So the fact that, ever since transitioning from secondary school teaching to university lecturing, I have to cross a footbridge to commute gives me a daily dose of poignance.
The thing about crossing bridges is that you’ll typically reach a point where both banks are equidistant and, for a moment, observable from a more objective standpoint. This reflection is written from atop the bridge’s arc. Well, metaphorically of course.
After 17 years of school teaching in three countries (and in state, independent, Catholic, single-sex and co-ed contexts) I have recently begun lecturing in Education at university.
I have found that secondary and tertiary teaching share some core attributes, but are also so different as to be barely comparable. And, so far, I have found the transition wonderfully enriching.
It may help teachers to know that lecturers (certainly the ones I am in touch with) have in common a deep, unwavering care for students. Universities’ efforts in student retention means that students’ needs are typically foregrounded in the myriad daily decisions that are taken in the process of educating young people.
Similarly to teachers, lecturers also face pressures to engage their learners. Yes, it’s true that university students (unlike schoolchildren) have chosen to be there, but that does not mean that they’re enjoying your lecture or finding your tutorials worthwhile.
The onus is still on the educator to give learners motive to engage with the learning process and the content of the course. Parents may be off the scene, but I have found that tertiary students readily call out inadequate pedagogy, such as lacking criteria and rubrics, or repetitive, unengaging teaching modes. And most universities operate a regular survey regime wherein students can express judgment on lecturers – surveys that are explicitly connected to performance review processes.
There are, of course, material and cultural differences. While emotional management is always an essential skill, the need for behaviour management is virtually absent at university.
Contact teaching time for most lecturers is less than that of school teachers, which makes the daily rhythms much more flexible.
Having said that, the expected rigour means that all lectures and tutorials require significant preparation time (or at least, they do for me in this first year).
After all, you can hardly ad-lib when you know that a video-recording of your teaching will be automatically posted for later viewing.
Class sizes are incomparable. I have 231 in my current crop, reduced to 23 for smaller tutorials. While of course students are largely self-sufficient and can access much of the course online, the size of the cohort means that communication is constant – a rushing stream of reminders, advice, encouragement, reassurance and celebration.
What has struck me most about transitioning from schools to university has been the shift in culture.
Leaving a school helps you perceive that each is a sub-culture, and oftentimes its identity barely represents wider society. University might not be a mirror of wider society either, but it is explicit in its pluralism, its openness to all ways of being and its protection of intellectual freedoms.
In the absence of an externally mandated curriculum, I enjoy a liberating autonomy over much content and learning processes, subject to reasonable internal parameters.
Perhaps most importantly, lecturing – like school teaching – gifts an unending feeling that you are engaging in a pleasurable and meaningful profession with great impact.