Many teachers at a university have a doctorate in their field but little or no education courses or teaching in their background when first hired. Teachers at colleges, especially community colleges, on the other hand, more often have masters degrees and come from the public school system. High school teaching experience is often considered good preparation for teachers who work at a college. But there are some significant differences between high school and college that instructors should know before they begin teaching in higher education.
In most high schools, a teacher is expected to remain in the classroom through most of the day, or at least on school grounds. This requirement allows students easy access to instructors at various periods: before school, often through lunch, during planning periods, and after school.
Similarly, if teachers need to get in touch with administrators or other instructors, it should be easy enough to find them. High school teachers are also expected to be available some evenings, such as when parent-teacher conferences are in session.
College instructors, on the other hand, typically have office hours, as few as three per week, and classroom time. Some colleges require instructional staff to be somewhere on campus for 40 hours, but they could be anywhere: other offices, library, computer labs, even napping in a storeroom that has a soft chair (I’ve seen it). Although many college teachers are as committed to their profession as public school instructors are, few tend to arrive particularly early or stay particularly late to their offices. The bottom line is they are usually more difficult to get in touch with, so much conversation takes place via phone messages or email.
Administrators seem to spend much less time in their offices, as well. Part of the issue may be due to the fact that many colleges simply have more buildings than high schools, so all staff may spend a significant amount of time in meetings or running “errands” in other areas of the campus as well as time spent walking between those buildings and the office.
It might sound silly, but high school is supposed to teach students. It is more important that students learn the concepts than anything else, so late assignments should usually be accepted. Papers are often rewritten and tests corrected for extra points.
Policies are probably in place from the school or even the district regarding absences and issues like plagiarism, so teachers need to be certain they follow those guidelines.
The college experience has a different focus. Although instructors still certainly hope students learn from their courses, deadlines should be strictly adhered to (except in the case of grave illness/hospitalization or perhaps school activities). College is supposed to prepare students for the real world, and few occupations allow employees to turn in projects late or incomplete. The same idea is true of allowing students to redo homework or exams. They should have a way to check their answers so they can find out what they did wrong, but allowing credit for such activities is inappropriate. This holds true for extra credit work, as well.
Another difference is that college instructors make their own syllabi for each course. Even if there is a template all teachers must follow, there will still be some issues the instructor needs to include, and those points are often different for each class. If cheating and late work guidelines have not been established by the institution, they must be included on the syllabus. And consideration must be made for the course and the prerequisites.
For instance, in a college research paper course I taught, if students plagiarized their final paper, they failed the course regardless of what grade they had at that point. The prerequisite course taught about plagiarism, and the entire semester in the research paper course focused on it, so there was no excuse for plagiarizing. On the other hand, the humanities course I taught was an entry-level class anyone could take. For the research project they did, they received a zero on the paper since I had given both written and oral instructions about plagiarism in addition to information being in their texts. However, the paper was only half of the project, and besides the paper, there were typically about eight exams, two outside papers that were nearly impossible to plagiarize, and a final exam. Losing the points for the paper wouldn’t affect their final grades too much, but I hoped it made the point that plagiarism was taken seriously at the school.
Is one tougher than the other?
The short answer is that neither is more difficult than the other, but teaching high school is definitely different in some ways than teaching college. Instructors moving from a high school position to a college should be prepared for the differences, as should those moving the other direction.