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Ask a Trainer: Transitioning From K-12 Education to Instructional Design

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Hi Tim,

I’ve been working as a K-12 teacher for more than 10 years, and I’ve started thinking about what’s next in my career. I love teaching but I’m ready for something new. While my focus has been on teaching for the last decade, I’ve been thinking more and more about making the leap into instructional design.

Ideally, I’d like to see myself advance into a corporate instructional design position—something that allows for some more upward mobility than I have now. While I know teaching and instructional design fall under the larger umbrella of education, the more I research jobs in instructional design, the more I feel like it’s a totally different industry.

I’m left with questions swirling in my head. Should I go back to school and get a degree in instructional design? What skills should I focus on developing?

What advice or resources can you share to help me make this leap from teaching to instructional design?

Let me start by commending you for reaching out and asking for help. It’s a great first step toward making the leap. Before I share some of my tips, I’d like to share two bits of good news.

First, you’re not alone! In this article, Lisa Spinelli of ATD says, “Teachers in K-12 are quitting their profession at a higher rate than ever before . . .” (as referenced from a 2019 article from the Wall Street Journal), and they’re looking to make the transition into instructional design, seeking growth in their careers and salaries.

Secondly, there’s no single entry point into the world of instructional design. What I love about our industry is that it’s full of folks who have incredibly diverse professional backgrounds, many of which have nothing to do with instructional design or even education. Many of the folks working in instructional design today fell into it by accident. As I described in a recent episode of the ATD Accidental Trainer podcast, I worked in retail loss prevention catching shoplifters before I made my way into instructional design. I even have a degree in criminal justice!

So, how can you make the leap from teaching to instructional design? Let me attempt to tackle this one by answering those questions swirling in your head.


Should You Go Back to School for a Degree in Instructional Design?

This question comes with a lot of baggage. It’s a highly debated question and everyone has their own opinions. I think there are two questions to be answered here:

  • Do you need a degree in instructional design to become an instructional designer? No, I don’t think it’s necessary.
  • Can an instructional degree help your career? Absolutely!

Having a formal education in instructional design will help your career and give you a leg up in the short- and long-terms. However, if I were in your position, I’d be hard-pressed to go back to school (likely requiring student loans) to make this transition. The fact is that as a teacher, you already have a degree in education, and because of that, you already have a leg up on most of the folks in our industry. In my experience, many corporate hiring managers are more interested in what skills you can offer right now versus your formal credentials.

What Skill Should You Focus on Developing?

Although teaching and instructional design fall under the larger umbrella of education, the skills necessary to be an instructional designer are different. And even within the world of instructional design, there are numerous paths you can take, each with their own skill sets. You could focus on performance analysis and consulting, content writing, technical writing, learning experience design, e-learning design and development, or all of the above.

Regardless of which direction you decide to go, there are some skills all instructional designers need. This includes a solid understanding of adult learning theory, including the differences between andragogy and pedagogy. I also suggest you spend some time exploring project and stakeholder management. And finally, I’d suggest looking at the various instructional design models commonly used within our industry.

With all that said, if you’re looking to earn a certificate or build your credentials, I encourage you to check out ATD’s education courses and certificate programs.


I hope some of these tips and resources help you in your journey. It’s a big leap to make, but it’s 110 percent doable. Below is some inspiration from others who have made the same leap.

Best of luck!


Do you have a learning question you’d like me to tackle? You can email them to Also, visit the Ask a Trainer hub to check out all of your questions and my answers.

We welcome your comments and engagement on these posts. All posts are reviewed to ensure appropriateness based on ATD’s requirements for postings in our online communities.

Please note: Content shared in this column is provided by the author and may not reflect the perspectives of ATD.

About the Author

Tim Slade is a speaker, author, award-winning
e-learning designer, and author of The eLearning
Designer’s Handbook.

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