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Should you Switch from Teacher to Instructional Designer?

It takes more than a new headline on your resume to transition from teacher to instructional designer.


If you’re a teacher you may be looking for ways to make the most of the boom in digital learning job opportunities. You’ve developed some new skills in elearning and want to put them to use. It may be tempting to rebrand yourself as an instructional designer. Not so fast. The shift to instructional design is more than a title change, it demands additional credentials and skills that you might not have yet.

Before you try to make the leap, you should understand the real differences between the two roles. You may need to seek out new skills and credentials. It takes more than a new headline on your resume to transition from teacher to instructional designer.

Teacher vs Instructional Designer

Instructional designer isn’t just a fancy name for a teacher. Although teachers may play a role in designing instruction—especially at the level of lesson planning—they are not automatically qualified to be instructional designers. The responsibilities and expectations are different for each role.

What a Teacher does:

• Provides direct instruction
• Manages a learning space (in-person or virtual)
• Builds personal-professional relationships with students
• Prepares lesson plans
• Grades assignments and tests
• Evaluates and documents student progress
• Delivers personalized instruction
• Follows a curriculum set by the district or school

What an Instructional Designer does:

• Conducts market, audience, and topical research
• Collaborates with a team of subject matter experts, content and media production professionals, and stakeholders
• Defines learning outcomes, the learning strategy, and a detailed plan
• Researches and recommends technology and learning resources
• Develops the learning or training curriculum
• Builds learning experiences using technology
• Evaluates the results and iterates

Obviously, there is some overlap between these two roles, but each one has unique requirements as well. Instructional designer isn’t just another word for teacher, it’s a distinct role in the digital learning ecosystem.

Do You Want To Be A Teacher Or An Instructional Designer?

We’ll show you how to position yourself as an instructional designer in just a moment. The question is: Do you want to be an instructional designer? The day-to-day work in this role is very different from that of a teacher.

As an instructional designer, you may not have direct contact with the people who use the courses you develop. If you take satisfaction from helping students learn and watching them make progress, you may find that instructional design doesn’t offer the same sense of accomplishment. You’re still supporting learners, but you may not see the personal evidence of your efforts.

As a teacher, you get to know your students and may customize lessons to meet individual student needs. By contrast, instructional designers are creating learning opportunities that support students in a particular audience or demographic. They may not know learners personally. While they can provide opportunities for customization, it’s up to the instructor or the student to take advantage of those tools.

You’re likely to contribute as a member of a digital learning team. This might include learning technologists, project managers, quality assurance specialists, learning designers, data analysts, and content developers. You’ll often work under tight deadlines and need to manage competing priorities and stakeholder inputs. You may work in an office or remotely, either way, you’ll spend a lot of your time in front of a computer screen thinking, writing, and manipulating technology.

How To Position Yourself As An Instructional Designer

Employers are inundated by teachers who have rebranded as instructional designers without the skills and credentials. Show them you’ve done your homework by taking the time to position yourself as an instructional designer. Follow these three steps:

Step 1: Pick a focus

Instructional design is a complex field. The best instructional designers know their strengths and pick a specialty that fits. You might specialize by:

  • Industry: corporate, government, non-profit, higher ed, K-12
  • Function: strategy, content creation, technology, eLearning development, project management, graphic and UI/UX design
  • Or both! For example, you can specialize in content creation for corporate or technology for higher ed

Find your focus by considering your background and skills. For example, if you started your career as a fourth-grade teacher, specializing in K-12 might make sense. If you minored in creative writing in college, maybe you want to focus on content creation.

Step 2: Get the credentials

Most successful instructional designers have a relevant degree as well as some experience or special certifications. A general degree in education may not be enough. Consider earning a masters in organizational behavior, human resources, instructional technology, or instructional design.

Some colleges and universities also offer instructional design certificate programs that you can stack on top of your existing degree. Work experience beyond the classroom also counts. Seek out opportunities to support course design, curriculum design, or training development.

Step 3: Show your development

If your job search documents are focused on your teaching background, employers may not realize you have the skills and credentials to be an instructional designer. Tailor your resume, portfolio, and LinkedIn profile to show your relevant experience and skills. Here’s how to do that in:

Your resume…

deemphasize direct teaching experience so you have room to talk about your instructional design training and skills. Of course, list any supporting experience on your resume as well.

Your portfolio or work samples…

employers will expect you to be able to show your work. You should have at least two or three relevant work samples to share. This could be a course outline/design document, storyline module, or anything else that shows off your skills.

All job search documents…

rethink your skills lists. Remove things like “classroom management” and “lesson planning.” Replace them with skills more relevant to instructional designers. Remember to be thoughtful about which industry you are applying for. You’ll want to adjust your language to include the terms most familiar and relevant to that industry.

Consider whether you can honestly add the following skills to your resume and LinkedIn profile:

• Employee or learner needs assessment
• Outcomes and standards mapping
• Learning framework development
• Learning strategy design
• Assessment design
• Curriculum or training development
• Program management
• Articulate 360, Storyline, and Captivate
• Graphic design
• Storyboarding and scriptwriting
• Adult learning theory
• Learning Management System technology

You Can Make The Switch From Teacher To Instructional Designer

By now, we hope you understand why instructional design is more than a title, it’s a unique role in the digital learning ecosystem. Although switching roles isn’t as easy as just using new vocabulary, it can be done. With a little planning and the right credentials, you can make the switch from teacher to instructional designer.

The digital learning industry is evolving everyday. For help finding your next role in this changing environment, contact Teamed or visit our job board.

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