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ATD Blog

3 Steps to Transition From Teacher to Trainer (and One Word of Caution)

Thursday, December 8, 2022

As an instructor for ATD’s Adult Learning Certificate, I work with many former teachers wanting to transition from teaching younger students to becoming corporate trainers and instructional designers. While the transition is not as difficult as some might think, it can still be challenging to navigate on your own. Even if you’re not an “escaped teacher” yourself, chances are that you’ll be working with one or more former teachers in the coming months.

Now is a good time to review the differences between andragogy (adult learning) and pedagogy (teaching children) and learn some techniques to offer to those of us making the transition or supporting colleagues who are making the journey.

The Great Teacher Resignation

You’re probably familiar with the Great Resignation in corporate sectors, a term describing how workers began leaving their jobs in record numbers during the pandemic. While a variety of factors have contributed to this talent drain, most researchers conclude that stress, lack of flexibility, and worker burnout are the most significant causes. As the evidence became clear, many of us hoped that employers would evaluate their leadership practices and adjust, but the resignation is still going strong, even as 2022 draws to a close.

As serious as this problem is for talent development leaders, the education sector has been suffering its own talent drain, beginning before the pandemic turned the world upside down. Teachers have been resigning in record numbers since at least 2018, and the stresses brought on by a global pandemic only accelerated the exodus in 2020 and 2021. Recent indicators show that teachers’ reasons for quitting are like any workers’ reasons: They don’t feel supported and respected.

The good news is that we’re gaining an influx of talent with a passion for helping people learn, a sound background in learning theory, and a willingness to learn new skills. Let’s focus on this opportunity and figure out how to best develop all this new talent coming our way.

Here are three best practices to help with the transition and one word of caution:

1. Celebrate the Similarities of Learners at Any Age

As an adult, the sharp distinction some professionals make between andragogy and pedagogy trouble me. Malcolm Knowles is recognized as coining the term andragogy to refer to adult learning, while using pedagogy to refer to the education of children. The central point behind his theory of adult learning is that adults learn differently than children. Since then, his theory has become so widely accepted that we hardly question the sharp lines he draws between adult learners and children. But maybe we should.

Knowles’s theory is based on six core assumptions that establish a framework for understanding the needs of learning adults:

  • Need to Know/Relevance. Adults want to know how new information is important or relevant to them before they will make the effort to learn something new.
  • Learner’s Self-Concept. Adults see themselves as self-directing. Allowing them to direct their own learning experience is critical to their success.
  • Role of Experience. Adult learners bring their experience to make sense of new learning. They benefit from being allowed to contribute and be recognized for that experience.
  • Readiness to Learn. When the need to know is satisfied, adult learners are more likely to be ready to invest the time and effort in learning.
  • Orientation to Learning. Adult learners are more willing to invest time and effort into learning things they believe will benefit them.
  • Motivation. Adults respond best to internal motivations and personal payoff. Motivation is higher when adult learners see the connection between the learning and intrinsic values such as job satisfaction or quality of life.

Some of my students with a background in education find the concept of adult learning intimidating, as though they will need to learn a whole new science and adopt a new skillset to train adults. Yet, I could make the case that each element of Knowles’s theory can apply to a child as well as an adult. The differences between adults and children, at least when it comes to learning, may be more based on context and content rather than specific characteristics or behaviors.

My suspicions come from recent discoveries in neuroscience, which suggest that the physical process of learning in the human brain is remarkably consistent at any age. Adults just have more prior experience to link with new information.

So, teachers moving into a new career in adult learning must embrace the similarities between teaching younger students and teaching working adults. Once the self-inflicted pressure is off, you’ll discover that most of your skills translate to working with learners of any age. You’ll simply adjust for the content and context in your new role.

2. Develop Your Business Acumen and Communication Skills

Because the biggest challenge in the transition is adapting to a business context and teaching content that supports business results, the most important skill to develop for transitioning teachers is business acumen. A close inspection of the ATD Talent Development Capability Mode™ reveals that roughly two-thirds of the skills identified in the model are not skills that are unique to talent development professionals: They’re skills required for success in any role, in any organization. Skills that influence organizational capability, such as future readiness, data analytics, and business insight can only be developed through a combination of formal training and practical experience. The same is true for personal capabilities such as emotional intelligence, collaboration, leadership, and project management.

My second piece of advice: Take careful stock of your current skills, and look for experiences that will help you build and demonstrate the skills that corporate employers value. You’ll find some great tips on how to market those skills in Lisa Spinelli’s ATD book Teachers to Trainers and some excellent ways to shore your knowledge base on


3. Build a Professional Network in Talent Development

Professionals in any industry learn from each other. This bias towards social learning is a survival mechanism we developed long ago as a species when we had to band together to protect ourselves from dangerous climate conditions and predators. Today, career advancement still depends heavily on who you know and what they know about you. As a teacher, you may belong to several professional organizations designed to support the career as an academic professional. As you move into a corporate world, similar organizations can help you make the connections you need to develop and advance. What better place to start than your local ATD chapter? Find a chapter near you and begin networking almost immediately.

A Word of Caution: Be Careful What You Wish For

Being a teacher is a challenging job that can lead to frustration and burnout. But if you’re thinking that moving from teacher to trainer will somehow solve these issues, think again. The American workplace is in the midst of its own employee burnout crisis. If you’re serious about making this career change, discuss it with people who are working in this field today. Be realistic about your expectations, and choose your future employer carefully.

Finding the organizational culture that is the right fit for your skills and personal needs is one of the hardest parts of this journey. You may even want to consider a path that many former teachers and trainers have taken and ask yourself if entrepreneurship or higher education might be a better option for you. Or maybe it’s time to take your skills to another profession entirely.

While running your own business might seem riskier than working for a large organization, I can personally attest that the risks are not truly any greater; they are simply different.

If you’re a teacher who is thinking of leaving teaching to escape stress and difficult working conditions (or you know someone who is), I urge you to spend time figuring out how you want to live and work; there are more paths out there than you may be considering.

The learning professionals community is wide and deep. In my long and happy career, I have always found colleagues who were willing to help me find my way. Now, I’m happy to give this great gift back, and I know many others in my place share the same sentiment. Don’t hesitate to reach out and ask for help.

About the Author

Margie Meacham, “The Brain Lady,” is a scholar-practitioner in the field of education and learning and president of LearningToGo. She specializes in practical applications for neuroscience to enhance learning and performance. Meacham’s clients include businesses, schools, and universities. She writes a popular blog for the Association of Talent Development and has published two books, Brain Matters: How to Help Anyone Learn Anything Using Neuroscience and The Genius Button: Using Neuroscience to Bring Out Your Inner Genius.

She first became interested in the brain when she went with undiagnosed dyslexia as a child. Although she struggled in the early grades, she eventually taught herself how to overcome the challenge of a slight learning disability and became her high school valedictorian, graduated magna cum laude from Centenary University, and earned her master’s degree in education from Capella University with a 4.0.

Meacham started her professional career in high-tech sales, and when she was promoted to director of training, she discovered her passion for teaching and helping people learn. She became one of the first corporate trainers to use video conferencing and e-learning and started her own consulting company from there. Today she consults for many organizations, helping them design learning experiences that will form new neural connections and marry neuroscience theory with practice.

“I believe we are on the verge of so many wonderful discoveries about how we learn. Understanding what happens in the brain is making us better leaders, teachers, parents, and employees. We have no limits to what we can accomplish with our wonderful brains— the best survival machines ever built.”
—Margie Meacham

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