What’s Different Between the Life of a Classroom Teacher vs. Instructional Designer?

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How is the day-to-day life of an Instructional Designer different than that of a K12 classroom teacher?

Many classroom teachers are looking to make the switch into instructional design, and even though it’s all still teaching and learning, there are some big differences in the way you’ll work in an ID role.

This post attempts to outline the large changes you might find as you transition outside the classroom and into the world of ID.

Working with SMEs

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As a K12 teacher, the content you teach is usually something you’re a subject matter expert in like math or social studies, and/or you are working with prepared materials where the content development has been done by your textbook provider or some other 3rd party.

As an instructional designer, the information you’ll be asked to teach will be something you don’t already know, and will have to do some research to organize into a learning experience.
You will often have to work with a subject matter expert within your organization, collecting all the facts that will form the content of the learning experiences you build.

Often, instructional designers are tasked with taking the best practices exhibited by an organization’s most effective members and creating assets to teach those skills widely across the workforce.

Unfortunately, SMEs’ best practices are often stored only in their heads, and getting them out into a usable, sharable form is a persistent challenge for IDs. We’re often asked to build courses based on content that doesn’t actually exist yet, and we are put in the role of having to harvest and organize content while we’re building it.

You may start by collecting and analyzing any of the SME’s written work on the topic you’re teaching — PowerPoints, blog posts, recorded lectures, etc.

I find it an essential skill to set up an interview with the SME and, within their limited time availability, ask and note down as much of what they say as possible. Recorded Zoom meetings are a blessing as they can form the basis of recorded video lectures (or at least give you an interview record you can go back to for details).

Embracing Asynchronous Learning

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As a K12 teacher, the time you have with learners is rigidly standardized into periods, weeks, etc, and it’s more of a struggle to fill time in a class meeting with content and activities. Part of being a teacher feels like performing in a 90 minute “show” where you move from one activity to the next, always working to keep learners’ attention from wandering from the task at hand. There’s a huge focus on “staying together”, with lessons, units, and class meetings all timed to start and end according to a single time table borne out of some perceived idea of what an average student can keep up with.

This approach has always been somewhat dysfunctional in the classroom, and was even worse when we tried to reproduce this classroom experience through a tiny screen on Zoom during the pandemic. Teachers’ ability to connect with learners is vastly diminished in the online space, making everything from content delivery, interactive activities, and discipline much harder.

Time works differently in online learning than it does in the classroom. Every learner is freed to take as much or as little time as they need to complete their work. Course assets like videos can be replayed endlessly for review, and/or students can rush through or skip over anything they already know.

Structuring a course becomes less about releasing a year’s worth of learning in little chunks over time so everyone can “stay together”. You can build all the content at the outset (if you have it) and give students maximum autonomy and support to make their way through that content in a way that works best for them.

Embracing asynchronous learning is a profound shift in understanding of how learning works from the classroom to the web. It’s less of one specific technique than an ideal, a direction, that I am still continuously discovering new ways to reach. I urge you to start to think of ways the online learning space can help you transition from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”.

Greater Attention to Security, License Compliance

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Most K12 teachers use a wide variety of free apps to accomplish the various tasks in their classroom. You might have one app for word processing, another for science labs, yet another for a classroom response system. You may have heard this phenomenon called “app smashing”, as it forces teachers to concoct complex workflows across a universe of apps that aren’t necessarily designed to play nice with one another.

I think this happens because teachers are given zero budget for tech tools and have to just make something work with whatever resources they have. This creates a situation where app smashing is your best option.

In recent years we have started to question what happens to students’ personally identifiable data stored on all these disparate free tools. In edtech as in the rest of the Internet, if you get something free it means that you’re the product. Sensitive data about student performance has been leaked, sold, and exploited as a result of this dependence on free tools in edtech, a completely unsustainable situation that does not fly in corporate or (to a lesser degree) higher ed settings.

As you move into an ID role in corporate or higher ed, it’s more likely that you’ll have a core toolset provided by your employer that’s (hopefully) adequate for you to build the learning experiences you need to build.

You’ll probably have an office suite with collaborative docs, an eLearning authoring software package, and maybe some media creation software for creating assets. All of these expensive licenses will be paid for by the organization, so there’s an expectation that you’ll use what they’re paying for you to use. Incorporating new tools might involve a security review and/or a purchasing process of some kind.

If you’re accustomed to just grabbing a new tool off the Internet to solve whatever challenge you’re facing today, you’ll need to start reading the terms of service and understanding at a deep level what kind of situation you’re getting yourself into.

For me, this has made me think deeply about which tools I am willing to pay for, and which are worthwhile additions to our team’s toolset.

Complying with licenses is much more critical in an ID role, as your organization may be liable for any tools that employees use without paying the expected fees. Some tools might have a generous free tier for academic use but charge more for commercial use. That means you now, so just be conscious of the licensing of your tools!

Multimedia assets are another thing that teachers are accustomed to just grabbing off Google Images and using in their instructional materials. Images and videos you build into your courseware need to be used according to their licenses, so it’s best to explore media published under truly copyleft licenses and/or budget for getting a stock images subscription. It’s cheaper than a lawsuit.

Making Intentional, Future-proof Moves

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When I was a teacher, I was lucky to plan and build lessons a week ahead of when my students consume them. I could make little typos and then adjust them on the fly within the flow of a class meeting.

In my current role designing eLearning assets for a global company, there is a much greater focus on getting my work finalized before publishing. This means all typos are corrected, all course functionality is tested, and the asset is ready to stand alone for the next 3-5 years in its current state. When I publish a course now, it’s often translated into up to 10 languages and built into established learning paths for employees I may never meet.

This is all to say that you will have more time to design your lesson materials, but you must also budget in much more time to ensure it’s REALLY DONE before the learner ever sees it.

Formal Project Management

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Thankfully, you will likely have real project managers on your team to help you manage the workload of building an eLearning asset. Unlike the “one man band” feeling of being a K12 teacher, it’s been a very welcome addition to have someone else thinking about my deadlines and coaching me to reach them so I can focus on the actual work I’m doing.

Work/Life Balance

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My experience (and that of every other ID I’ve ever heard of) is that the work/life balance is much better as an ID than a teacher. Even though teachers get more days off in a year, they are expected to work outrageous hours when school is in session. Teachers routinely give up much of their Sundays to prep for the week. They get there before the kids, prep in the morning, teach their classes, run afterschool activities, answer emails, prep the next day’s activities, and do it all over again each day. I became a teacher as a youngish man when I didn’t have any concept of work/life balance — I poured all my time and energy into doing a good job because I treated it as a calling rather than just an occupation. Unfortunately it’s a calling where you can spend unlimited time doing unlimited work to meet the unlimited needs of your students and their families.

I had significant mental health struggles all throughout my teaching career that (I later learned) were caused by chronic deficit in sleep. I also failed to take good care of my physical health during those years, and this led to more serious problems later on. Problems that could have been avoided if I had more bandwidth to get proper sleep, exercise, and stress reduction as part of my lifestyle all along.

I feel very fortunate that I was laid off from teaching just after I met my wife, because the lifestyle of an ID is much saner than that of a teacher. My ID jobs are strictly 9-to-5, and I’m never asked take work home or stay late. We work more days per year, but we’re also much more free to make our own hours, take time off, and fit work into family life.

The better hours combined with generally better compensation and stability makes ID life much more sustainable over time, and much more conducive to having a family and taking care of ones own physical and mental health.

A Change in Purpose

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As I mentioned, teaching feels like more of a “calling” than a profession, and many IDs report feeling like ID work does not fulfill the same feeling of purpose that teaching did.

I always taught in equity-focused public charter schools with a mission to lift students and their families out of poverty, so the work always felt meaningful and important.

Going from that environment to a comfortable position in a quiet air conditioned office was a shock, and I strongly felt a desire to make important contributions to society.

I learned that even though my paying career no longer filled that need, all the time I got back enabled me to make those kinds of contributions in my free time. Volunteering and supporting other kinds of community-based teaching and learning organizations enabled me to feel like I continued my social justice mission outside the context of K12 ed.

You may find that ID life enables you to continue to change lives, just not in the way you currently are in the classroom.

One Final Thing…

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As I write out all the differences, I am struck by just how very un-sustainable the teaching profession is now. I wonder how I lasted as long as I did. The mass exodus of teachers from K12 that reached a fever pitch during the pandemic was already a serious problem before we ever heard of COVID 19.

In Teachers: Don’t Get an Instructional Designer Job, Transform the Teaching Role with ID, I encourage teachers to stay in their roles but to incorporate more of the ways of working I’ve discovered since leaving the classroom and becoming an ID. I realize that this is not just a decision individual teachers can make in a vacuum. My hope is that school districts will start to add needed support structures around teachers so they can achieve a more sustainable professional life. Much of what I’ve written above points to an alternative vision of teachers and instructional designers working together to share the burden of educating young minds through a more robust use of self-paced instructional design in the classroom. I think that by truly embracing asynchronous learning techniques, we can empower students to better manage their own learning and free teachers to better support learners.

Until that time, though, you can find me in my air-conditioned office banging out self-paced learning assets myself. Won’t you join me?

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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1 Response

  1. April 10, 2023

    […] What’s Different Between the Life of a Classroom Teacher vs. Instructional Designer? […]


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