Difference Between High School Teacher and University Professor

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My Dad and I were reminiscing over coffee about our experiences as teachers. He taught high school Social Studies in North Carolina in the 1970’s, and later on an Indian reservation in South Dakota. I taught graduate mathematics and engineering at university in the early 2000’s. I challenged Dad with the same question I was challenged with by a Professor Emeritus while preparing my first lecture. Namely, “what’s the difference between a high school teacher and university professor?”

My initial answer was the “the complexity of topics?

Partly,” the distinguished professor answered, “but no.”

I quickly followed by suggesting it was, “the intensity and rigor?”

To which he again answered, “partly, but still not the answer I’m looking for.” After a short pause he continued, “high school teachers are encouraged to take an interest in their student’s lives, to care for their intellectual, emotional, and social well being. As a university professor, you don’t care about that.

I was at first comforted that all I was expected to do was lecture, after all, I had neither the training nor the interest in those other “softer” things. In addition, I had zero training in those areas. My comfort though was only short lived.

As an engineering professor, you have both tactical and strategic objectives,” he went on to explain. “Tactically you job is to teach future engineers math and science. Strategically your job to prepare them to be future professionals who will represent this institution with respectfulness, integrity, and commitment. Your job is to treat them as their future bosses will, and I can assure you, once they start their careers the only thing their bosses will expect from them, and care about getting from them, is results on time, of the highest quality, fully completed, and properly documented.”

Engineers are a special talent,” he continued. “Your job is to push them to the point of discovering that talent. Work them, stress them, hone them, but offer no quarter and accept no excuse for work that is late, poorly done, or below the quality you expect. You are not their friend, not their confidant, not their counselor. You are their teacher, the person who is going to mold them into successful engineers who have rich and rewarding careers.

If the UCLA professor who was suspended for not permitting students to skip their final exam as a show of solidarity with Black Lives Matter, were teaching engineering, he would have been right to refuse that request. Engineers are taught to be responsible students and future professionals who put their responsibilities and obligations ahead of their personal desires, who knows what they hell they teach liberal arts students or what kind of future they are preparing them for.