It's fair to say Andries Van Tonder took his time choosing a career path. First, he studied accounting, then law, then astrophysics. It wasn't until he finally focused on IT and fell in love with computer programming that his life's work fell into place. And after watching the 2010 film The Social Network – and realising the impact a few lines of code can make – his fate was sealed.
Andries, what do you love most about computer science?
Philosophy-wise, I'm quite an advocate for the automation of everything. Automation fascinates me, and I believe 90% of all jobs can be automated. It's a big endeavour, and it's my job to produce the coding minds that are going to tackle this enormous task. Computing is the future.
How important is computer science in setting students up for the future?
One of the main aspects of computer science is problem-solving, and we are all going to have that in the future, guaranteed. So even if students are not going to pursue a career in computer science, they will all use computers in their future careers.
What inspired you to become a computer science teacher?
I never planned to become a teacher, but I fell in love with teaching in 2016 when I was a professor's assistant at the University of the Free State in South Africa. That's where I gained my B.SC Information Technology and my Honours Degree in Statistics. There's nothing better than seeing students' faces light up when they finally understand something! Both my parents were teachers, and I think that played quite a significant role. My dad especially kept recommending that I do my Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). It's probably the best decision I've ever made.
Where have you taught since then?
In 2018, after finishing my PGCE, I stepped into my first formal position as a computer science teacher at the Cambridge-focused British Academy in Pretoria. I taught computer science to all secondary years (7 to 13) and statistics to the seniors, as well as doing a bit of IT support and being house master at the international student hostel, Hampstead House. The following year I was appointed dean of the middle school.
In 2020 I moved to New Zealand and continued my teaching career at ACG Parnell College. Over the last two years, I've taught middle school computer science (Years 7 to 10) and senior Cambridge computer science (Years 11 to 13). I was also recently appointed the curriculum coordinator of the computer science department.
Your students have achieved some outstanding results. What are you most proud of?
It felt really amazing when Jenna Parkin was awarded Top in the World in the Cambridge Awards for AS-Level Computer Science in 2020. In fact, the whole class of 2020 gained outstanding results with multiple A* (90% or better) and A (80% or better) grades. It felt like all the work and effort of the year, every test, every small homework assignment, paid off in an instant. I'm very proud of all of them.
[Since this interview was recorded, Jenna Parkin has also been recognised as Top in the World for A-Level Computer Science in the 2021 Cambridge Outstanding Learner Awards]
How do you help prepare students for such phenomenal success?
With hard work and a lot of practice. When they write the final exam, I want them to feel like it's just another day at the office.
What does studying computer science involve at ACG Parnell College?
Our middle school curriculum is enjoyable and engaging. We try to make the coding as physical as possible so students can see their code doing things, such as robots moving around and solving puzzles or lights flashing to create a disco or a traffic light system. The main purpose is to get students excited about the possibilities of computers. I think we actually have one of the best middle school computer science curriculums because it is so practical and project-based.
The senior classes are a whole other ballgame. The curriculum is quite packed, and there's more focus on the principles of programming. However, we try to keep it fun and engaging with coding challenges and see who can develop the best algorithmic solutions to complex problems.
Students learn a lot from their peers when they come to ACG – we've got some of the best programmers in the country. In fact, in 2021, three of our students placed second in the New Zealand programming contest.
What three words do you think your students would use to describe you?
Big friendly giant.
Where can we find you outside of school?
I've got an e-bike, so you can find me riding around one of the many hills in Auckland. I also play tennis and like to travel and explore the great outdoors.
And finally, do you have any words of wisdom for your students?
Use your university years to participate in as many things as you can – clubs, competitions, tours, politics, sports, debating and more. You are still young, and the only way to discover yourself is by doing things. It's something I regret I didn't do in my university days.