Instructor Flexibility Tiers

March 23, 2020   Martin Jones
Instructor flexibility can be categorized into one of three tiers — which one are you?

Managing a large team of instructors, as you might find in a graduate training programme, requires planning to make sure that the right instructor is with the right group, for the right topic, and in the right region. This is challenging enough in stable environments, but training programmes can be highly dynamic, and plans may need to be altered on the ground. Understanding a trainer’s flexibility is therefore critical.

To help make decisions quickly, I, and some of my colleagues, use a three tier system to categorize a trainer’s flexibility.

Tier 3

An instructor at Tier 3 can teach one topic well without supervision. A new instructor may need to build up to Tier 3 in both technical knowledge and presentation skills, and this can take time, but it’s only at Tier 3 that a professional instructor begins to earn their keep.

Is it bad if I’m ‘only’ a Tier 3? No, not at all. You might be doing an absolutely stellar job of teaching one topic; the attendees love it, you love it, and assessments are through the roof. Scott Meyers is probably the best known C++ trainer, even after retirement, yet he is probably a Tier 3 because he mostly teaches one topic.

Tier 2

At Tier 2, an instructor can teach a number of topics well without supervision. — for example JavaScript, Ruby, Python, and SQL. Not only can they teach all the topics well, but they can also switch from one to another without needing prep time.

Whilst a Tier 2 instructor may not want to switch topics at the last minute, asking them to do so should not induce fear either in the instructor or programme manager.

Occasionally there can be some friction between Tier 2 and Tier 3 instructors. Tier 2 instructors are expected to be more flexible than Tier 3 instructors, and often the trigger to exercise that flexibility is the inability of a Tier 3 instructor to teach a particular topic. This can happen at the last moment, when a Tier 3 instructor has been prepping something new and has cold feet — maybe they just learned that an attendee has a PhD in the area they’re about to teach! Tier 2 instructors rightfully charge a premium for this flexibility though.

Tier 1

A Tier 1 instructor has a wide range of topics that they teach well without supervision. When teaching, they can use this broad knowledge to teach topics in terms that the attendees already understand. For example, a Tier 1 instructor can comfortably teach — and switch between — C++, C#, Perl, JavaScript, SQL, Scala, Haskell, HTML, and design. This isn’t merely a larger set of topics; they’re different paradigms.

Breadth is not the only thing that sets Tier 1 instructors apart. A Tier 1 instructor’s star feature is their ability to prep for a new topic rapidly. When an instructor falls ill and you’re left with a gap that no one else can fill, you reach to a Tier 1 instructor because you can be confident they will meet the needs of the attendees. A Tier 1 instructor will, of course, need top notch delivery skills, confidence in what they do know, and humility in what they don’t. Tier 1 instructors are your special forces; whatever terrain they’re dropped into, they’ll do a job everyone is happy with, and if it’s familiar terrain, they’ll do a great job.

In my experience, Tier 1 instructors are rare. If you have a large team, you’ll want a few Tier 1 instructors in the mix. Short-term prep is extremely stressful, so it’s not a skill that you want to be applied very often, but it’s there when needed. The stress can be dramatically reduced by having materials that the instructor can rely on to be correct, accurate, and understandable.

Tier 0?

Can an instructor be more flexible than what I have described as Tier 1? Yes, if their skills and flexibility are in Tier 1 and they can manage a programme while actively teaching on it. Note that programme management can be done by a Tier 2, or even Tier 3 instructor. Some programme have a separate programme manager altogether. We therefore don’t incorporate this capability in the three tiers.

Tier 1 instructors are very hard to find, but Tier 0 instructors even more so. A defining characteristics of a Tier 0 instructor is the ability to manage stress well; as both a programme manager and a Tier 1 instructor, they may be the one that needs to fill in any gaps, often at the last minute.


When managing a team of instructors, flexibility tiers can be a useful tool for planning and dealing with dynamic changes.

These tiers can also be useful during reviews and for guiding instructor development.