Computer science instructor Portia Plante nurtures curiosity in the classroom.
Portia Plante knew she wanted to teach computer science from an early age, but her path to academia was not straightforward.
“My mom was an elementary school teacher, so I grew up sitting in her classroom all the time. When I got older, I would teach the kids how to make websites,” Plante says.
At that time, the demand for teachers in Canada, where Plante spent the first part of her life, was low. So, she chose to pursue a stable career in the software development industry. After earning a bachelor’s degree in software engineering from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, she accepted a role at Microsoft as a program manager, which brought her to the United States.
Although Plante enjoyed her role working on the user interface for Microsoft Office, she knew a teaching role would be a better fit. “At Microsoft, it was a little bit too much about trying to advance in your career and less about trying to help everybody else,” Plante says.
Plante taught at two community colleges in Washington state and Winthrop University before landing at the University of South Carolina, “I remember being overwhelmed by USC when I first got here because it’s so big, but now I love it because I can do so much more. There’s more classes to teach and more students to interact with,” Plante says.
Building relationships with her students is central to Plante’s teaching philosophy. This attitude has led her to being well-liked among her students, who describe her as “an incredibly kind and organized instructor” and “a friendly teacher who is always ready to help if you have questions.”
Plante believes that being open to feedback is the most helpful skill as a teacher. “The first time I ever taught, I went in with a set of lecture slides and just walked through them in 30 minutes because I didn’t know what to do,” Plante says. “When I got back home, I had about 20 emails from students saying, ‘This isn’t going to work for us.’ I learned to teach through people telling me what worked and what didn’t.”
Accepting criticism can be hard for anyone, even for experienced educators. Plante recommends approaching those conversations with curiosity and compassion. “As a teacher, you’re going to have people mad at you. The best thing to do is just to sit down and talk to them. Whatever the problem is, you need to figure it out together.”
Miles Wedeking is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and computer information systems major. He is currently enrolled in Plante’s software engineering class and describes her teaching style as untraditional because she encourages her students to pursue topics they find interesting.
“I like being able to ask questions specific to my applications,” Wedeking says. “She’s able to help me develop the ability to research and learn on my own. That’s not a skill I really had before coming to college.”
Wedeking also says Plante’s teaching methods allow him to learn at his own pace. “Because of the military, I’ve developed a lot of discipline and drive. Having that ability to come in and get extra help is great because if I’m motivated to learn more information and improve my programming skills outside of class, she’ll cater to that.”
Regardless of their major, Plante encourages all her students to follow their passions for future careers. “Computer science is interesting because it's a versatile tool that can be used in many fields,” Plante says. “But you’re never going to be able to compete in a field that you don’t love because somebody else loves it.”