For Teachers

How to Transition from Teaching K-12 to Higher Education

By Kara Wyman, MEd July 10, 2018

Have you wondered what it would be like to work with students at the college level? If you’re a K-12 teacher who is thinking of transitioning to higher education, we’re here to shed some light on the subject. And to do that, we spoke with three of our highly knowledgeable Cavaliers.

Brad Davis has been part of the faculty at Santa Rosa Junior College for the past 17 years. He serves as their dean of workforce development, and he earned his MEd in Educational Leadership.



Serena Richards has taught embedded dual credit high school classes and now teaches at North Central Texas College and Collin College. She’s been teaching with various colleges since 2010 and is currently earning her EdD in Higher Education.



Wanda Spalteholz teaches PreK and higher education simultaneously. She is an education specialist at Macomb Community Action Head Start and an adjunct faculty member at Macomb Community College. She’s currently earning her EdD in Transformational Leadership.

Start connecting your K-12 experiences to higher education

“There are a couple of things you can do to stand out while transitioning from K-12 to higher education,” says Brad Davis. “Show how your experience there can help students here [in college]. Work on task-force groups while in K-12 that involve higher education partners, showing that your work and energy go beyond the K-12 walls.”

Your background can be seen as an asset

Teachers who’ve taught in K-12 before transitioning to higher education often “have a great developmental perspective,” says Serena Richards. “You’ll be able to understand the groundwork that was laid for students before they entered college. Focus on prior issues that might impact students’ performance in and adjustment to college. The type of experience can shape your responses to questions about your qualifications.”

For K-12 teachers who’ve already engaged with students and parents through online platforms, that knowledge is applicable to teaching higher education. “You’ll almost certainly be required to maintain a robust online presence, with maybe all of your learning materials on the CMS (Course Management Systems) —even if you teach a traditional face-to-face class,” Richards says.

Your depth of knowledge can help you stand out

“Deeply know your practice and the differences in how adults learn compared to children,” says Wanda Spalteholz. “Know the direction education is heading generally and specifically in your state, community, and district. Being a lifelong learner is crucial and one needs to be able to communicate that about themselves. It’s important to show what you’re doing to advance vs. simply stating that you’re a lifelong learner in an interview.”

Network to build valuable connections

“Forming working relationships through volunteering at conferences can lead to connections that indicate one’s shift into higher education,” Spalteholz says. “As a master’s student, my academic standing resulted in an invitation to join an organization called M.A.T.E. (Michigan Association of Teacher Educators) as a board member. This exposed me to EdDs and PhDs in education. It gave me a new trajectory of learning and establishing myself in higher education.”

More info: Education Conferences That You Should Consider Attending

Apply for an adjunct position

“I recommend applying for the adjunct pool and teaching while you’re still in K-12,” says Davis. “That will not only get your foot in the door, but help you understand the processes and procedures at the college level, which will also help you later stand out from other applicants.”

Spalteholz is an adjunct faculty member herself and also says it’s helpful to “engage in field related events”. “Listing those on a resume can make a significant difference.”

More info: Best Websites to Search for Jobs in Higher Education

Try teaching at a community college

If you’ve taught high school, Richards suggests transitioning to community college. “Many high school students take community college courses before they complete their secondary education. Your experience at the secondary level could be especially valuable there. In both cases, students want clear goals and prompt feedback on their work.”

Potential challenges

The biggest challenge is working in a bureaucracy. Sometimes things don’t happen as fast as you wish,” Davis says. “There are more levels involved with decisions, etc. at the state level. So when we try to adapt fast to what an industry is looking for in our graduates, it can sometimes be frustrating to maneuver the many steps to translate that into the classroom.”

Working with students who have low expectations can be difficult, Spalteholz says. So she spends time “finding the nuances that facilitate successful learning for each student.” She has also dealt with “institution’s expectations that are not always clearly communicated”. For those working part-time, she says it can be hard to “feel a part of the team”.

Richards echoes Spalteholz’s sentiment regarding a lack of connectedness: “You don’t really meet with your department chair frequently, so you don’t get a great deal of feedback from administrators if you’re ‘doing it right’, which can be a bit intimidating for some.” But she says there’s a solution: “Find a tribe. Meet with other adjuncts. Find a seasoned adjunct or other professor who has been on the campus for a while to guide you and serve as your mentor.”

Potential rewards

Davis says “there is no better feeling” than when he hears from past students who “have overcome challenges and are now on a successful path”. Knowing that his class was “part of that change” is an added bonus. “As educators, our students are our best success stories and the reason we work to begin with. As an administrator now, I may not have the direct connection to students, but I still know what I do is to ultimately support them in the end.”

Spalteholz also focuses on student success as a reward, saying it’s all about “making a contribution to the next generation of educators, seeing students who need confidence gain that, seeing students discover their passions in education”. She also enjoys being a mentor based on relationships “not merely academics”, explaining that many of her students have become teachers she supervises and coaches. “Authentic relationships are key.”

Richards also finds gratification in her work with students: “Three years ago a student texted me at 6:30 in the morning, stressed about her first paper. I called her and we spent over two hours on the phone discussing her fears, her goals, and why she just couldn’t get words on the page. When a student is comfortable enough to reach out and express fears, goals, and expectations to an instructor, that is so gratifying to know that they trust you enough to talk with you.”

Kara Wyman earned an MEd and a BA from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She spent a decade working with adolescents as an English teacher, the founder and director of a drama program, a curriculum designer, and a project manager for a teen-centered nonprofit organization. She’s served as the Alumni and Community Manager for Concordia University-Portland and is now the managing editor of Concordia’s Room 241 blog.

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