How to become an ESL teacher

Written by Kate Lopaze

With the world getting more diverse, professionals who can help people bridge language and cultural gaps will be in high demand. English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers not only have skills that can help people assimilate into life in a new country, but they can also be cultural ambassadors. If you’re thinking about combining a love of teaching with the practical needs of language learners, it can be a great career path.

What does an ESL teacher do?

ESL teachers work with people who aren’t native English speakers and help them develop the English language skills they need in order to travel, live in an English-speaking country, or obtain citizenship. Some of these English language learners may have a specific goal in mind (like passing a citizenship test or a standardized test like the TOEFL to study abroad), or may just be learning English for personal reasons.

An ESL teacher’s job responsibilities may include:

  • Teaching general English, reading, and writing skills or focusing on a specific type of language use (like listening, life skills, literacy, professional English), etc.
  • Developing curriculum to help students in the real world
  • Managing classroom lessons and activities
  • Tutoring students

The ESL teacher may be employed by a school district, a lifelong learning program (like a community college or other adult learning center), a community organization, or an educational company. Many ESL teachers teach in the U.S., but it’s also possible to teach abroad for students who hope to travel to the U.S. or other English-speaking nations. ESL classrooms can often vary, with students ranging from children to adolescents to adults, from all walks of life. The students may already have varying levels of English-speaking ability as well—from not speaking any English to being fairly proficient (but wanting to refine even further).

What skills do ESL teachers need?

ESL teachers often need to have an extra level of flexibility and people skills because they’re working with a diverse range of people who may have an array of different needs.

Cultural Sensitivity: This is a key quality for an ESL teacher to have. The job inherently requires you to work with people from different backgrounds or nationalities to help them build their English speaking, listening, and writing skills.

Language Fluency: This is not always required, but can be very helpful, as it can open up even more job opportunities. Some English language teaching programs do total immersion (where the teacher and students only speak English), but if you are multilingual it can lead to more and different opportunities (like teaching abroad).

Teaching Skills: Like any educator, the ESL teacher needs to be able to take complicated concepts and teach them to students in an appropriate and understandable way.

Flexibility: This is a must-have skill for any teacher, but is even more essential for an ESL teacher. Students may have a range of learning styles and needs, so finding ways to connect those dots may require a bit of teaching dexterity.

Creativity: ESL teachers are teaching skills that have very real practicality in everyday life, so finding ways to work in real world lessons and activities with more abstract concepts like grammar and speaking can help students.

Organizational Skills: The ESL classroom is like any other, in that a chaotic atmosphere doesn’t help anyone learn. The teacher should be able to get a handle on the classroom and have set lesson plans and benchmarks in order to keep things running smoothly.

Communication Skills: You’ll be teaching communication, so you’ll need to be highly proficient at it yourself.

What do you need to become an ESL teacher?

ESL teachers usually need a bachelor’s degree at minimum, preferably in an educational field. However, in some cases a bachelor’s degree and English language expertise may be sufficient. Some states require ESL teachers to be licensed as other teachers are licensed, so be sure to check your state’s requirements.

How much do ESL teachers make?

According to PayScale, ESL teachers make a median salary of $40,632, though this can vary depending on where you’re teaching, what you’re teaching, and whether it’s in the public sector or private sector.

What’s the outlook for ESL teachers?

The outlook is bright! With more and more people seeking to come to the United States, there will be a consistently growing pool of potential students and programs that cater to them. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that adult literacy and language teachers (a group which includes ESL teachers) will grow by about 7% by 2026, which is faster than average for all careers.

If you’re thinking about teaching, and you’re especially interested in working with students on English language skills and literacy, working in the ESL field can be a great specialty. And with people of so many cultures coming together with a common goal, you’re likely to learn as much from your students as you teach them—a winning situation all around. Good luck!

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.