart theatre right after the London bombings was really great. As a teacher, I have always felt that teachers are on a deserted island waiting for random supplies to be dropped from an airplane. Being clever enough to figure out what to do with those resources to help and inspire “our” kids makes the difference.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

Individual school autonomy

School choice

Teacher and school leadership recruitment

Class size

Public perception

The problem with the US education system is that everyone wants to turn it into a widget factory. Educational and political leaders always try to have a one-size-fits-all magic strategy that can be applied to every kid everywhere. Still, kids aren’t widgets, they are people, and just like the best lawyers and doctors and other professions that deal with people, the best teachers are the ones that focus on the human needs of the student. You must build a relationship with your students to build trust for them to learn from you. Especially now, with social media bullying and a new adolescent groupthink, students will only take risks, be curious, and learn from you if they feel safe with you. Individual schools need to be able to make decisions for their students. Whether that be decisions about curriculum, class size, discipline, etc., all the decisions are mandated from above. Educators must figure out how to work the system to make them work for their students. The public and powers that be need to trust us.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

Since Public schools are run locally, the quality of STEM education will differ according to what school district a student is zoned for, so some districts are better than others. However, the United States does not offer quality STEM education in the public school system. The teachers’ unions and government administrators that run the school system will always blame it on funding, but that is not the case. Instead, the issue could be better planning. The federal government now allocates many resources for STEM education, probably more than any other subject, but almost all of it is in equipment. Every year I receive a much larger budget than my colleagues who teach non-tech subjects because the federal government, through the Perkins Grant and other initiatives, provides millions of dollars to individual school districts specifically to support STEM and career education and provides even more monies (maybe twice as much) to schools with at-risk populations. As a result, I teach computer science and cyber security and have access to new and state-of-the-art equipment every year.

STEM education quality in the United States is poor because schools lack highly qualified STEM teachers. Learning is all about teaching. Students and teachers can have the latest, most expensive computer equipment, tablets, digital smart boards, interactive simulated curriculum, and iPads. Still, if teachers don’t have a firm understanding of the content they are teaching, kids are not going to learn anything. Kids are not like adults; they are not motivated to teach themselves.

There are few quality STEM teachers in the US because becoming a teacher, especially in the public school system, is a bureaucratic process that requires a ton of education and has many licensing requirements. You can’t just major in computer science (or any other subject) and become a teacher. Because of Federal Department of Education regulations, you must be licensed to be hired as a teacher. To be licensed, you must major in education with a concentration in whatever you want to teach. Or, if you already have a college degree, you must get an education endorsement which requires taking about two additional years of college education credits or obtain a master’s degree in education. So even if you have a degree in computer science, even if it is a master’s degree in computer science, even if you are Mark Zuckerberg, you won’t be hired as a STEM teacher because school districts are not allowed to hire you.

In addition, due to licensing regulations, after you meet all the education requirements, you must pass three certification exams, two in education and one in the area you want to teach. In Nevada, you also have to pass a state constitutional law exam. Once you have met ALL those requirements, you then must apply for your license in the state where you want to work, and then, and only then, can you apply to a specific school district to get into their hiring pool. Then it is a much-labored process of waiting to be called in by principals at individual schools for interviews, which can take over a year. I’ve seen this frustrate a lot of older, highly qualified individuals who are retired from the tech industry and want to become teachers. They don’t meet the requirements to become licensed, so the school district will not hire them. Younger people majoring in STEM don’t go through this lengthy bureaucratic process because they can get hired directly at a higher pay rate in the private sector.

What ends up happening is “the cart-before-the-horse” effect. State governments are desperate to have a large population of STEM workers to incentivize tech companies to move to their states. To try and achieve this goal, lawmakers create mandates for school districts requiring STEM education. (For example, now in the State of Nevada, every high school is required by law to offer at least one full year of computer science, and every middle school is required to offer at least a semester of computer science even if there is no qualified teacher to teach the class.) What ends up happening is that school principals will just assign the STEM classes to teachers already in the system but not STEM qualified because they can’t hire any new people to fill the positions. These teachers are then expected to “catch up” by taking STEM college courses after school and during the summer to get their endorsement for that subject. So even if these teachers are good at what they do, they still lack the knowledge to teach STEM for several years. Also, since there is a teacher shortage in general, many school administrators have very little choice but to assign whoever is available to teach the required courses, so often, teachers get “stuck” teaching classes they don’t want to teach. For example, I have seen PE teachers get assigned computer science classes.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

It is the modern-day suffrage movement. The people who run technology run the world. Women comprise more than half the US population, yet only 15% of programmers are females. How can women be equal to men and have equal standing in our society if we do not influence an industry that runs the world? What will happen if only men write the code for artificial intelligence? As society becomes increasingly dependent on tech to make decisions for individuals and society, what will this world look like if women do not have a seat at the decision-making table?

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

The US education system is not doing anything concerning engaging girls and women in STEM. Most of my students are boys. Girls just don’t sign-up for computer classes, and I think the main reason they do not sign up for computer science classes is that they are filled with boys fascinated with video games which tend to be a lot more immature than girls at the same age in high school. Some not-for-profit organizations are attempting to engage more young women, but they do not reach many girls since they are volunteer organizations. The Department of Education should fund female-only computer science courses in public high schools to encourage more girls to take these classes until we can bridge the gap. When I have female students, they always are my top students. They are serious, studious, and creative. I am old enough to remember when there were no women police officers, lawyers, or doctors. Now we appreciate that women have skills that contribute significantly to these careers. The same thing can be done in tech. It’s just that no one with money is taking the initiative to do it.

Also, to get more girls into STEM, we need qualified female STEM teachers to recruit females into their programs and mentor them into STEM careers. Young girls need to “see” themselves in these careers and classes. Female university students who have an aptitude for STEM need to be recruited into the teaching STEM and given financial and mentoring support so they can build the next generation of female STEM innovators. The federal government is now offering full-tuition scholarships with stipends to encourage young people to major in computer science and work for the federal government in cyber security after graduation. But again, this is the cart before the horse. It’s not an immediate fix, but if top women (and men) were recruited on the university level to teach computer science in the public system, they would have a healthy and ongoing stream of US computer science workers to fill those positions. People put down teachers by repeating George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” I never understood why people don’t see the irony in that. How do people learn what they do if they aren’t taught by someone with the expertise to teach them? Teachers are the creators of everything people do.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure, what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Autonomy. The money needs to get to the schools and the teachers, not “The District.” Individual school administrators and teachers need to have the ability to self-manage. There is so much money in education that gets sent to centralized controlled priorities. If teachers and administrators were just allowed to have some autonomy (like the private schools have), of course with accountability, we could get much more done. For example, class size in large urban school districts is a huge issue. If schools could hire enough teachers to have class sizes that were only around 25 students, we would be able to teach to the student’s individualized needs. Still, because schools do not control their budgets, principals’ hands are tied when hiring (and firing). If a principal wants to offer a very rigorous but maybe unpopular class, they’ll have to match it with the numbers of another class because they can’t hire as many teachers as they want. So, this makes everything academically “middled-down” to fit as many kids as possible, like a fast-food restaurant. So much pressure is put on school districts to show testing results and graduation rate improvements that all this money, time, and energy is spent on these big complicated centralized initiatives that are changed every couple of years because they never work. If teachers had small classes and were left alone to teach, all the testing scores, dropout rates, graduation rates, etc., would improve because kids would have “buy-in.” They would be incentivized to do well and attend school because they wouldn’t feel like a cheeseburger.

That being said, having qualified teachers and innovative school administrators is essential. Bright young people need an incentive to go into teaching and school leadership, as they are given incentives to go into other professions like tech or medicine. Universities need to make education careers more prestigious and recruit the top students. The Department of Education must provide more lucrative scholarships to encourage the best and the brightest to become teachers. Unfortunately, you have to go to so much school to become a teacher, to keep your license, and to get any kind of raise, and there is very little financial help. Plus, starting pay for a teacher does not make it worth it for most bright young people. Once you are in the system for a good decade and have gotten all of your degrees, the pay and the pension are great, but it takes about ten years before teaching is competitive with other professions, and about half quit before then.

Education majors also need some really good hands-on internship training like physicians get. They need to be put into classrooms with mentor teachers and trained on managing what they will be dealing with daily. There are programs that recruit bright college students to become teachers, but from what I have seen, they have a “sink-or-swim” mentality and just place sheltered top college students into some of the toughest schools expecting them to just “figure it out.” Most of these programs don’t stay in the profession. You can be the smartest person in the room. Still, you will fail if you don’t know how to manage a classroom of kids with different backgrounds, temperaments, home issues, emotional issues, and academic levels.

Another substantial improvement is that school administrators must be trained in organizational management. The high school where I teach has over 3,000 students, probably a 10-million-dollar annual budget with hundreds of employees. School administrator degrees focus on the technical aspect of teaching and academic theory, not running a multi-million-dollar organization. When bright new young administrators enter these big urban schools, they are disadvantaged.

I was accepted into a prestigious Master of Education in School Administration program offered by my school district in coordination with the University of Nevada. The program was designed to recruit the top teachers in the district to become new, innovative, “out-of-the-box,” sort of thinking school administrators that could be placed into the “failing” schools and turn them around. I thought it was a great initiative because it was a very rigorous process to get accepted into the program. We were interviewed and vetted by the top leaders of our school district, and some top-notch university professors and educational superstars taught the program’s courses. Bright people surrounded me. The only problem was that the program did not include organizational management classes. All the classes were based on academic theory. I have a Master of Business Administration in New venture Management and was the only person in the cohort with organizational training. I ultimately decided not to go into school administration and open theCoderSchool Nevada instead, but I followed the careers of my colleagues, and they all had a tough go of it. Many would contact me for organizational management advice because they knew I had an MBA and business background. There was probably one other person than me in the cohort that knew how to use Excel. No one had experience managing a budget, dealing with public relations, hiring people, firing people, and ensuring the A/C works. Honestly, I think about half of the people in the program did not become school leaders and went into private industry instead.

Finally, the absolute MOST HARMFUL challenge of the US public school system is social media. Students cannot put their phones down, and because I teach at a public school, we cannot violate their personal rights and take their phones away from them. Young people are entirely addicted to being on their phones every moment of the day. Everything taught to them is filtered through their attention to social media. They interact with their phones all during instruction, walking down the halls, walking across the street, in the lunchroom, and in the bathroom. Their phones are never put away. As a result, instruction must be slowed way down and repeated. I must repeat things over and over again. I now cover about two-thirds of the material I covered before the smartphone and when we were allowed to take them away. I wish the tech leaders in the US would see the damage they are doing. It is creating a generation of ignorance that will damage US society. I fear there will be a real intelligent divide between privileged students who go to private schools where teachers are allowed to confiscate phones and teach them undistracted and public school students who have spent every waking moment of life interacting with social media, not paying attention to anything around them. To these children, life is a distraction, and their phone is their purpose.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I think it is possible for ordinary people to choose to be extraordinary.” Elon Musk

I was lucky enough to have a mother who thought I could do anything and a father who taught me I could learn anything from a book. I was extremely poor growing up. My mom got her GED at 15, and my dad only had a high school education. My dad made $4.50 an hour as a farm laborer when I was in high school. But my dad loved books and would buy every book he could find at garage sales. We had an entire library in my home with everything from complete sets of encyclopedias to books on political theory to books on military tactics and aliens. I could learn anything I wanted with my dad’s “garage sale library.” That may be why I eventually became a teacher. My parents taught me that there was no challenge I couldn’t overcome or there was nothing I couldn’t achieve if I worked hard, had grit, and learned by “looking it up in a book.”

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Elon Musk, of course.

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Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

Danielle Mateo of theCoderSchool: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.