Computer software engineer switches careers to teaching

Susan McCourt, ’15, has little classroom experience, but that’s not stopping her. As a former computer programmer, she knows all about solving problems. As a recent GTEP graduate, she is enthusiastic about her newest challenge—working with kindergarten students. She recently collaborated with Graduate School of Education Professor Sybil Kelley on an article that describes the work she did last year during her practicum for a science unit about sound. “Assessing the Unseen: Using Music and Literature to Access and Develop First Graders’ Knowledge of Sound Waves,” was published in the January 2016 issue of Science and Children and provides insight on her exceptional ability to differentiate instruction for students with various skills.

“I’m so excited and proud of this article,” said Kelley. “Susan is really an amazing educator and colleague!”

McCourt is a kindergarten teacher at Chenowith Elementary School in The Dalles, Oregon. Kelley is an assistant professor of science education and sustainable systems at Portland State University in the Leadership for Sustainability Education program. She also teaches the Elementary Science Methods courses in the Graduate Teacher Education Program (GTEP).

“I can’t imagine having a smoother and more efficient collaboration in writing an article than what Sybil and I had,” said McCourt. “I feel that we each knew our roles and easily delegated back and forth throughout the process. It was truly a joy to experience that kind of “flow” in writing something.”

READ THE ARTICLE (only available with PSU account or access to PSU library)

About Susan McCourt

I grew up in Texas and graduated from Texas A&M University with a BS in computer science. I spent 25 years in the software industry as a computer programmer, project manager, designer, and technical writer. I worked with software teams all over the globe. We were working together from different locations using collaboration software in the early and mid-’90s, before chat and file sharing (much less social media!) was mainstream. We had to figure out what software was needed to be able to work with people across the globe. I remember discussions where we wondered, “Is the web going to be a thing?” in the early ’90s. Yes, it became “a thing.” I have a U.S. patent and several European patents in software and technology.

I have always enjoyed sharing knowledge with kids in schools. I took a break from the software industry in 2004 and worked with AmeriCorps in a rural middle school in Oregon. We were focused on sustainable gardening. My personal interests have also included music (I perform as a drummer) and sustainable/organic farming. For many years, I juggled these interests with my career in the software industry.

When my son was of school age and I experienced the dedication of my son’s public school teachers, I began to help in his school, teaching about plants and food. My son is a special needs student on the autism spectrum, and I have been amazed by and appreciative of his teachers who see him as a whole person and try to understand his motivations before drawing conclusions about his behavior. My son is now nine years old and in the third grade.

I was very scared to apply for GTEP. I was used to being quite proficient in my field, and it was scary to think of returning to school and starting over in a field where you need experience to know what you are doing. Changing careers is the best thing I ever did.

I think that publishing the article in Science and Children was a logical combination of my old skills and new skills. I have written many technical articles over the years, and it seemed natural to approach Sybil Kelley to write an article after we’d had some discussions about my work sample. I have been through the publishing process in my previous career, so I thought it could be fun collaboration.

I want to be a good teacher, and I also want to focus on the whole family. I work in a title priority school (high poverty) where it is not easy to connect with families and where very few children live with both parents. I want to make these families feel welcome, not judged, and part of the school family. I am just beginning this journey.

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