From teacher to user researcher: why teaching experience is relevant work experience

The most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between.

— Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

Milo approaches the tollbooth in his bedroom, in Jules Feiffer’s illustration from The Phantom Tollbooth. Illustration: Jules Feiffer

Making the career pivot to user research has been a journey. But like Milo’s journey in The Phantom Tollbooth, the destination turned out to be a metaphysical one: a change in perspective rather than of location. So it has been also in my transition to user research, as I see now.

For the last ten years, I worked as a classroom teacher, social science researcher and research coordinator. Since entering the job market several months ago, I’ve been on the uphill struggle to convey that this experience is practical experience that generalizes to UX roles. Yesterday I sat down and mapped out the commonalities.

Mapping overlap between the qualifications of a teacher and a user researcher, with an ugly water stain

There is tremendous alignment between the role of a teacher and that of a user researcher. In both fields, you must:

  • identify and meet the differentiated needs of users,
  • adopt a data-driven approach,
  • challenge unsupported assumptions about users,
  • develop strong relationships with stakeholders, and
  • thrive in a fast-paced and dynamic team environment.

Beyond the job requirements, a UX researcher — differently from other design professionals — must evangelize the work, drawing buy-in and engagement from internal and external stakeholders. This is the role of an educator, meeting with parents, administrators, and students continuously to align expectations. As a passionate teacher, I bring the same mission-driven approach to sharing and elevating research-based approaches to product design.

Lastly, no one better understands the role of user advocate than the teacher. Working with a specialized population (Hispanic English language learners) in under-resourced schools in large urban districts, I rejected top down, one-size-fits-all approaches to learning. I put in long hours working around district curricula to do what my experience told me was best for my own students.

It’s very difficult to get a job in UX— or any field — with zero years of experience. But teachers have the relevant experience and qualifications in spades. User research isn’t brain surgery. It’s analytical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, and hard work. Let’s recognize experience that counts so former teachers like me can get our foot in the door.

Me, reviewing student work in a 4th grade classroom in Texas

Freshly minted User Researcher and Designer finding my footing after a career in K-12 education