When people hear that I was once a high school English teacher and am now a college professor, they often ask, “How is college teaching different?” They expect I’ll say something about classroom discipline, or academic skills, or intellectual rigor, but I don’t. In fact, my answer is always the same: For me, teaching high school and teaching college are not that different. The pedagogical habits I developed as a secondary teacher have carried over into the university classroom and made me a better professor.

The parallels between university and secondary teaching are often obscured by an elitist hierarchy and downward blame for student skill deficits, both of which reinforce an institutional divide that can discourage dialogue about teaching and learning (on the “blame game,” see also “It’s Not the High School Teacher’s Fault”). Those who teach in higher education are already circumscribed by the perception — shared among the public and some of their peers — that teaching matters less in the university. Further, “teaching” at the college level is often narrowly defined to mean “the two traditional standbys: lecturing and leading discussions,” with an emphasis placed on content delivered via “information dump.” Meanwhile, in the discourse of higher ed reform and in many campus professional development workshops, technology is promoted as the most important pedagogical tool any college teacher can possess.

Teachers in higher education who may be frustrated with an institutional culture that does not always promote formal training or even encourage informal dialogue about pedagogy might helpfully turn to our K-12 colleagues as a resource. The mentoring and instruction I received as a high school teacher provided me with a conceptual vocabulary and a habit of mind with which to approach university teaching and curriculum design. This essay focuses on the pedagogical convergences between secondary and higher education, drawing from my own experience as someone who has taught high school students, college students, and future high school teachers. In the process, I make the case that discussions about pedagogy can constitute a common ground — a way to bridge the university/secondary divide and engender more productive discourse and collaboration among teachers in both settings. Such dialogue could, I believe, generate more expansive definitions of what teaching means in higher education, definitions that move beyond lecture, discussion, and the use of technology.

A few words about my career path as an educator: After I graduated college, I taught high school English for five years. Along the way, I completed an M.A.T. in English and earned my secondary teaching credential. I then attended graduate school for a Ph.D. in American Studies, where my doctoral research focused on education and American culture. My first job after graduate school was in an Education Studies department at a small liberal arts college. There, I taught courses on the history of education, educational philosophy, and secondary teaching methods. In addition, I supervised student teachers in Social Studies and English. After three years, I changed jobs, and I currently teach American Studies at a large state university. Over the years, I have maintained my ties to secondary education through work on various K-16 collaborative projects and professional committees.

My years in the secondary classroom were formative for me as an educator. What I found especially valuable was learning how to write lesson plans and unit plans. Generating these plans — for as many as five different classes, five days a week — could sometimes be tedious, but the process helped me focus more broadly on the components of an effective lesson. High school teaching taught me that regardless of the topic you are teaching on any particular day, a good lesson contains certain elements. As a result, I approach the preparation of my college classes with the same mindset: I establish objectives, I begin class with an attention grabber, I build on students’ prior knowledge, I provide opportunities for practice, I teach to different learning styles, and I reflect on my own teaching.

I describe each of these pedagogical habits below. They represent a synthesis of what I learned from my mentors and colleagues, my experience in the secondary classroom, and my M.A.T. coursework. At the end of this essay, I append an annotated copy of a lesson plan I use in my undergraduate “Introduction to American Studies” course that illustrates how I employ these pedagogical approaches in the classroom.

Setting Objectives

When writing lesson plans, I admit that I occasionally muddled the difference between “goals” (a general sense of what the teacher hopes to accomplish in the course of a lesson), “objectives” (the specific skills and/or understandings the teacher wants students to acquire in the course of the lesson), and “learner outcomes” (the observable behavior that would indicate students have indeed acquired those skills and/or understandings). However, high school teaching forced me to ask, on a regular basis, what do I want students to learn today? What is the image in my mind of “specifically what a student will know or be able to do when the instruction is over”? What are the big questions I want to explore in this unit?  What concepts and skills do students need to become familiar with to help them pursue these questions and construct their own understanding of the material? These questions helped me identify a set of objectives for each lesson, and moved me away from simply asking, “What do I want to cover in class today?”

To be sure, I did not believe that every objective needed to correlate with an observable and measurable outcome — I never thought you could reduce the study of literature to a series of mastery checkboxes. But I did think lessons should be intentionally structured with certain goals in mind. At minimum, objectives provided me and the students with a rough roadmap of where we were heading that day. If a teachable moment arose, I would still run with it. But I would also know when to reel in the tangents.

Piquing Student Interest and Activating Prior Knowledge

As a high school teacher, I always began class with an “anticipatory set”: something that grabbed the students’ attention and previewed the lesson of the day. Ideally, the anticipatory set — the hook — would also whet their appetite for the material to come and challenge them to reflect on what they already knew. Before taking attendance, or collecting homework, or asking students to open their books, I would play a song, screen a video clip, show a painting or photograph, assign a freewrite topic, pose an ethical dilemma for discussion — any kind of opener that related to the day’s lesson.

Starting class like this kept things fresh and different from day to day. It was also a way to have students tap into their prior knowledge (information or opinions or personal experience they already had) so that we could build on that knowledge in the course of the lesson. Activating prior knowledge is a way to show students how course content is relevant to their lives and previous learning. It can foster a “willingness on the part of students to want to engage in learning,” and transform them into active participants in our collective search for understanding.

After the anticipatory set, I would always make a point to review and connect. I would review the specific concepts or skills we had learned the previous day (and/or recap the general focus/theme of the larger unit of study), and connect this knowledge to our objectives for that day. This attention to lesson transitions helped students — and me — connect the parts to the whole and maintain a sense of course flow.

Providing Opportunities for Practice

High school teaching taught me to conceive of instruction as a three-part process that involved direct teaching, guided practice, and independent practice. Many of my lessons included some type of direct teaching: a short teacher-centered lecture or presentation of new material. I might provide historical context for a novel, or define the meaning of “vignette,” or explain what a sentence fragment is. This would be paired in some fashion with an opportunity for guided practice: a chance for students to practice and explore the new concept or skill in class, with me present to check for understanding. I would work with students as they processed the new information via a whole class discussion, or a collaborative learning activity, or an in-class writing exercise.

The final component of each lesson involved giving students a task — either daily homework or a long-term assignment, like a paper — that would provide them with an opportunity for independent practice. In other words, a task that would challenge students to independently apply the knowledge we had been working on in that particular lesson or in that particular unit, and demonstrate their understanding to me.

Teaching to Different Learning Styles

High school teaching ingrained in me the importance of teaching to different learning styles. Not all students learn the same way, nor can they all demonstrate their comprehension in the same way. For this reason, I always varied my instruction so as to meet the strengths and preferences of the visual, linguistic, logical, musical, kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal learners in my classroom. Activities would sometimes be concretely structured for analytical learners, sometimes open ended and more abstract for global learners. I would regularly give students a choice in assignments. I would give them opportunities to demonstrate their understanding in different media — through writing, drawing, performance, musical composition. I designed my lessons and assessments around Bloom’s Taxonomy of higher level thinking, trying to move from recall and comprehension to analysis and synthesis and evaluation. I became knowledgeable about various learning disabilities involving information processing, and I adapted course materials for students with these needs. Finally, I made a point of understanding my own learning profile — linguistic, intrapersonal, analytical — and worked hard to employ teaching methods that were outside of my learning comfort zone. When we teach to different learning styles, we create a classroom environment where students have “multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn.”

Reflecting on My Teaching

During my student teaching, I was required by my supervisor to keep a teaching journal. This was a place for me to reflect on my teaching — what I did well, what I needed to work on. I continued this practice throughout my high school teaching career, and I still practice self-assessment as a college professor. In recent years, I have started to use the language of “strengths and next steps” — a framework I learned when I taught in the teacher education program at Guilford College. After every lesson I teach, I try to think about what I did well: I enumerate my strengths and successes. Then, I reflect on my next steps, identifying what I can do differently or better the next time I’m in the classroom. Sometimes I write this down, sometimes I process it mentally in the car on my way home from campus. Self-assessment helps me chart my growth as a teacher and keeps me ever mindful of the fact that I can still improve.


I don’t presume that what I have described above is the only or best way to teach. It merely represents a set of pedagogical habits I developed as a high school teacher that continue to shape the way I approach college instruction. In my experience, there is no institutional divide when it comes to good teaching. Sometimes in higher education we focus too much on “what the best college teachers do,” forgetting that the most effective teaching practices can traverse subjects and grade levels. Talking more about how teachers teach well and how students learn best can help educators cross the too-rigid boundaries that have been constructed around their classroom experiences.

There are several ways I try to cross the institutional divide and lead by example in my current position. Whenever I have graduate student teaching assistants, I introduce them to the approaches described above through weekly meetings, and I give them an opportunity to design and guest teach a lesson that incorporates these approaches (here is a copy of my “Teaching Tutorial” syllabus). Whenever I am involved in organizing professional conferences, I try to encourage and schedule panels on pedagogy that include both high school and college teachers. I serve on a university committee that oversees the preparation of high school social studies teachers through our credential program, and I advise majors who are pursuing this credential. I eagerly accept offers to interact with high school teachers, whether it be through a Teaching American History program or participation in a summer institute for secondary teachers.

Of course, there is much more that could be done: arranging for college teachers to visit high school classrooms and observe high school teachers; setting up collaborative projects between the university and local public schools; pursuing opportunities to co-author articles on pedagogy with secondary teachers; using social media to network with teachers at all levels. Collaboration among university and K-12 educators, in whatever form it takes, has the very real potential to create new spaces to explore pedagogy that transcend institutional boundaries.

Further Reading