Delusions of Grandeur

During faculty workshops, like last weeks, I sometimes get a feeling that my university colleagues think they’re better than high school teachers. Smarter. More rigorous. Better teachers more generally.

Last week nothing explicit was said by any particular person, it’s just a vibe, and maybe I’m off-base. A handout from our university’s Academic Assistance Center contributed to this sensibility. Titled, “High School vs PLU”, it lists about 30 differences. Some value neutral, “you spend 30 hours a week in class” versus “you spend about 15 hours a week in class” and some that hint at hierarchy, “makeup tests are easily available-h.s.” versus “makeup tests are seldom an option-uni” or “tests ask you to give back facts-h.s.” versus “exams require analysis and synthesis as well as facts-uni”.

The lists are presented as factual, but many of the assertions could be challenged. Newsflash—some university professors use multiple choice exams that emphasize factual recall and some high school teachers require students to analyze and synthesize content.

Two points of distinction under “High School Teachers” and “PLU Faculty” deserve special attention. High school teachers “teach to the intellectual middle of the class” and “write key info on board or give handouts”. PLU faculty “teach at a more challenging level” and “expect you to figure out what’s important, what you need to do”.

I’d put it differently. Secondary teachers work hard to adapt their teaching to their students’ varied learning styles. They accept the burden of “differentiating instruction” or “individualizing the curriculum”. University teachers expect students to adapt to their one or two preferred methods of instruction. Differentiating instruction is more logical and more challenging, and yet, we hold university professors in higher regard. Why is that? Is it because they completed some more coursework and wrote a dissertation that few outside their committee ever read?

The truth of the matter is elementary, middle, and high school teachers are woefully unappreciated by university professors and the public more generally. Compared to university faculty, they teach many more students, many more hours a day and week, for many more days a year. And they receive little to no support for scholarship or professional travel. And they have to work their magic with legions of parents, some who truly believe they have it out for their children. And more and more of the public—the same public that too often delegates both educating and parenting to them—think they have too much job security and too many guaranteed benefits. And to top it all off, the students are compelled to attend so there’s a much, much wider continuum of motivation.

Throughout my career in both secondary education and higher ed, I’ve been fortunate to work beside some outstanding teachers. After periods of adjustment, I suspect the best high school teachers I know would flourish at the university level and many of the best university teachers I know would probably do okay at the K-12 level.

Apart from job swapping, I’m not sure what it will take for university faculty to demonstrate greater understanding, humility, and respect when it comes to their skilled, smart, hardworking, unappreciated K-12 brethren.

7 thoughts on “Delusions of Grandeur

  1. “The truth of the matter is elementary, middle, and high school teachers are woefully unappreciated by university professors and the public more generally. Compared to university faculty, they teach many more students, many more hours a day and week, for many more days a year. And they receive little to no support for scholarship or professional travel. And they have to work their magic with legions of parents, some who truly believe they have it out for their children.”

    Amen brother. It’s often a thankless task for these people.

  2. What sort of pedogogical training do professors go through? How are their lesson plans and teaching effectiveness evaluated? Do they undergo administrative classroom visits? What role does their research play in actual teaching effectiveness? Do they take responsibility for the students actually learning the material?

    • In schools of ed it’s fairly common for faculty to have at least a little prior K-12 experience, but for the vast majority in higher ed, the typical scenario is teaching a class or two for the first time as a doctoral student. Without any real coaching or feedback apart from student evals. Administrative visits are not built in. At PLU faculty can request a mid-course eval conducted by a colleague or two. Without the prof present, they revisit the course objectives with the students and lead a discussion on how everything is going, then relay the info to the faculty member. Participation–for both those that receive the training to conduct the reviews and those having them done within their classes–is all voluntary. It’s far more effective than administrator visits. I always found those a waste. Didn’t always respect the admin’s opinion since sometimes they were cruddy admins and I didn’t know what kind of teacher they were pre-admin. Also, those visits were brief snapshots at best, not even an entire class period in LA. Anyone should be able to impress for a class period, especially when the date/time is predetermined. Some ed faculty scholarship is classroom teaching oriented, but not a lot. And it’s rare to find a non-ed faculty member doing classroom teaching-based research. 99% of the time their research is content based. Responsibility for actually learning the material? No, not really. The name of the game is earning tenure, and whether your students “actually learn the material” isn’t all that central to whether one is successful in gaining tenure. Which begs the obvious question, what does earning tenure depend? That varies a bit depending on the institution and merits a conversation or separate blog post that I don’t want to write because I’ve lost all confidence in my institution’s review process. Which is rather depressing. More than you probably wanted to know.

  3. Let me follow up. I totally enjoyed most of my undergraduate and graduate classes, but I wonder about some things. Is there any holistic assessment as to whether kids actually learn things in college? Is there a system in place to improve actual classroom teaching? Is there a dialogue on campus with colleagues as how to improve student learning?

    • Just one higher ed faculty member’s perspective. In about the last ten years we’ve gone from almost no focus on assessing student learning in colleges and universities to some. There are initiatives to assess general education requirements, but few parallel ones (that I know of at least) to assess learning within majors and minors. The catalyst for more assessment isn’t internal, it’s entirely external. The feds and states are understandably anxious about higher ed inflation and what it means for their constituents. Also, if there were no accreditation reviews–for the institution and for individual programs like teacher ed– almost no programmatic assessment would occur. Most faculty, especially in the humanities, are highly resistant to external efforts to, in essence, measure their teaching effectiveness. Consequently, the assessment initiatives are watered down, delayed, and less effectual than they might be. There’s no real “system” in place to improve classroom teaching. Rather, typically, one faculty member is charged with providing faculty development for everyone else. He or she organizes workshops that are mostly designed for new faculty. Sometimes all faculty are encouraged to attend the workshops, but few do. Again, it all boils down to what the tenure and promotion review process rewards. Good student evals are helpful, but having good student evals doesn’t necessarily mean students are developing new skills and learning the content well.

  4. Thanks, I really didn’t know that. Sometimes I think there needs to be more vertical integration between secondary and higher ed. I teach a German 103 class as a joint UW class. I enjoy knowing exactly what the UW wants in terms of their student learning, and the coordinator says that he is amazed at the quality and innovation of teaching at the high school level. This program is much better than AP, as we actually have a professional learning community of high school teachers that is actively supported and coordinated by the UW. If I had some admin backing, I would do the same thing with my French classes.

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