Teacher or Trainer: What’s the Difference?

Why teachers are thought to be different from trainers.

Having served as a teacher and trainer for over twenty-five years, I get different answers from different people engaged in the field of education when I ask them to clarify if they are teachers or trainers.

Teachers are usually found in primary schools, whereas trainers are found in all walks of life, especially commercial ones, they say. A tennis coach (trainer) teaches you new skills and trains you for improving your playing skills. A leadership trainer or coach can teach you new methods of leading people and help you become a better leader. An instructor gives you instructions for learning to do something while a mentor is like a guide, leading you to acquire insights as well as acquire skills.

Teachers educate people (children are also people), while trainers help them learn skills for doing certain things, which earn them their livelihood. When students finish school or university for that matter, they may not have learnt skills like welding, bookkeeping or managing other people, which they can trade for money on the job marketplace. People have to go to special institutes classified as VET or vocational education and training to learn professional skills.

The education versus training debate is an ongoing academic debate with staunch supporters on both sides. Training is usually market driven, where industry sets demands for people to have concretely measurable levels of certain skills. Teaching, on the other hand has a broader mandate. One part of teaching, especially at primary schools, is aimed at character formation. Teachers are supposed to transmit knowledge, or help students acquire knowledge, which contribute towards forming their personalities. Trainers are responsible for creating routines to better master a skill.

A wonderful and feisty lady from Scotland, who has taught Business English to adults for two decades, refuses to be identified as an English language trainer. For her ‘trainer’ brings to mind dog trainers. She points out that she is an academic with two Masters degrees from reputable universities and should be treated as such. She says about teaching and training:

I’ve watched many trainers at work. Training seems to be just a matter of repeating the same things as if they come out of a procedure manual, step one do this, step two do that. Training takes place in shorter periods of time and there’s no chance for revising, you just go step by step through it without questioning the rationale. For me, teaching is leading people through something. I want the students to understand why they’re doing something. Because you understand the background, you retain it better. I don’t think training really does that, I think training just shows you what button to click to get what effect. Training is behaviouristic, while teaching is inspirational.

The commonly accepted definition of an ESL (English as a Second Language) Teacher is someone who is academically trained (meaning that she has studied different methods and theories of teaching) and licensed to teach in formal settings (e.g., state schools). An ESL Trainer is broader may or may not be academically trained and licensed. One important distinction is that the trainer teaches in commercial settings, such as companies, or language institutes, while the teacher teaches in formal institutions of learning likes schools, colleges, or universities.

Ironically, what the teachers describe disparagingly as training practices, are those practices in which they often need to engage themselves. You simply can’t inspire everyone 100% of the time. You also need to utilize skills for facilitating learning in others. The deeper we probe, the fuzzier the dividing line between teaching and training becomes. In a certain way both aim at changes in behavioural responses. Nowadays in many countries, there is no distinction between teacher and trainer, even in the filed of VET, as all teaching staff should have pedagogical qualifications.

Is it so that anyone who wants to help others learn should be both, an excellent teacher and a competent trainer?