Hey teachers: In case you didn’t realize it, you’re an instructional designer.

I attended a conference (Learning Solutions 2022) where I met two other former teachers, who, like myself, had recently transitioned from the classroom to the field of instructional design (ID). We instantly bonded over our shared experiences—the rewards and challenges of teaching, of course, but also why and how we decided to move on.

Our stories had striking resemblances. I’m sharing mine here in the hopes that it might encourage other would-be instructional designers.

First, a bit of context

When I started seeing the title “instructional designer” pop up in casual job searches over the years, I remember thinking: That sounds a lot like lesson planning. I taught middle school English for 14 years and while I found it creative and rewarding, I often wondered what other careers I might enjoy. (These thoughts showed up a lot on Sunday afternoons, triggered by piles of ungraded essays.)

I dipped my toe in the ID waters by enrolling in a certificate program, looking for confirmation in the coursework that the skills called for in these job descriptions might mirror the disciplines of classroom teaching. To my delight, there was a lot of overlap. Maybe this would be my second act. Yet, I was still nervous about making the switch.

I’d only worked in nonprofits before teaching, so my concerns included whether I’d be happy in corporate culture (if I chose that instead of higher ed, which also employs instructional designers), but mostly whether my skills truly were transferable.

Transferable skills

The teachers I met at the conference felt the same way. Here are some possible reasons why:

  • Unless you’re a corporate trainer, there is something unique about the classroom that can’t be replicated anywhere else, so it was hard to imagine a setting where our skills would be used. We tried to visualize ourselves doing something that didn’t involve a live audience. Teaching is partly performance, and much of the energy and empathy that goes into the delivery is “the work.” Outside the classroom, where would that energy be directed and appreciated?
  • A “compliment” we often get is: I can’t imagine doing what you do, which implies putting up with less than ideal conditions (managing student behavior, working long hours at home, high stakes testing, complicated evaluation systems). We’re lauded for patience and dedication, and we can allow ourselves to be defined by these character traits more than by the fact that we possess an impressive set of discrete skills. Unless updating a resume, it may have been a while since we stopped to account for the competencies we’ve accumulated and to consider where else they’d be valued.

Unique skills

Beyond the normal fear of change, these factors may have contributed to the reluctance we had about leaving teaching. But for me, after two years in an instructional design position, I feel that teachers are uniquely prepared for this work:

We are information wranglers. We take it, distill it, organize it, model it, design how to practice and assess it. We evaluate what works and what doesn’t, and we change it to make it better the next time. We make it look pretty, too, with a keen eye toward visual design.

We are empathetic. We do everything with the learner in mind. We start there. We put ourselves in their place and ask: What do they really need to know? How do I get them to connect to and remember this information?

We’re presenters. We know how learners receive information. What questions they’ll have. How much information is OK, and how much is too much. What examples they’ll need to better understand. We anticipate the problems and try to account for them in our plans.

We’re resourceful. We generate ideas. We mine the internet and our colleagues for best practices, engaging activities, and new perspectives. We attend the workshops. We love learning.

But is it rewarding?

The reward of teaching is in the connection we make with students. With ID there’s a longer feedback loop; you won’t know something worked unless you build learner evaluation into the process. But you can also get feedback up front, before your training or curriculum is released. Create a test group and hold virtual review sessions. Then, compare results with your post-training evaluation. Adults will tell you the truth, and it feels good knowing your careful design made their experience better and their jobs easier. You can rescue people from the low expectations they have for training, developed over years of sitting through narrated “click-through” presentations.

The department supervisors I’ve collaborated with share how much they’ve learned from the instructional design process. They’ve been able to incorporate ID principles into subsequent projects, improving employee learning and reducing the overall workload along the way.

Your knowledge of learning and teaching can empower your adult learners and their managers.

Parting thoughts

Education has a culture of service that counts on teachers producing without traditional incentives. When I was named a high impact teacher in my state based on three consecutive years of student performance data, it came with a lunch bag and $20 gift certificate.

In my current job, I hesitated to ask if I could attend the learning conference where I met these other teachers. When I saw the fee, I assumed it was beyond the scope of allowable expenses and almost didn’t ask my boss. It made me realize just how much teachers live with a scarcity mentality.

If you’re a good teacher and love it, we need you more than ever! But the culture of service that assumes you will do more with less because it’s important work...just know, this is important work, too. And it just might be right for you!