10 Instructional Designer Traits Teachers Already Have

African-American woman wearing a blue shirt standing in a classroom next to a bulletin board and flipchart
Do teachers have what it takes to be successful in instructional design? Here are 10 instructional design traits (most) teachers already have.

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Reading Time: 7 minutes

Introduction

Are you a teacher thinking about transitioning to instructional design? Or a hiring manager considering hiring a former teacher as an instructional designer?

If you’re wondering whether teachers have what it takes to be successful in ID, read on for 10 instructional designer traits most teachers already have.

To write this post, I first reviewed articles listing qualities instructional designers need to be successful. Then I analyzed the lists for common threads to come up with the following 10 instructional designer traits or skills.

ID Trait 1: Empathy and Learner Focus

Instructional designers need to be able to think from the learner’s perspective. Teachers do this every single day.

When I started as a junior instructional designer after nine years of teaching high school, my supervisor and mentor told me how impressed they were with my teaching instincts. It’s easy to develop good teaching instincts when you’re face-to-face with your learners every day and see firsthand what instructional strategies work best.

Obviously adult learners will have different needs than children or teenagers, but my point is that teachers know the importance of learner-centered instruction.

ID Trait 2: Ability to Work with Others to Solve Problems

Problem-solving is at the heart of instructional design, and it often requires collaboration with others, including subject matter experts and colleagues.

One concern I’ve heard from hiring managers is that teachers don’t (usually) have experience working with subject matter experts. However, teachers often work collaboratively with others in their department, grade level, or school. They often cooperate with colleagues to plan lessons, align curriculum, create thematic units, and determine how to best meet students’ needs. They have the necessary people skills and problem-solving capabilities for instructional design work.

And based on personal experience, after conducting parent-teacher conferences and facilitating class discussions with 30+ teenagers, meeting with SMEs is (usually) a cake walk.

ID Trait 3: Project Management Skills

Effectively managing projects is an essential skill for instructional designers. While teachers may not have project management experience per se, most good teachers have the fundamental characteristics that go along with effective project management.

They Are Well Organized

Most teachers excel at organizational skills. Speaking from my personal experience, being organized was basically a survival technique when I was managing the workload of four (or more) preparations and 200+ students every day.

They Have Good Time Management Skills

Have you ever watched an elementary school teacher in action? Every minute of the day is planned and regimented. Besides being able to manage class time, teachers always have more work to do in a day than is humanly possible, so they learn to be good at prioritizing tasks and delegating them when they can (such as to paraprofessional, class parents, or PTO volunteers when available).

They Get Stuff Done with Limited Resources

Teachers are among the most creative problem solvers I have ever encountered. For example, when companies were spending thousands of dollars on plexiglass dividers to get employees back to work safely during the pandemic, teachers built dividers out of PVC pipe and clear shower curtains. Teachers are innovative and resourceful, qualities that are highly valued in any career field.

They're Leaders

Many project managers, and even some L&D Directors, lead small teams of no more than five to ten people. As a classroom teacher, I led 30 or more at a time. 

I can already hear the naysayers. No, it’s not exactly the same as having direct reports, but you try managing a room full of 10th graders (or 1st graders) and then get back to me about how difficult being a supervisor is. (Feeling snarky. Sorry, not sorry.)

I’ve often heard some instructional design tasks—such as project management and facilitation of SME meetings—referred to as “herding cats.” I’m here to tell you that teachers are the original cat herders. And the cats are definitely feral. (I say this with love to all my former students. They’re adults now; they know I’m right.)

They're Used to Working in a Fast-Paced, High-Stress Environment

If you’ve never been a classroom teacher, you might not understand just how much teachers have on their plates every single day. When I went to work in corporate ID, I was warned that it was fast-paced and high stress. And it was. But I still worked fewer hours every week than I put in routinely as a teacher. 

Sure, I didn’t get summer break anymore, but I also didn’t need the income from the second job I worked over the summers.

ID Trait 4: Research and Evaluation Skills

Instructional designers need to be able to research information and synthesize it so they can break it down for learners. Teachers do this all the time.

Even if a teacher is an expert in the topic they teach, they still scour the internet for lesson plan ideas, effective teaching strategies, changes in the field of their topic area, and other information. 

Most elementary teachers teach every core subject, and they can’t possibly be experts in all of them. So, they learn the content just like instructional designers do. (Anyone who scoffs at the idea of having to learn elementary school content should watch a few episodes of Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? for a humbling experience.)

Instructional designers must also evaluate the effectiveness of the learning solutions and programs they develop. Even if a teacher isn’t familiar with Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Evaluation, they are constantly conducting “pilot tests” in their classrooms—trying out a lesson or activity, gathering feedback, reviewing assessment performance, reteaching as needed, and adjusting the lesson for the next time.

Teachers also track and review learners’ performance over time, getting closer to level 3 and 4 evaluation than many L&D professionals in the corporate world.

ID Trait 5: Understanding of Learning Theory and Models

Both instructional designers and teachers need to understand how people learn and how to help them learn better. Teachers will have some upskilling to do so they are familiar with adult learning principles and best practices for workforce performance improvement. However, the gap is not as large as many hiring managers seem to think or teachers looking to transition to ID might fear.

For example, when I interviewed for my first corporate instructional design job, the interviewer asked if I was familiar with Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction. I was not, and I’m sure I responded with a deer-in-headlights look. Fortunately, the other interviewer in the room had been a classroom teacher. She said, “It’s like Madeline Hunter.” (And it is very similar—see below.) Thanks to her, I was able to speak intelligently about the flow of a lesson and convince the other interviewer that maybe—just maybe—I knew a few things that could be useful in this career field.

Comparison: Hunter vs. Gagne

Madeline Hunter’s Essential Elements of Instruction

  1. Anticipatory Set
  2. Objective and Purpose

Robert Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction

  1. Gain attention
  2. Inform learners of the objectives
  3. Stimulate recall of prior learning
  1. Input
  2. Modeling
  3. Checking for Understanding
  4. Guided Practice
  1. Present the content
  2. Provide learning guidance
  3. Elicit performance (practice)
  4. Provide feedback
  1. Independent Practice
  2. Closure
  1. Assess performance
  2. Enhance retention and transfer to the job

Some people assume that because the concepts young children learn are easy for adults, that the teachers for early grade levels must not have to research and learn complex information. But if you have ever worked with a child who is learning to read, you will understand that it takes highly qualified professionals who are well-versed in learning theory and sound teaching principles to impart these skills.

ID Trait 6: Creativity and Visualization

Some of the lists I reviewed lumped creativity and innovation together with the ability to present ideas and concepts visually. I’ve already touched on the creativity of teachers; it’s one of their greatest strengths as potential IDs.

Not all teachers have graphic design skills, but most understand the importance of presenting information visually. It’s why classrooms are equipped with whiteboards, smart boards, screens, and bulletin boards.

ID Trait 7: Communication Skills

The lists I reviewed specified that instructional designers must:

  • Have commanding communication skills
  • Excel at writing
  • Be storytellers
  • Be facilitators

Teachers must be effective oral communicators, not only to teach students but also to communicate with parents and colleagues.

As far as written communication skills, some teacher tasks translate well to ID work, such as writing assessments and activity instructions. Teachers of some subjects, such as English and theatre, may also have creative writing skills that will help them be good script writers.

ID Trait 8: Tech Savviness

Five of the seven articles I reviewed listed tech savviness, learning technology skills, or familiarity with authoring tools as essential skills for instructional designers. Although most teachers won’t have occasion to use tools like Storyline in their jobs, many routinely use learning management systems and other educational technology.

According to a 2018 survey, about 65 percent of K-12 teachers use technology in their classrooms every day. The pandemic surely increased this percentage, and many teachers are now experts in virtual instruction using tools like Zoom.

ID Trait 9: Passion for Lifelong Learning

According to the articles I reviewed, hiring managers want instructional designers to be passionate, willing to learn new skills—or, as Connie Malamed put it, “obsessed with learning everything,” and quick learners.

All the teachers reading this are thinking, “check, check, and check.” Most teachers are, by nature, lifelong learners. Instructional design offers the unique opportunity to learn new things all the time, which is one reason I love the field so much.

ID Trait 10: Flexibility

Only one of the articles I reviewed listed flexibility as an essential instructional designer trait, but I’m including it because I consider it an important quality for both instructional designers and teachers. Teachers often have to adapt lessons on the fly when things don’t go as planned, and most adapt to change easily as a matter of survival.

Summary

If you’re a hiring manager, I hope this post will encourage you to consider teachers as strong candidates for instructional design positions.

If you are a teacher looking to begin a career in instructional design, I hope the post boosts your confidence in your skills and the instructional designer traits you probably already have.

Don’t get me wrong. Teachers will need to upskill in some areas to adjust to the world of workplace learning. But from where I stand, most good teachers have the fundamental traits instructional designers need to be successful.

For more information about getting started in instructional design, check out these posts:

Resources

Weigh In!

What traits have you observed in teachers that would make them good instructional designers? What concerns do you have about hiring teachers? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

10 Instructional Designer Traits Teachers Already Have. Teacher in a classroom.

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