Teacher? Trainer? What’s the difference?

In a week or two I’ll be trotting off to train about twenty teachers to become teacher trainers. I imagine that they will be a group of good, experienced English teachers working in primary or secondary schools across their country.  Most of them will have had no experience of working with teachers in a training role.

Before a course like this, I always try to put myself into the position of those teachers. I try to imagine how they’ll feel, having offered and been selected to take on this specific job. Will they be excited? Enthusiastic? Worried? Perhaps a little scared?  What will they be thinking about as they travel across the country by train, plane or bus to the place where we’re running the course? How will they be imagining their future role?

Like many trainer trainers, I imagine, early in the course I discuss with the participants the similarities and differences between being a teacher and being a teacher trainer. The aim of this is partly to assure them that they have many of the skills they need already. They know how to  manage a group of learners, give clear instructions, get people into pairs and groups. They have experience of planning and of focusing on what they want to achieve in the lesson. All this knowledge and the skills they’ve developed will stand them in good stead when they move from teacher to trainer.

Teaching kids in class

Then we get on to the differences. Well, what are the differences between being a teacher and being a trainer?  A few things come up in our discussions. I’d like to focus on just three- not necessarily the most important ones. One thing is that teaching adults is different from teaching children. Adults, for one thing, have well established ways of learning and expectations about learning that trainers have to find out about, and then take into account. How do you acknowledge and  build on the experience that teachers bring to the training room? An additional aspect of working with adults is that there is almost always an expectation that practical activities will be linked to some theoretical schema. How can you as a trainer, then, bring in a bit of theory, without losing the practical focus of your work?

Another difference is that teachers may be ‘unconsciously competent’ – to use a term from Maslow’s ‘Four Stages of Learning.’ (See here for a reminder of Maslow’s model. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_stages_of_competence) In other words, teachers don’t need to explain the principles their teaching practices are based on.  They just do it.  Trainers, though, have to somehow take a step back to ‘conscious competence.’  In other words, they need to be able to articulate the principles they work by and ‘consistently exemplify these in their practice,’ as Lubelska & Robbins put it.

It’s always challenging to take a step back, isn’t it?  I sometimes think of this as a bit like riding a bike. I learnt to ride bike years ago, and do it without even thinking about it. But if I try to teach my neighbour’s child to do it, I have to try to articulate things I’ve done for years without thinking. It can be really tricky!

The training room awaits

One other difference that I sometimes focus on is that teacher training implies change at quite a deep level.  I feel that as trainers we are agents of change, and can see people become resistant or even ‘destabilised.’ It doesn’t always happen, but it can, and we need to be aware of it. Trainers need to develop tools to deal with that, I’d say.

So what do you think? Do you agree with my points about the differences between teachers and trainers? What would you tell my group of trainers-in-waiting? What do you think is the main difference?


Lubelska, D. and Robbins, L. (1999) Moving from Teaching to Training, IATEFL TT SIG Newsletter 3/99.


18 thoughts on “Teacher? Trainer? What’s the difference?

  1. You are right on the money! I’d like to focus on the “conscious competence” of trainers as a must have; they need to be articulate enough to link basic theories to practice, and, as you rightly put, ‘step back’, using their own teaching experiences AND those of the teachers in training in a way that the differences between the two would “add” to the teachers’ trust in the trainers; this could ultimately minimize that sense of ‘resistance.’

  2. Hello Elli

    Thanks very much for your comment. I like your point about trust. I think that’s very important- as well as a kind of confidence in the trainer. Come to think of it, that’s one thing that ‘new’ trainers fear, I think, that somehow they won’t be able to inspire trust and confidence. I’m interested to hear from you and others go about giving trainers the skills to inspire trust and confidence…?

  3. I think there a number of differences between teaching and training, many of which you’ve touched upon here. One other is somehow related to Lewin’s idea of unfreezing-moving-refreezing. When we train, there is often the need to lead participants through that “unfreezing” step which is less an element of the teacher’s role. Does that make sense?

    • Hi Andy. Thanks very much for your comment. I think that’s right. Part of the trainer’s job is definitely to facilitate an ‘unfreezing’ and to make them ‘change ready.’ To do that , teachers have to somehow let go of their current realities- one reason, I think, why it can be more difficult when people are on courses with their close colleagues. It’s actually quite difficult to change when you’re surrounded by people who know you in your ‘current reality.’ I think that’s why the ‘lone’ participant often ‘moves’ considerably on these kinds of courses. At least , that’s been my experience…

      Yes, it seems that becoming a trainer implies leadership and change management skills at a different level than being a teacher. Is that right, do you think? Anyone?

  4. You are right that being surrounded by close colleagues can make teachers less relaxed, but I think it mostly happens when they are at the same time surrounded by a wider circle of unfamiliar teachers/trainers. On the other hand, there are situations when “current realities” can help teachers “unfreeze” more easily – when they do micro-teaching of a small group of their close colleagues only. This is something that we do in our in-house workshops to gradually build-up self-confidence (in addition to sharing experience) for possible future major training events in public venues with larger teacher audiences.

    • Hello Mirjana- nice to see you here and thanks for your comments. Yes, I think it can happen either way, can’t it? I, too, can remember times when close colleagues working together in micro-training, say, worked really well. As so often, it seems to be a case of ‘Well, it depends.’ It does rather depend on the individuals involved, doesn’t it?

      I suppose one thing I was thinking of is that ‘becoming a trainer’ often implies ‘changing status’- a transition- to use Lewin’s terminology- which can be rather tricky. How people deal with that will depend quite a lot on personality factors, but also social and contextual factors. One of my interests is : how, as trainer trainers, do we ensure that people are supported through their transition? Mmm… you’ve got me thinking again.

    • Agree with Mirjana!

      I observed that sense of discomfort when me and a colleague of mine were running a workshop on free speaking. The audience was a large group of experienced teachers–some even about to retire–and we asked volunteers to join us on the stage…. Guess what! No volunteers! …. Eventually four young ones joined us (thank God!) plus two kids who had accompanied their parents to the workshop! Well, it turned out to be fantastic especially because we were lucky to have had those kids among the audience.

      That said, the problem persists in most macro training sessions where teachers from different educational districts get together and that basic face saving strategy (i.e., not to volunteer, involve as little as possible) serves as the first resort!

      • Hi Elli- thanks for the comment. Yes, it sometimes happen that the more experience people have, the harder it is to risk losing face. I suppose that’s understandable. But then again, I’ve sometimes seen the opposite. A few years ago, for example, I was doing some teacher training in a school in Taiwan. The teachers were great, but sometimes shy about speaking English all the time- they were used to having training in their own language. The head of the school, an older lady, sat in one day, and started speaking English to ‘her’- younger- teachers. She really modeled a good attitude to just speaking up, reminding them that it was OK to make mistakes- and to let their pupils do the same. She seemed to be able to overcome the ‘face’ issue very well. I found her a really valuable resource!

        I wonder whether others find that the ‘face’ issue can be problematic during training?

        • @Sue: I can feel that sense of satisfaction and joy in you when the school head broke the ice. Thanks for sharing the experience!

  5. In my opinion a trainer is a person who has technical and practical knowledge of various methods, approaches, and skills of teaching. A training can help a lot, but teaching is an art, it requires complete involvement. A good teacher changes his/her teaching strategy according to the need of the students. The first task of a good teacher is to create interest in the subject and this facilitate his teaching. Some strict adherence to any one method or approach fail to create interest, in some cases training help a little. Dr.Parmar

    • Thanks for your comment, Hitesh. I found your point about ‘strict adherence to any one method or approach’ really interesting. What I understand from that is that you believe teachers need to be flexible and responsive in their teaching. I certainly agree with you, and find that a lot of my work as a trainer seems to involve working with trainers and teachers to find different ways of responding to situations that arise- and trying to inculcate this idea of ‘flexible response.’

      I tend to think that, as a trainer, this is easier in-service than pre-service.

      I wonder what others think of this?

      • Flexible response easier to cultivate in in-service programs?

        Humm, you have a point there, Sue. That may be because the teachers in training are “learning by doing;” they are being “led” rather than “fed,” and this could facilitate the responses in the hands-on activities. This makes the mental resources immediately available, and help the teachers decide which of the resources they were introduced to in the pre-service trainings are practical or impracticable in a given situation/context.

  6. Hello Sue,

    I have recently been made redundant from a teaching role to be given a training role as an alternative with the same subject matter….i am very much struggling to identify what it is i am exactly meant to be doing as to me the expectations are exactly the same…..what would/should i do differently asa a trainer that i did/didnt do as a teacher?

    • Hi Angela

      Thank you for your question. I have a few questions myself to try to understand your position before I can answer.

      Have your students/participants changed?
      You say the subject matter hasn’t changed. What is the subject matter?
      Are you saying that the title has changed, but that’s all?


  7. Hi Sue,
    In my opinion, a trainer draws on the repertoire of knowledge and experience that the teachers possess and tries to make them introspect, analyse and share the whys and wherefores of their classroom practices. Some of these are then accepted or discussed or debated by a larger group of peers. That is when a teacher moves beyond to a different plane of becoming a trainer. A trainer according to me is a teacher who has tried to follow best practices in class after a lot of reflection and feedback. And this teacher is then ready to train, guide or mentor teachers who seek help.

    • Many thanks for your comments, Veena. I very much agree with you that the role of a teacher trainer/mentor is to facilitate teachers as they reflect on their classroom practice.

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