Closing the Gap: On Teaching High School and College

October 7, 2015 | 1 book mentioned 2 5 min read


At the small public high school where I teach, the COWs — computers on wheels — are herded in a room lined with wicker post-and-rail fences and fake grass. Our campus is tucked in the woods, with the county library on one side. We have one of the only working school planetariums in the state. A single, two-story building shaped like an H, our school could have been the setting for The Breakfast Club.

coverAfter the final bell, students spill out the front and side doors. Seniors return in Jeeps for football practice. Freshman line the curb waiting for the bus to take them to a soccer scrimmage. Inside, a few students quietly work on calculus problems at long tables. Custodians stack chairs, close windows, and lock doors. Teachers and administrators exhale. Each day is a small victory.

I never planned on becoming a teacher. I never studied education. I loved high school, but that was mostly because my 400-student school offered individualized plans of study. I studied astronomy, poetry, and architecture. I spent a year doing an independent study on propulsion systems and Air Force commissioned investigations of flying saucers. I spent long afternoons running sprints on soccer fields, and cold Saturday mornings running full-court presses on the hardwood.

Yes, I never planned on becoming a teacher, and yet here I remain, more than a decade later. You can fake teaching, but you can’t fake being a teacher. Students know the ones who care, the ones who see them as individuals. Being a teacher requires a mixture of eccentricity, patience, empathy, humility, honesty, and more content knowledge than you can ever expect your students to master before they graduate.

Once a week, after my day teaching high school is done, I drive halfway down the Garden State to The College of New Jersey, where I teach fiction and poetry. In high school, I am a teacher. In college, I am a professor. We could argue the semantics here: contingent faculty rightly remind students that they are instructors, and not technically professors, lest students think they are making a salary truly commensurate with their worth. But when I am in a college classroom, my students don’t call me Mr. Ripatrazone. They call me professor.

My time spent teaching both high school and college has further revealed the chasm between these continents of education. High schools conceive of literature as a method to teach writing, and to a lesser extent, reading — but both within the scope of skills and standards. The current flavor, Common Core, won’t last, but it will be replaced by something equally imperfect. The freedom of college education allows for the study of literature as an end rather than a means. I think this ultimately matters because high school teachers and college professors are usually so culturally separated and yet linked within a pedagogical continuum. High school teachers pass off students to professors, the anchor leg of this marathon relay of education, but we aren’t running in sync. We’re not even running on the same track.

The lament is common: professors wonder how their high school students, specifically those who fill composition classes, are so woefully unprepared. They can’t write theses; they don’t write with specifics. They don’t know how to read critically; they don’t know how to think critically. These laments fill the print and virtual pages of publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education, or arrive as breathless social media complaints. I don’t want to deny anyone’s cathartic outlet. Professors have to deal with their own unfounded stereotypes, including that they don’t quite teach as much as “present” information — hiding their inert pedagogies behind claims that students must be “independent.”

I like to give my students the benefit of the doubt until it stops benefiting them, and I extend that to educators. In some ways, the differences between high school and college are healthy. We are dealing with students at vastly different stages of their emotional, social, and intellectual development. The summer between high school graduation and a student’s first night in a college dorm room contains enough changes and anxieties to fill an epic poem.

Wouldn’t this transition be eased if there were more communication and collaboration between high school teachers and professors? I have seen this done successfully. Most of my current high school courses are college prep, but one section, Practices of Academic Writing, is a Syracuse University course. Unlike dual enrollment courses, Syracuse’s Project Advance program offers actual college courses, for which students receive college credit, and are taught by instructors certified as university instructors (which means I am technically an adjunct at both Syracuse and The College of New Jersey, a fine trick of bilocation).

I find the Syracuse program exemplary because it encourages and thrives on the exact dialogue absent between high school teachers and college professors. During the introductory unit of the course, my students read a range of non-fiction, including Sherman Alexie’sSuperman and Me,” Walter Mosley’sPatter and Patois,” and George Saunders’sThank You, Esther Forbes,” before composing their own personal essays. Their pieces are part literacy narratives, part dramatizations of their beliefs — but aren’t delivered in the single-note brevity that makes so many college application essays feel robotic and mannered.

The approach of the Syracuse program — which is guided by the same professors who teach mirror courses on the actual campus — is to focus on analysis of genre as an entry into college writing. A high school teacher might use Alexie’s “Superman and Me” to complement a full-length book or unit, but she might not engage Alexie’s genre as literary structure. This is not a deficiency of the high school teacher’s approach; it is exhausting for students when a text is exhausted. Yet the genre analysis of Alexie’s work makes our rote proclamations of “writing as process” come alive. It hurts my soul to learn how few of my high school students will go on to major in English, but those students will never stop writing. A genre approach to reading and writing gives students confidence and control. So often high school teachers seek to prepare students to become strong high school writers — which sets them up for failure the moment they enter a college classroom.

This is not to say that professors can’t also learn from their high school counterparts. Talented high school teachers know the power of classroom performance, the charged feeling of fully inhabiting a closed space. The day of a teacher is fast and often frenzied. No wonder teachers pine for the summer; they earn it. Professors work equally as hard, but it can be refreshingly jarring to spend a day with a high school teacher as he moves from teaching Caedmon’s hymn to Andre Dubus’s “Digging,” followed by lunch duty, breaking-up a fight, trekking down to the soccer field during an evacuation drill, and ending the day trying to convince a student that she matters despite the drama of a broken friendship or a fractured family.

We tend to best remember the teachers who changed our lives in the moments after class more so than those who awed us between the bells. Teachers who offered advice or compassion when most needed. Teachers who listened. My favorite high school teacher was Mr. Shoemaker, who guided me through my entertaining and odd independent study. I still have a letter he wrote me after I received rejection letters from colleges. Those months were like a storm in my high school life, and his words were calming. It was not his role to tell me that my frustration over college rejections was minor in the grand scheme of world suffering. He knew I would realize that soon enough. One mark of a great teacher is knowing exactly what a student needs in an individual moment.

Such gifts are not exclusive to high school teachers. Although our methods and locations might be different, teachers and professors hopefully share the same coda: we wish to leave students a little better off than we first met them. Whether that improvement is statistical or spiritual is irrelevant. Everyone seems to have an opinion about our American educational system, so I’ll conclude with mine: the most important curve in the lives of our students occurs when they leave the structured comfort of a high school classroom and enter the comparative freedom of a college classroom. Our students will perform better once we close the gap. We might even experience the additional miracle of becoming better teachers, professors, and mentors.

Image Credit: Flickr.

is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is the culture editor for Image Journal, and a contributor to the Catholic Herald (UK). He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and the Kenyon Review. He is the author of Longing for an Absent God and Wild Belief. Follow him at @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at


  1. I think the loss of the unifying influence of the canon (consistently under attack by the forces of “multiculturalism” since at least the 1990s) is a big part of why it’s harder to bridge that gap between high school and college. It used to be that everyone (or almost everyone) coming into college had a shared experience in high school of reading, largely, the same texts (maybe you read “Macbeth” and I read “Othello” but essentially everyone had read at least one or two Shakespeare tragedies).

    In the sciences, whether it be physics or psychology, that is still the case. There are certain basics, certain concepts and scholars and important crafters of theories and theses in the field that just about everyone learns in high school. For the humanities, in particular English, every student has read some different “flavor of the week” book that may or may not even be in print in ten years. Some are memoirs, some are best sellers, some are even children’s books/YA! (The Hunger Games books are fun for middle schoolers, and our kids need “fun reading,” escapist entertainment, but teaching them in a high school or college classroom is absurd)

    “However great an injustice it was that mostly ‘dead white males’ had the opportunities necessary to write great literature in the Renaissance, it doesn’t fix that injustice to teach not-so-great literature instead. Affirmative action in the curriculum is as counterproductive as affirmative action in admissions. I mean, what good does it do women and minorities to enroll in college in greater numbers than in past, if the curriculum they get once they’re there is drastically dumbed down from the curriculum that white men used to get, back when mostly white men went to college?”
    -Elizabeth Kantor

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