This question could be very broad, and so I'd like to make it more specific.

In the United States, mathematics educators generally work in secondary education or college education (elementary school specialists exist but are rare).

Secondary educators tend to have scheduled work for most of every day, as well as grading homework during preparation time and at home.

College educators can range from research professors teaching two or three classes a year (each of which meets for 3 hours a week) to adjuncts teaching up to 24 hours a week (as one colleague of mine does).

To those who have been employed in both secondary and college education, is there a level of college teaching that feels similar to high-school teaching (i.e. is teaching high school similar to teaching 4 college classes a semester)? If college education is too dissimilar to compare to high school/middle school, what are the key differences that set them apart?

Please feel free to edit this question to make it more understandable.

  • $\begingroup$ I guess the question will select just a very few able to answer. And teaching load is just one part of the job in either case. $\endgroup$
    – vonbrand
    Commented Apr 2, 2014 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ I am a university lecturer (average course load 1 per semester, 14 weeks with 5hrs contact time per week) who is married to a secondary school teacher (not mathematics). I can attest that her workload outstrips mine as the sun outshines the moon. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 8:42
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    $\begingroup$ I've done both (in the U.S.), 4 years of high school teaching (1 year at the lowest performing high school in a certain nameless Southern state and 3 years at a public boarding school for gifted students) and 9 years at various colleges and universities (small private, mid-size selective private, 4-year regional state, another regional state with math Ph.D.). However, I'm not sure what to say nor do I really feel up to the task at this time. However, of the answers presently appearing, Professor Madrigal's seems closest to what I would say. His Lesson Plan insert is an excellent choice to use. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 19:59

4 Answers 4


How does the workload of a high-school mathematics teacher compare to a university-level instructor?

To give you some context, I taught grades 7 - 9 for three years and I have taught in one way or another at the university level for 15 years (first as a grad student and now as a professor). My current job is Associate Professor of Mathematics Education in an education department, but I do teach mathematics courses (mathematics content for elementary teachers) as a part of my job.

The workload itself is very different in general. As a junior high mathematics teacher, I taught 5 sections a year (two sections of one course and three sections of another course), and each course had about 30 students in it. I also had other roles, such as teacher duties (lunch duty, detention duty) and coaching (or advising student groups) responsibilities. I had one preparation period each day for which I had to complete all grading, planning, copying, etc. And of course that meant I took a lot of work home.

As a college professor at a research institution, I teach two or fewer classes each semester (depending on whether a research grant has bought me out of teaching a course), with no more than 35 students in each class, probably less. But I have more administrative duties now as a professor, and the research expectation is large enough to take up a non-trivial portion of my time. Plus, there is a great deal of one-on-one teaching while working with graduate students -- advising them on dissertation work, etc. So the general nature of the work is tough to compare. Both roles require a lot of time beyond a standard 40 hour work week.

I have never felt more physically exhausted than when I was a junior high teacher. I have never felt more mentally drained than in my current job. Both kinds of draining also have unique feelings of invigoration associated with them.

To those who have been employed in both secondary and college education, is there a level of college teaching that feels similar to high-school teaching (i.e. is teaching high school similar to teaching 4 college classes a semester)? If college education is too dissimilar to compare to high school/middle school, what are the key differences that set them apart?

Ah, so the real question is to compare the work of teaching, then?

Preparing to teach feels similar now, although I think I am better at it just because more time has passed -- I have learned more about how to target my teaching to connect to my students' thinking, how to create lessons that support conceptual understanding in balance with procedural fluency. But I'd like to think I would have gotten better at this and learned more regardless of my role. So, planning to teach might be similar if we compare class to class and assume equal time was available.

The act of delivering a lesson -- assume the same number of students in each class (which is a big assumption in some cases) -- and one major difference is probably obvious: classroom management. K-12 education in the USA is compulsory up until age 16, right? And college students have more of a choice of whether or not to be there.

But also teachers still must motivate and engage learners at every level, because all students can choose to check out mentally (either choosing not to physically show up in college or not mentally be there in secondary school).

I also agree with the person above who said no parent calls or contact. I would do this as a middle school teacher. I am literally not allowed to discuss student progress with a parent at the university level, because the student is a legal adult.

I do not agree that college teaching has to be more teacher-centered. I think that college teaching can build upon students' thinking, be interactive, and be tailored to the individual needs of students -- particularly if the class is smaller in size -- but college instructors are not required to do this.

I collaborate more with colleagues on planning and debriefing from instruction and also I conduct research on my undergraduate students' learning now as a college professor. But I would have liked to collaborate like this and to conduct action research as a teacher. I didn't have time as a newer teacher, and none of us in my department made this kind of work a priority then.

I do probably spend more time planning and grading as a professor than I did as a teacher, but perhaps because I have more time.

Class-to-class, I probably spend more time on teaching two classes now than I did when teaching two classes as a junior high teacher. But I had more students and more classes when I taught junior high.

As a college professor, we are not evaluated by our students' test scores. Our raises are not affected by student performance (although perhaps the administration could take students' performance into account a bit more?). Instead, I am evaluated by student evaluations and my reflections on my own teaching. I ramp this up by conducting publishable research related to my students' learning, however, so I am able to present data to administrators that takes students' learning into account, as least for some of my courses.

Here is how a typical lesson of mine went as a junior high teacher: Students came in and work on a warm up problem or two. We discussed that problem. We went over the previous night's homework. I presented some material, they practiced some problems with some guidance from me, we discussed the problems -- including some students coming to the board to share their work and thinking, then the students had time to work independently on the problems to get started on their homework during class. Sometimes (once a week or every two weeks), we had a more exploratory problem solving lesson involving working together in groups using manipulatives to understand concepts and develop mathematical understandings on more challenging tasks that required working together in groups.

Here is how a typical lesson of mine (for my mathematics courses for prospective teachers) goes as a college professor: Students come in and sit in their groups and start sharing their homework solutions with each other. We spend time at the beginning of the class going over homework -- mostly with the undergrads coming up to the document camera explaining their thinking and talking with each other about the mathematics. I am more of a facilitator during the going-over-homework process than I used to be. Then, I give them a task that is within their zones of proximal development (they have enough prior knowledge to get started, but they are learning new mathematics by working on the task) to solve with their groups. After they work for a while, we have a class discussion that involves students going to the chalkboard and the document camera to present their work and thinking and the class discusses. Again, I am more of a facilitator and my role is to highlight and clarify and bring out the most important ideas and reinforce them. Then, students receive homework to practice what they learn. I assign fewer homework problems now, maybe about 7, when I assigned about 30 per night to junior high students, but each of the 7 tasks requires a great deal of diagramming, explaining, etc., because the goals of the course are to develop conceptual understanding among the prospective teachers.

The nature of my teaching changed because I changed how I think about teaching over time, and I had a heavier balance on procedural fluency than conceptual understanding or problem solving as a junior high mathematics teacher (this would be different if I taught junior high today!), and I have a heavier balance on conceptual understanding now as a college professor of mathematics for future teachers -- because this is what my students need. They already have strong procedural fluency. What they need is to understand the meanings behind the procedures in order to be more effective teachers.

So, the work of teaching not only is shaped by our level of teaching (junior high, high school, college), but also it is shaped by our goals for our students' learning. That's such an important point that I'd like to end with that. (Thanks for reading all of this, if you did!)

Edited to add: I would like to share a book chapter in which I reflected upon the ways in which I think about teaching mathematics differently now than I used to think about it.

Middleton, J. A., & Jansen, A. (2011). Motivation Matters, and Interest Counts: Fostering Engagement in Mathematics, Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

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    $\begingroup$ I did, and thanks for writing all of this. I'm curious as to whether or not there is anything you would do differently were you to now go back to teaching junior high (you hint at a bit, but I wonder if there is more). $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 13:01
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    $\begingroup$ ah... good idea about public sharing via DropBox. I might be able to do that by the end of the week, regarding making the chapter publicly available. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for a great answer and welcome to the site! $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 1:05
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    $\begingroup$ oh, thanks!!! I appreciate the bounty! :) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 13:25
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    $\begingroup$ Okay, HERE is the chapter about how I think about my teaching differently NOW than I used to think about it... dropbox.com/s/on3w54k4p85fe0r/… From this book: Middleton, J. A., & Jansen, A. (2011). Motivation Matters, and Interest Counts: Fostering Engagement in Mathematics, Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 13:28

This answer is really more of an extended comment, so please do not award me the bounty.

I think this question may be difficult to answer objectively, because the answer varies so much depending on (a) where you are teaching, (b) what specific courses you are teaching, and (c) what level of quality you aspire to. Of these, I think (c) may be particularly relevant.

For example, in 1999-2000, MIT professor Walter Lewin taught a two-semester introductory physics course. Videos of this course were placed online, some of which have garnered millions of views on YouTube.

His goal for the course was to teach the introductory physics course. According to this New York Times article, he prepared almost 25 hours for each lecture, which means 50 hours of preparation for two lectures a week. In addition to preparing marvelous experimental demonstrations, he also prepared nearly word-for-word exactly what he would say during each lecture, and then memorized this "script".

What this means is that he taught only one four-credit course each semester, and he worked more than full time on this. How does this compare to the workload of the typical high-school teacher? Or of a typical professor?

My impression is that most good teachers put more work into their classes than is absolutely required, in an effort to help the students learn. For example, sometimes when I teach I write up extensive lecture notes for the students, even though they already have the lecture as well as the textbook. These notes seem to help the students quite a bit, but writing up such notes isn't exactly required of me.

I know this is true at the high school level as well. My mother was a high-school Spanish teacher for many years, and she would regularly put quite a lot of effort into preparing interesting and fun activities for the students that would introduce them to aspects of the Spanish and Mexican cultures. I don't think this was required of her, but she did it because she was fulfilling her interpretation of what it means to be a good teacher.

So my conclusion is that "workload" isn't exactly a relevant concept for teachers. Most teachers choose for themselves how much work to do, based on their own personal standards for what constitutes good teaching. The more classes you have to teach, the less time you will have for each, and so the less well you will do your job. But I'm not sure there's any objective way to compare the workloads of different kinds of teachers.

Edit: All that being said, I do agree with the spirit of the question. Like Brian Rushton, I would love to hear from someone who has taught at both the high school and college levels.


I can only answer for Germany.

High-school maths teacher

25-27 lessons (each 45 min) per week. Depending on teaching style, additionally grading homework or grading tests (once a month) and exams (2 to 6 times per year). Supervision of projects etc. Overhead: class management, parents management, talks to students, coordinating with colleagues, school issues.

In sum, you very easily come to 45-50 hours per week.


6 to 8 lessons (each 45 min) per week. Coordinating your graduate assistants. Coordinating 2-4 exams per year. Consultation hours: 2 per week. Overhead: Course management.

In sum, you'll come to 10-12 hours per week. But be aware, that in Germany, a Professor is equally lecturer and researcher.

  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean by "lecture staff"? At first I assumed you mean graduate assistants and alike. But then I thought maybe you meant to write "stuff." In addition if I may ask: did you/do you work as: the former the latter or both (or neither). $\endgroup$
    – quid
    Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 15:15
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    $\begingroup$ @quid With "lecture staff" I mean graduate assistants and alike. I work as a high school maths teacher but also worked as a graduate assitant and in a hiring committee for Professors. $\endgroup$
    – Toscho
    Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 18:13

I am both a high school and college instructor in Los Angeles. Here's my two cents:

High School Math Teacher

In high school, it's all about classroom management. I recognize all students who range in math skills, ability and disposition towards the subject and offer accommodations for all. For example, I had 2 high students in my previous algebra 1 classes whom demonstrate very low skills and math comprehension. I provided accomodations for these students: extended office hours, extended time on assessments, typed or printed notes, visual aids, graphic organizers, and partner seating arrangement with students who can assist them.

On my whiteboard, the standards, objectives, agenda with the use of formative (five finger check for understanding, thumbs up/thumbs down understanding/class discussion) and summative assessments (ticket out, quiz, test etc.) is written on the board for students to see and how they will be engaged therefore minimizing level of distraction for students which could really help with behavior problems. My agenga is usually a warm up, warm up debrief, homework review, collaborative activity, and ticket-out assessment. At the end of the week, if I feel (from ticket outs) that students are ready for a quiz, I will give a quiz. For grading, I usually only grade ticket outs. Their classwork/homework is collected but I only grade certain problems - sometimes (because there's 150 students) I have them exchange papers and grade it for me. Also, a lot of collaborative assignments are given therefore minimizing my grading.

A high school teacher must also be aware of pre-requisite knowledge and students misconceptions with respect to the standards discussed. A high school teacher must also include in his lesson plan how he will address the needs of subgroups and individual students such as English Language Learners, students with Learning Disabilities, and Gifted students. An example of all the aforementioned is here:

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College Instructor

This is my "easy" job. Similar to high school. No behavior issues therefore classroom management is more laid back. No parent conferences. No calls home etc. More teacher centered than that of high school (which is both teacher centered, student centered, one on one instruction, and direct instruction). We have Audial, Visual, and Kinesthetic learners here too so we must still use a combination of teacher and student centered approaches.

I establish rapport with students first day of class (student survey), communicate my expectation/procedures, and I motivate students to learn. But since time is an issue and you can't really give 'classwork', I have to really keep my instruction mostly doing explicit instruction 80%. Here's my lesson plan for college instruction:

1) Warmup Lecture (Performing an instruction strategy "I do, we do, you do") 2)Lecture 3) Guided Practice 4) Lecture 5) Guided Practice 6) Ticket out (to inform me of whether students were learning what I put on the board - this is important because the following lecture I will outline any student misconceptions on my warmup)

All homework assignments are on their syllabus. They turn in all homework last day of lecture for that week. A test is given for every 2 chapters with the ability to make them up if they didn't pass. I have a philosophy that Math is not about when you get it, as long as you get it.

Hope this helps.


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