K-12 schools are major targets of cyberattacks, and some experts—including education and security leaders in the Biden administration—have said that one way to combat those challenges is by educating students about cybersecurity and preparing them to enter the cybersecurity industry.
The problem is that there are not enough cybersecurity teachers.
To help fill the shortage, Moriah Walker switched from teaching middle school English language arts to high school cybersecurity for the Lakota Local School District in Butler County, Ohio. In a conversation with Education Week during the International Society for Technology in Education conference, Walker discussed why she switched subject areas and the similarities between teaching English and cybersecurity.
The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did you go from teaching English to teaching cybersecurity?
So I was a middle school English teacher and then I went to school to get my master’s degree in educational technology because my goal was to be a technology integration specialist. I got that job and I loved it—it was incredible. I got to work with kids. I got to work with teachers.
Then there was an opening in our cybersecurity program because somebody was retiring. I was helping them find who that next person would be, and they said, ‘Actually, you’re really good at teaching. That’s where your skills are. Why don’t you come and teach cybersecurity?’ And I said, ‘I don’t have any background in that. I don’t know how to code. I don’t have the skills.’ They said, ‘That’s fine. You’re really good at teaching. We want you to do this.’
So I spent all last summer going to different PDs and learning how to use Linux and understanding the big concepts in cybersecurity. Then I spent the entire year just learning the concepts with the students.
How does the cybersecurity program work in your district?
Our program serves students in 10th through 12th grade. It’s a normal elective in a [student’s] day. This past year [2022-23], we had 180 students, and next year we have 270 kids signed up. They get college credit through one of our community colleges, and they can also get industry certifications. They also get paid internships with our business partners.
What do you like about teaching cybersecurity?
The kids who sign up for cybersecurity are excited because it’s a new field. The kids are happy to come to class. They get to run exploits [a program designed to find a security vulnerability] on their own computer on a virtual machine. And the kids get to have different experiences because they get to go on field trips to security operations centers. Getting to have different experiences and leading kids to something that they are passionate about makes me passionate about what I’m doing.
What was the biggest challenge for you moving from teaching English to cybersecurity instruction?
The biggest thing for me was I didn’t have any background in this. Knowing that I was coming in without that background, I was a little apprehensive that the students might not see me as an expert, which I wasn’t. So I had a lot of impostor syndrome, but I worked through that. My skills are in instruction and I was learning this with the students. I was a facilitator for them to get good at whatever they wanted to do.
Are there similarities between teaching English and teaching cybersecurity?
In teaching English, there’s a lot of need for differentiation because there’s a lot of different levels in a classroom like that. There’s a lot of need for flexibility. Sometimes everybody didn’t read the story they were supposed to read.
In cybersecurity, I had a lot of that, too. There were some students who were really knowledgeable and really good at solving ciphers [systems for encrypting and decrypting data], and then some students who had no idea what we were doing. I used my skills in differentiation and being able to do engaging lessons and small groups and all those things in cyber. And there’s skills like writing and speaking and communication and collaboration that lend themselves very easily to a cybersecurity class.