Professional Learning

What to Know About College Adjunct Teaching

Many K–12 teachers enjoy the experience of leading college classes occasionally. Here’s how that works.

May 10, 2023
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Many K–12 teachers are attracted by the idea of teaching college classes in addition to their existing teaching role. There are a variety of reasons why a K–12 teacher may wish to become an adjunct professor, and a variety of ways that doing so could benefit their career.  

I decided to adjunct because I wanted to walk in a professor’s shoes—to see if I could follow a path in higher education. When I was an undergraduate, most of my professors, teaching assistants, and advisers did not look like me. The majority were of a different generation (50+ years of age), a different gender (men), and a different racial demographic (Caucasian). I believed that more students deserved to experience the academic benefits of diverse leadership. I also imagined that preparing lessons for class would help me stay abreast of current research that I was most passionate about.   

The hiring of adjuncts, or part-time college instructors only responsible for teaching individual classes, has grown over the last 40 years. More students are going to college, and there is a demand for more instructors. According to an American Federation of Teachers Higher Education Data Center report in 2013, there is a heavy reliance on part-time faculty. K–12 teachers make great adjuncts because of their deep knowledge of topics and fantastic teaching skills. This piece explores the benefits and insider tips to pursuing adjunct teaching.  

Adjuncting Basics

Benefits: Why might K–12 teachers choose to serve as an adjunct?  

First, it offers unique professional development. Depending on your background, you may want to look in an education department or a department in your content area. Teaching for colleges and universities may give you opportunities for reduced or reimbursed college credits, access to teaching workshops, and the ability to obtain training and research materials via their university library. Some institutions have designed adjunct networking and mentoring systems, but resources differ across universities.  

Adjuncts have a major impact on student learning. Students are more likely to take a second course in a discipline and earn a higher grade in the next course when the instructor is an adjunct. Adjuncts are also likely to teach students who need the most support. And students can learn a lot from practitioners—learning about teaching from current classroom teachers is invaluable to students.

Finally, you may have more academic freedom adjuncting than you do in your K–12 position. You will often design the course materials and assignments in the class. You can also choose to accept or decline the teaching contract each semester.

Education and skills: Although there are differences across states, most colleges and universities require 18 graduate credit hours in the subject area in order to teach on the undergraduate level. Some colleges, particularly ones with dual enrollment programs, may provide tuition remission to high school teachers in order to help them reach this 18-credit mark.

However, a graduate or terminal degree will make you more competitive for these positions. I have taught both undergraduate and graduate courses based on my psychology graduate credits and courses in special education based on my postgraduate credits in that area.

Differences from K–12 Instruction

There are also differences between teaching K–12 and teaching college. Here are a few I’ve noticed:

Time: As you probably remember from your own college days, class sections meet for different amounts of time—you may be scheduled to teach a class for three hours one night a week or for an hour three times a week. It’s important to talk with the chair to see if they can arrange classes around your full-time teaching schedule.

Feedback: Students are routinely asked to complete online course evaluations in college. As an adjunct since 2010, I recall only one course observation, but many universities require evaluations in all courses each semester. Your feedback may be solicited as well; some universities conduct yearly staff climate surveys on topics such as curriculum accessibility and campus safety.

Communication: There are communication differences too. Although K–12 instructors share student records with parents, FERPA, a student record privacy law, prohibits sharing records with the parents of adult students.

Adult learners: Finally, there are different expectations when teaching adult learners.  The class discussions are rich and often derived from the work experience and life experience of your adult students. You may see a passion and intentionality in your adult learners as they are choosing to participate in higher education.

Communicating about logistics

Usually, the department chair will be your main point of contact as you teach. They help orient you to the campus, teaching schedule, and work expectations. Typically the chair provides information on campus resources and serves as a bridge between the adjunct, the administration, and other faculty.

Scheduling: The chair can help you understand the logistics of the course schedule. They can tell you about what classes they have that might need instructors and whether those meet online, hybrid, or face-to-face. For example, departments like science-based programs, culinary programs, and engineering  include labs and hands-on activities that mandate a face-to-face format.

You’ll want to consider your own availability as well, including the number of extra classes you might be interested in teaching.

If you enjoy serving as an adjunct, remember that the contract does not automatically renew. Adjuncts must communicate their continued interest each semester. Typically there is a process in place to make course requests two or three months before the start of the semester.

Format: If you are exploring online classes, it’s important to ask whether the course will meet synchronously or asynchronously. You should also consider your digital literacy in regard to creating and posting videos and using a variety of learning management systems (such as Blackboard and Canvas) or incorporating interactive features (such as breakout rooms and class chats). Universities welcome adjuncts to participate in any IT-related training offered to staff throughout the academic year.

If you are exploring face-to-face instruction, you may want to ask about practical elements such as parking locations, safety (when walking on campus at night), and if you’ll have an on-campus workspace.

Final considerations

There are a variety of resources you can use to ensure that adjunct teaching is for you. Resources such as the American Association of Adjunct Education, the American Association of University Professors, and are useful for new professionals navigating the adjunct role.

Before committing to an adjunct contract, you should also research the institution to determine if it is a good fit. For example, as a Black educator, I explore how a university embraces diversity and inclusion (based on the data on percentages of adjuncts of color). Learning about resources and training that the school provides to support the hiring and retention of educators of color is meaningful to me.

It’s never too late to explore adjunct options at your local college and beyond. I am grateful for the opportunity to adjunct, and I hope to continue to build professional skills and improve the academic experience of my psychology and special education students.

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