Midpeninsula Post

How Gunn’s computer science teacher rebuilt a program from the ground up

Gunn computer science teacher Joshua Paley poses for a picture at Gunn's campus in September 2023. (Julia Scheib)

For Joshua Paley, a computer science teacher at Gunn High School, becoming a teacher was never in his future plans. He was an introvert for the better part of his life, the type of student who never liked getting up in front of the class.

“If you had told me I was going to make a living being in front of people, there’s just no way I would’ve believed that,” Paley said. 

But during college, when he became a teaching assistant at UC Berkeley, Paley was forced to confront his fear of public speaking. He gave his first lecture in a small discussion hall, with around 30 students in the audience.

“I was at a podium and I was prepared,” Paley said. “Honestly, after about 30 seconds, everything was fine. It just seemed like something that’d be terrifying and it wasn’t.”

Later in the semester, he found himself giving a lecture in front of 650 students in a large auditorium. 

“What I discovered was that I was prepared and could articulate what I wanted to say,” he said. “If I could do that, then there wasn’t really any point being worried.”

Despite getting over his fear at a young age, Paley, who currently teaches AP Computer Science A and Computer Science Capstone, wasn’t even thinking about becoming a teacher at that point. Instead, he went into the high tech industry. He held different positions at various companies, ranging from IT specialist and engineer to instructional designer, where he taught technology classes.  

Although he found wealth in the field, Paley said he struggled to find his purpose. He was working four hours a week, earning money for “almost no work.” When the last company he worked for was shut down, Paley said he questioned what to do with his time and whether he should apply for similar jobs.

“The problem was, I didn’t feel much motivation,” he said. “[High tech] wasn’t what I was interested in doing going forward.”

Paley and his wife ultimately decided they could afford for Paley to go into teaching, which would allow him to do something more “constructive” with his skills. It ended up becoming something he loved, and Paley’s industry experience gave him a head start in his teaching career.  

When Paley started teaching at Gunn in 2001, there was a semester-long introductory programming class with C++, a programming language, followed by a semester of Java, both of which are precursors to AP Computer Science AB.

In his AP CS AB class, Paley said students were “ill-prepared” from the previous year’s classes, and were averaging scores under 3 on the 2001-2002 AP exams. To try and raise these scores, Paley went to his supervisor and asked permission to overhaul 13 weeks of curriculum, using materials he worked with at UC Berkeley.

“I needed to find a way to help them get both proper vocabulary and big ideas to prepare for the test and beyond,” Paley said. 

Paley replaced the C++ class with the foundation of a functional programming class he taught at UC Berkeley, giving rise to a new Functional and Object-Oriented Programming class at Gunn. The class started as two semester-long classes, then merged into a single year-long class. 

Although his request may have seemed bold, the average score on the 2002-2003 exam that year was a 4 or higher. Paley said his classes still use a lot of that same content, with many of the “big ideas” in programming remaining the same over the years.

Senior Sharvari Vartak, president of Gunn’s Girls Tech Club, said that as a teacher, Paley thinks about everything creatively and in a different way than most. During Paley’s stint as the club’s adviser, for instance, he advocated for more girls to join computer science, a traditionally male-dominated field, Vartak said.

“Not just for me but for so many people in that club, he really made us appreciate technology and CS,” Vartak said. “He made us see how important diversity was. I think he’s a big reason why so many of us are continuing with CS in college.”

In the classroom, Paley’s style of teaching centers around letting his students explore on their own.

“When it comes to getting the work done, it’s really important that I’m not doing the talking, and the students are,” Paley said. “How much I talk is going to depend on my customers and just knowing what they need as best as I can and going from there.”

Senior Dylan Lu, who is currently taking Paley’s CS Capstone class, said Paley’s class has motivated him to take on more time-consuming and ambitious projects. Lu has been leading the construction of Gunn’s alumni website since its inception, one of the many student-led projects mentored and overseen by Paley.

“I don’t have the same relationship with other teachers,” Lu said. “I think being able to have someone like Mr. Paley mentor you [is] really helpful.”

Both Vartak and Lu said that Paley is deeply passionate about computing education, and its connection to becoming a well-educated adult in the future. Students should take at least a mandated baseline computing class before graduating high school, he said.

“I am really worried about the state of computing education,” he said. “Most talent in the tech world doesn’t end up in the teaching world, because it turns out that people like wheelbarrows full of gold and teachers don’t get that.”

With the “non-linear movement of the technological world,” Paley said, the shock of the rapid change is something people need to be prepared for. More than computing skills, Paley said that computing education is necessary for getting an advantage in the job market, among other things.

“It’s a hard and complex problem, and we need lots and lots of people working on it,” Paley said. “That is my big concern right now.”

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