• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


How Can High School Teachers Become College Professors?

Yes, but ...

May 2, 2016

A new correspondent writes:

Lately you've been posting a lot on the need for teaching-focused faculty in higher education. I would be curious if you have any insight on teachers in the K-12 world who have successfully made the jump to college teaching. We would come in with many of those basic skills which you note newly minted PhDs often lack, though obviously we would have prepared for a different context. What are the barriers that prevent this from happening more often? Is it just credentials? What challenges might a high school teacher not expect?

High school faculty sometimes cross over. It can be done. I’ve seen it done. One of my best hires many years ago was a former high school math teacher who loved teaching algebra but hated the politics of his school district; he picked up a bunch of developmental math classes and quickly became a student favorite.

That said, it’s definitely the exception.  

Part of the issue is the credentials required. The standard minimum educational requirement for a full-time community college faculty position is a master’s degree in the subject area; a fair number of high school teachers have that, but many don’t. The subjects don’t always align cleanly, either.

Part of it is salary scales. In most unionized settings, salary is determined largely by experience. But the experience doesn’t transfer. If you have ten years’ seniority in a high school, you won’t get credit for ten years’ seniority at the college. In effect, that often means taking a pay cut.  

The major differences -- I’m focusing here on community colleges -- are around student age and organizational culture.

In a college setting, students are assumed to be adults. Faculty here don’t deal with parents. We have FERPA to ensure that students have exclusive access to their own records.  (FERPA isn’t absolute, but it covers most routine interactions.)  Nationally, the average age of a community college student is in the late twenties, and it’s not unusual to have students in their forties.  The needs and expectations of those students may be very different from students coming right out of high school.  

Here, we don’t have IEP’s. Students are expected to self-advocate for any accommodations they need. Those requests have to be screened and verified by the relevant office on campus, and faculty are not free to disregard them. But if a student fails to make the request, that’s on the student.  

Relatedly, here, it’s possible to give failing grades.  

Students are assigned to public high schools largely by virtue of where their parents live. But students choose colleges. That brings with it the benefits of self-selection, though it can also bring a consumer mentality that many faculty find off-putting. (A former boss taught me a great response to an entitled student. When hearing “I pay your salary!” for the umpteenth time,  respond with “Oh, that’s you?  I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that.” Stops the conversation cold.)  

Here, faculty are expected to take meaningful part in shaping curriculum via shared governance. That can involve some politicking, which can be appealing or appalling, depending on taste.  

My recommendation for a high school teacher who wants to give community college teaching a shot would be to look into either adjuncting or teaching some dual-enrollment classes.  Ideally, spend some time on the college campus to get a feel for the culture. You’ll probably find it either more freeing or less cohesive than high school.  

I’d love to hear from faculty who’ve made the leap in one direction or the other. What differences jumped out at you?  

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


Back to Top