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.