Posted by Cate Sauer on Oct 19, 2021

Headshot of Amber Williamson
Amber Williamson is the only cybersecurity teacher in her district and teaches at the Atlanta College and Career Academy under the leadership of Dr. Tasharah Wilson; she comes to teaching from sixteen years in the industry.

Full Story

Amber Williamson is the only cybersecurity teacher in her district and teaches at the Atlanta College and Career Academy under the leadership of Dr. Tasharah Wilson; she comes to teaching from sixteen years in the industry. She recently launched a Computer Science Honor Society at her high school and chats with us about building community and growing from difficult times. Amber is part of the CSTA Black Affinity Group Steering Committee and is a member of the CSTA Georgia Chapter.

Amber Willamson headshotAmber, thank you for connecting during your break. Are you able to disconnect during time off from school?

I still have to take calls and advocate for my students on my day off. Earlier, I talked with an administrator from my district about planning activities for National Cybersecurity Awareness Month. We talked our heads out about making engaging activities for kids to get them interested in the field. Some of the activities include making students identify phishing techniques and connect their passions to careers in CS.  An exciting project sponsored by Cyber Patriots is the Tech CareGiver Program. The students will participate in a community service project by educating the elderly about cybersecurity. Students need to mentor older adults to understand cybersecurity and be savvy about the technology they are using. I’m still in awe that I’m able to have that connection with the district office. Previously, I had difficulty getting a lab set up for my students and getting a personal network that the students could use to test and use within my cybersecurity class. We finally have what we need now, but it hasn’t been easy. I am waiting for additional details regarding Cyber Start America and hopefully, my students are able to compete and earn scholarship money.

I can hear the passion in your voice for cybersecurity. Is your course an elective at your school in Georgia?

Unfortunately, CS is not required for students. Each student at my high school must select a pathway of courses they will take, and then they proceed with a lottery process to be a part of advanced programs, such as cybersecurity. The students are either enthusiastic about learning more or parents that are trying to spearhead their path. The number of times I hear a student say they want to be in the criminal investigation field is ridiculous. Luckily, I can explain to my students that roles are integrated with CS in many areas, like criminal investigation. As teachers, we need to make the student’s interests relatable to CS and cybersecurity. Even if my students are being pushed in by parents, I make sure I work with them to pass the class and learn something. As the debate about the connection between job shortages and cybersecurity continues, we need to understand that disconnect starts in schools. We need to train students early and expose them to different types of CS, Cloud, IoT, and AI. Georgia recently passed State Bill 108, requiring all schools in the State of Georgia to have a computer science course. There is a need for more computer science educators. Teachers can either complete the computer science endorsement process or take the GACE Computer Science exam.

Recently, you were approved to start a Computer Science Honor Society Program; what prompted that initiative?

Two of my colleagues worked to launch the National Technical Honor Society, and after joining CSTA, I heard about the CSHS program. I got a bit of pushback around setting up the society and took it upon myself to take it on – including paying for it when the procurement process is pending. As mentioned, my students are in class due to a lottery system, so the personalities and interests are like a pile of gumbo – a large mix of everything! My students will soon be involved in the CSHS and hopefully applying for a CSEDWeek grant you mentioned! I am looking forward to the NICE K12 Cybersecurity Education Conference in December.

CSTA recently held the Cultivating a Community of Learners Summit to make connections with other educators. Can you talk about what networks and groups you have found a community in?

One, it’s difficult being a Black educator to find support and community. I can say I was shocked when I attended a CSTA Georgia chapter meeting when most people in the Zoom room were Black, but the majority of the chapter leaders were Black. It immediately felt like a safe space. Other spaces like the WiCys, WSC, Cyversity, and Blacks in Cybersecurity have been supporting resources. I was honestly thrilled when I found out about the Black Affinity Group being formed and am excited to be on the Steering Committee. To have space at CSTA events, exchange resources, and just instantly have connections is excellent. 

Can you describe your journey from the industry into teaching, and if you would ever return to the industry?

I never want to return to the industry. In my jobs, individuals were not well trained, and discrimination and racism were prevalent. My pathway was one of resisting my gut and love for computers for a long time. I was the kid with all sorts of technology, constantly learning how to take apart computers and rebuild them. I have always had a video game console or Texas Instrument, Sega Genesis, Tiger Entertainment, or Nintendo Game Boy or Classic ready to be entertained. I can appreciate my primary and secondary education that I did partake in some form of Computer Science Education. During college, I was waiting for IT to fix my internet. With the long wait, I started reading how I could resolve the problem myself by remembering a family member’s steps and even setting up my dorm floor with the internet and cable. 
When I started working in IT, which we now define as cybersecurity, very few Black individuals were incorporated. I realized then that we are not serving or preparing students, that there was a skill set lacking in the workforce. I’ll be honest, on my pathway, I learned the reality of life is harsh. I was let go from a tech job and hit rock bottom. When I was volunteering as a Teals instructor, I learned about the possibility of teaching full-time within my district. At a high school reunion pre-pandemic, I mentioned my hesitation around applying for this open teaching role to friends, and the response was that I was a leader, a drum major at that. Layoffs are a redirection; I’m thankful for mine. In this field, you have to learn the power of resilience to survive this crazy world. 

I’m envisioning this possible metaphor between marching band and teaching cybersecurity now. Can you clarify, was your first year of teaching spring of 2020 when the pandemic started?

Yes, I started teaching remotely in August 0f 2020. I pivoted from the industry, working on a doctorate in Cybersecurity at Marymount University, and then began teaching students within a short period. Now that students are back in person, I manage them wearing masks and get tested twice weekly. These kids do not understand the ramifications if they do not wear a mask. There is a connection between a lack of understanding of what our actions can contribute to. When leadership at a hospital isn’t investing or paying attention to cybersecurity, that can affect personal information and the lives of individuals at hospitals. Let’s consider that show from the ’60s, The Jetsons. This space family helped us envision what technology could be, and all their gadgets and gizmos now are a reality. We need to understand the power of technology, get our kids to dream big about their next steps, and know how it can impact and hurt individuals. This pandemic has been painful but a blessing as it’s shown how much there is such a need for CS and the needs in the industry.
One of the few things that I have learned is to have support from your administration. I am thankful for my administrators like Dr. Wilson, Dr. Freeman (CTAE Director), Dr. Fears, Dr. Payne, and Ms. McEachern-Anthony. These powerhouse women have made powerful moves within my career and pathway at the Atlanta College and Career Academy. Get involved with your state Department of Education and work with revising the course curriculum. Georgia is becoming the Silicon Valley of the South and starting to have more tech companies coming to Atlanta. 

Do you have an interest in sharing lessons learned or a workshop at the CSTA 2022 Conference in Chicago?

Chicago has been on my eye, yes, for the food, the popcorn, fried chicken, seafood, and pizza, but schools in Chicago require CS classes. I’m in awe of that standard and would love to see it in Georgia. I would like to present at the 2022 Conference on Cybersecurity. I am the kid that wrote the history of the calculator in high school, and now I want to inspire more students and teachers.