How To Become An ESL Teacher

Unlike many careers today, teaching ESL is a field that always seems to have positions available. Here are some tips on how to become an ESL teacher, either in the United States or abroad.

First, whether you teach in Hong Kong or at the community college down the street, you must have respect for- and desire to learn about- other cultures. Also, please realize that any career in education is demanding and requires time and patience for relatively little pay. However, being an ESL teacher is extremely rewarding.

The requirements for teaching ESL vary greatly depending on what level you want to teach- elementary or secondary school, college, or business-level- and where you want to teach. In the U.S., different states have different requirements. At the very least, you will need a bachelor’s degree in education, English, linguistics, or a related field. Nearly all states have other certification prerequisites as well. To teach on the college level, you must have a master’s degree, and in some cases, a phD.

To teach English overseas, many jobs are available in various countries with a minimal requirement of a bachelor’s degree in any field, particularly in Asia. However, to teach at a public school (as opposed to private), University, or for many countries in Europe, the requirements are closer to those in the U.S. A bachelor’s degree as well as a master’s in language or education will go a long way. For certification, the CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) is often thought of as one of the most prestigious ESL teaching certificates. The TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) certificates will also increase your job options, and the courses are available to take online.

While you’re working on that degree, consider tutoring ESL as a part-time job. Private lessons pay fairly well, and you’ll find out early on if teaching ESL is really something you’re passionate about. Plus you’ll start developing your “teaching chops” early on. (Teaching ESL demands a certain level of creativity. If a student with only a basic understanding of English asked you to define the word “trust”- and translation isn’t an option- how would you do it? The ESL teacher is often a master of pantomimes and pictionary.) If tutoring isn’t an option, try volunteering as an ESL instructor at your community library. The extra experience will really stand out on your resume when you graduate.

Something that is rarely a requirement to teach ESL, but always helpful, is to learn a second language yourself. In the U.S., it is typically not a prerequisite; after all, your class could easily be a mix of Hispanic, Asian, and European students. And if you teach overseas, most schools strictly abide by “total immersion”…that is, English is the only language spoken in the classroom by teachers and students, 100% of the time.

However, learning a second language can help you do more than translate. It can help you understand, even predict, mistakes students will make, and therefore give you better tools to help increase their comprehension. Plus, it is difficult to sympathize with a foreign language student if you haven’t ever been one yourself. If you are teaching abroad, speaking the native language will help you better understand your students, your bosses, and the country that is your home away from home.

Above all, teaching ESL requires a love of working with others, patience, creativity, and the strong desire to learn more about other cultures. If you have these qualities, along with a deep understanding of the complex English language, than you might have what it takes to become an ESL teacher.


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