Transitioning to Higher Ed: Reflections of a Middle Grades Professor

Comparing middle level and college instruction.

By: James Davis


Career changes often come with feelings of apprehension, excitement, and concern. At the same time, they also present an opportunity to reflect, process information, and use the change as a springboard for future and greater success.

After 15 years in the public schools as a teacher and administrator, I found the idea of transitioning into the role of university professor appealing, despite what I knew would be significant changes in my roles and responsibilities.

Rather than spending my days with middle level students, as I had done for years, I would be devoting my time to instructing adults—future educators.

During the past 12 months, as a first-year professor in the middle grades department at High Point University, I kept a journal, recording my personal thoughts and the thoughts and comments of my students. I recently spent time reading my entries, looking for common themes, trends, and best practices.

Based on that review, I chose the six reflections below as food for thought for anyone who is thinking about or preparing to make the transition from a middle grades school into a middle grades department in higher education.

Relationships matter even more than I thought.

Any good educator knows the importance of building relationships with students. We all talk about relationships and look for ways to build meaningful connections with those whom we teach.

Building relationships is important at any level, including higher education. Adults are not as easily convinced as students, and at times it can be harder to "win them over." So, taking the time to step away from the content, taking the time to laugh, share, and work alongside college-age students goes a long way toward creating strong relationships that last far beyond the end of a semester.

Partnerships with schools benefit more than just the students.

We often hear about the value of partnerships between universities and local schools. Those partnerships involve tutoring, professional development, service-learning projects, and other opportunities for professors and college students to serve students and teachers in their community. They culminate in an acknowledgment of the impact the university has had on the middle school and on student achievement.

While this is all positive and powerful, it is important to note that partnerships with middle schools benefit the professors as well. Being in middle schools keeps professors in touch with the populations they ultimately serve. It gives them the chance to stay current, see what schools and classrooms are like for students and teachers , and share that information as teachers of future middle level educators.

Things that work with middle level students work with college students, too.

Never step away from your best practices as you transition to the university classroom. Best practices are still best practices. Your delivery may be somewhat different at times, but tried-and-true strategies with instruction, classroom management, and relationship-building that work at the middle school level work at the university level as well.

Don't shelve such strategies as a purposeful turn-and-talk, a well-planned stop-and-jot, a handwritten thank-you note, genuine praise, and standing strategically near a student who otherwise won't stop talking. The list goes on and on.

When it works, it works, regardless of the level.

Technology keeps you on your toes.

The days of lecturing in the college classroom are out (or they should be). Just like middle level students, college students want and deserve a technology-rich classroom. With everything from digital storytelling, virtual field trips, and educational documentaries, to simulations, podcasts, and online meetings, the effective use of technology will keep students—and the professor—on their toes and engaged.

Experiences matter.

We learn from the experiences of others. Genuine dialogue and the freedom to share past and current experiences have a huge impact on college students. While information about the professor's experiences is critical—especially when that professor has worked in a middle level school recently, information from teammates in the trenches is a valuable educational tool as well.

It's important to integrate hands-on experiences into every course. Field experiences, clinical assignments, volunteer work, and other opportunities for the professor and students ensure that learning takes place outside the college classroom, too.

For example, in one of my diversity classes for future teachers, in addition to our regular class several times each week, students have the opportunity to:

  • Complete a cultural clinical focused on multi-cultural education.
  • Complete two minority experiences where they place themselves in various minority settings, focus on greater levels of understanding, then apply it to their future classrooms.
  • Complete a mini-service project in which they plan, implement, and reflect upon a service project in their area with the kids they may one day be teaching.

My students say these are among the most treasured components of our class.

There really is no other job more rewarding than that of a teacher.

Yes, we often hear people say it, but there are times when circumstances cause it to slip from the forefront of our mind: There really is no other job that is more rewarding, more fulfilling, and more impactful than that of a teacher. My first year as a professor strengthened that long-held belief.

In the midst of all kinds of challenges and obstacles along the way, teachers change lives for the better.


James Davis, a former middle level teacher and administrator, is an associate professor at High Point University in North Carolina, working in the elementary, middle grades, and educational leadership departments. jdavis@highpoint.edu
Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2016.

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