From Service to Students: Jeffrey Woffinden's Journey to Teaching
In the world of computer science, where data and code reign supreme, Jeffrey Woffinden teaches his students by skillfully balancing experience and logic with connections and humor. After serving 25 years in the Air Force and working in the private sector, Woffinden joined the teaching staff at Liberty High School, where his coworkers and former students agree that he has an uncanny ability to weave his understanding and knowledge about a vast array of topics into his lessons. It’s a winning combination for his students, but to Woffinden, teaching simply feels like a perfect fit.
“Ever since I left the Air Force, I hadn’t felt I was where I should be,” Woffinden said. But now? “The personality of Liberty, and its students, staff and community, are a great match for me."
About five years ago, Woffinden retired from his last position in the private sector. His wife, who works as an elementary counselor in a neighboring district, asked whether he might be interested in being a substitute teacher. For many years, Woffinden’s daughter always told him that he should teach history, teasing him about his age and saying that he has “seen so much of history.” Perhaps ironically, she now teaches history at Skyline High School.
In Issaquah School District’s Career and Technical Education Department, which includes computer science, about half of teachers are career educators and the second half spent time working in another industry before starting a second career in teaching.
And so, Woffinden started looking into the possibility of substitute teaching, but was quickly invited to apply for a full-time position at Liberty.
Step Inside Woffinden's classroom
On one recent morning, energizing music played as students arrived for class, and Woffinden greeted them with one of his typical introductory discussions. “It’s ‘International Skeptics Day,’ but I’m not sure I believe that …" he said with a grin. “It’s also ‘International Failure Day,’ which is just right for this class, because that’s exactly what computer programming means. You fail, but then you try again.”
In Woffinden’s long, skinny computer science classroom during first period, he teaches a class with some Advanced Placement Computer Science students, and some students who are taking Advanced Computer Science Topics and Projects, which is more advanced than the AP course. With ease, he gets the first group of students focused on practice tests and other projects, then turns to the second group of students for a discussion about methods of data grouping. Woffinden asks them to read a chapter about several types of advanced data sets, and then work on an array list program and compare the speed of a search using an array list with the speed of a search using a hash set. Combining the two class subjects into one class period allows more students to take the advanced class, and also offers the opportunity for advanced students to help others in the class.
“On your mark, get set, ‘Java,’” Woffinden says, as they begin to work independently. The advanced students, who are primarily seniors, do a lot of self-directed learning, and Woffinden focuses on getting them ready for what they’ll study and encounter in computer science after graduation. Advanced computer science students learn several computer science languages, and then Woffinden gives them a list of possible options and they choose another one to learn. “Once you learn one language, it’s just a matter of learning the syntax,” he adds.
Woffinden stays in touch with quite a few of his former students, many of whom say they feel well prepared. Some of them also Zoom in to talk with his computer science students.
Allyson Mangus, who graduated from Liberty in 2021, said she primarily recalls how much she grew as an individual in Woffinden’s classes. Mangus took AP Computer Science, Advanced Topics and Projects, and Cybersecurity, then served as a peer tutor in AP Computer Science and as treasurer in the “Girls Who Code” club, which Woffinden advises.
“Mr. Woffinden genuinely cares that every student learns to their fullest ability. When I (was a teacher’s assistant) for him, he would pull me aside to ask about how the students were doing because I would often spend a long time one-on-one with those struggling with a project,” Mangus recalls. “Every time, I felt so strongly how much he cared about them, not only in terms of how well they were doing academically, but also how they were doing as people – as young adults who were dealing with a worldwide pandemic (it was peak 2020 through 2021) on top of the other pressures in their lives.”
“I felt like he respected us and that we could talk to him about anything in our lives. He formed a connection with each and every one of us, from the quietest students to the most extroverted class clowns. I know even some who didn't end up loving (computer science) like I did, still loved the classes because he was the one who taught them,” she added. “I owe a large part of my current success to Mr. Woffinden, both in terms of the computer science skills I've used every day and the confidence he instilled in me.”
The walls and cabinets around Woffinden’s classroom are covered in posters for Patriot sports teams and project posters about digitizing DNA, actors, athletic tattoos and more. Another display is an interesting representation of famous hacking attacks mapped out from 1985 through 2015. Cybersecurity is one of the newer computer science courses and is a good fit for Woffinden’s cybersecurity background. It’s also the only non-programming computer science class available.
Using Military Service, Industry Knowledge to Inform Teaching
In that class and others such as Computer Science Principles, Woffinden weaves stories about his time working with satellites in the space systems division of the Air Force, with knowledge he gained while working for the Air Force drone program. Equally important are their conversations about the ethics and implications of various computer programming ventures.
“It’s important that they know what to believe as a human being – I'm not telling them how or what to believe, but just that they need to know what they believe before they join a project or have to make decisions like these,” he explains.
Woffinden says that his time in the Air Force made him much of who he is today. “It gave me a purpose, a place to belong, and made me a part of something bigger than myself,” he said. “They taught me what was important and what was noise, how to set and achieve goals, how to see the bigger picture, how to lead, and so much more.” Woffinden spent 11 years working with space and satellite systems, six years working in base operations, four years in aircraft systems and four years in intelligence. He retired as a major, then worked for Lockheed Martin in Richland.
Colleagues at Liberty say that Woffinden’s combination of military and corporate tech experience is a uniquely valuable pairing.
“I think Jeff’s experiences definitely allow him to bring some credible, real-world stories and advice to the classroom,” said Kris Daughters, who teaches English at Liberty. “It helps, too, that Jeff is a gifted storyteller with a good sense of humor. The students we have in common frequently bring up his class and his stories as examples in mine. I’ve also noticed that Jeff likes teenagers. He asks a lot of questions about their lives, knows a lot about them, makes them feel valued in his classroom. Liberty is definitely lucky to have a teacher with such rich experiences and technical know-how.”
Another fellow teacher, Jamie Hood, said one of Woffinden’s assets is his ability to share with students exactly what their future employers will want to see in successful candidates, because he managed hundreds of employees and servicemen and women during his career. “As a computer science teacher, nerd and tech enthusiast, he has seen and been around the best and brightest for decades soaking in knowledge. Now he’s sharing that knowledge and skill with his students,” Hood said, describing Woffinden as approachable and outgoing, patient, engaging, passionate and experienced.
Hood also emphasized the connection that Woffinden forges with his students, and the way he encourages them to inquire further or to try new things. “His explanations are clear and precise, and he effortlessly brings complex concepts to life. In his classroom, learning feels like an adventure rather than a chore. Because of his deep history in computer science and his ability to tell a story based in his life, lessons become entertaining as well as informative.”
As the bell rings at the end of Woffinden’s first period class and students head to their next subject, many of them catch their teacher’s attention briefly on the way out. “Thank you, Mr. Woffinden,” they say, echoing one another.
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