How to Become an ESL Teacher


Educators hired to teach English to foreign language speakers are referred to by many different acronyms, including ESL, TESOL, EFL or ELL, and often come from varied educational backgrounds and experiences. While some ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers may have grown up in a home where a language other than English was spoken, other teachers have studied and earned a degree related to a foreign language, traveled abroad and/or deeply immersed themselves in the associated culture.

Teaching English to non-native speakers requires a high level of proficiency in English, a superior understanding of English-language grammar, and the ability to explain the language’s many and often perplexing rules. ESL teachers work with students at all grade levels, from the youngest kids in elementary schools to adults attending community college. For those up for the challenge, many job prospects await teachers both in the U.S. and abroad.

What is an ESL teacher?

In regards to ESL teachers, it is important to clarify the terminology often used to categorize teachers who specialize in teaching English to non-native speakers:

  • English as a Second Language (ESL) is a term often used interchangeably with English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) or English Language Learners (ELL). While ESL was the favored term for many years, more recently, ESOL has become the preferred term since it recognizes that students learning English may in fact already speak several languages and dialects, making English another language among many others rather than just a second language.
  • English as a Foreign Language (EFL) refers to instances in which English is taught to students in a country where English is not the native language.
  • TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) is a term used to highlight the type of English language teaching that requires specialized training, with other similar terminology including TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language). All of the above-mentioned qualifications for ESL teachers are internationally recognized.

Whether one is hired to teach ESL, ESOL or EFL, the process of educating students is similar.

How can I become an elementary, middle or high school ESL teacher?

The primary focus of ESL/ESOL teachers at the elementary, middle or high school levels is to assist students in achieving integration into the English language and culture. Teachers primarily work with the children of new immigrants whose goal is generally to remain in the U.S. on a long-term basis. ESL teachers follow the English-language curriculum adopted by their respective schools, and develop lesson plans that adapt to the needs of their students. Some teachers concentrate on strengthening the basic literacy and communication skills of students who have had no exposure to English, while others may teach higher-level English to students who are closer to being mainstreamed into the United States.

Like any other teacher, ESL/ESOL teachers in elementary, middle and high schools must hold a bachelor’s degree and be certified to teach in their state. Typically, ESL/ESOL is considered a subject specialization and for this reason, educators are also expected to have completed an additional number of courses geared towards specifically teaching English as a second language.

The educational path that many ESL teachers take generally includes the following steps:

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university or college, where core courses are taken, including a specialization in ESL teaching that emphasizes grammar, reading, writing, oral comprehension and expression. Specialized courses that future ESL teachers may take include English Grammar and Pronunciation for Language Teachers; Second Language Research; Sociolinguistics; and K-12 Methods of Teaching ESL.
  • Complete a teacher training program. All K-12 educators must have completed the requirements of being able to teach at a public school by undergoing a teaching education program, which generally includes one to two semesters of a student-teaching experience (or internship) under the guidance of a seasoned educator.
  • Become licensed to teach. All teachers pursuing employment at a public school are required to complete licensure guidelines, as set by their state of residence. From submitting to a criminal background check to paying license fees, passing applicable examinations are usually a part of the process. For instance, teachers in Vermont are expected to complete the Praxis Basic Skills Assessment and any required Praxis II Content Area Assessments in order to become certified.
  • Earn a TESOL certificate. To work as an ESL teacher, educators often acquire a certificate, such as a Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certificate, which means a teacher underwent additional ESL training. The certificate is available through language institutes, community colleges and online.
  • Pursue a master’s degree. As required by certain states, some ESL teachers earn a master’s degree after becoming certified to teach, while others obtain an advanced degree in order to qualify for higher-paying jobs and expand their knowledge of the field.
  • Stay current and active. To expand job opportunities, network with other professionals, and remain current in the field, ESL teachers may join a group, association or organization, which connects educators to annual conferences, grants, publications and employment leads. A few notables include AAAL (The American Association for Applied Linguistics); IAWE (The International Association of Worldwide Englishes); and ILTA (The International Language Testing Association).

How can I become a college ESL teacher?

With few exceptions, colleges and universities who hire ESL/ESOL teachers expect teachers to have at least a master’s degree in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) or Applied Linguistics. In some cases, colleges hire teachers who have completed a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree and a post-graduate certificate in TESOL or TESL.Child and adult reading

Most TESOL or TESL certificates can be completed on a part-time basis with many individuals choosing to complete the program online. The primary focus of college-level ESL/ESOL teachers is to bring prospective students up to a level where they can apply to a U.S. college or university, or help admitted foreign students improve their level of English.

Many college and university writing centers employ ESL/ESOL specialists and some institutions offer advanced ESL/ESOL courses for newly admittedly foreign students, which are completed prior to or in conjunction with their required composition or freshmen English courses. Notably, in contrast to students at the elementary, middle or high school levels, many college and university ESL/ESOL students are just visiting and may seek to acquire a high level of English but not necessarily expect to achieve complete fluency.

How can I become an ESL teacher at private language schools?

A foreign language private school is an institution where the primary language is not English. This option is very common and growing quickly in the United States. Across the U.S., there are private language schools that offer courses in ESL/ESOL to newcomers and visitors. Most of these private language schools cater to the needs of either young adults visiting the U.S. for a fixed period of time to learn English or business professionals (as seen in instances where businesses employ ESL/ESOL teachers to offer workshops or one-on-one courses to non-native speakers in the workplace.

Private language schools also allow some students to learn within a mainstream setting yet follow their respective educational systems. For example, the German International School located in White Plains, New York, offers a college preparatory high school curriculum that follows the same system that a student in Germany would encounter.

While many of these private schools require some TESOL or TESL training, others will hire teachers with some college level education, no TESOL or TESL training, and no previous ESL/ESOL teaching experience. Some schools provide their own training, which can range from a half-day workshop to several months of training and supervised teaching. Typically, private language schools that prefer teachers to hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and a post-graduate certificate in TESOL or TESL pay more than schools requiring little or no specialized training.

How can I become an EFL teacher overseas?

Around the world, there is a high demand for English teachers, and it is not uncommon for educators to encounter advertisements and opportunities with offers looking for educators to teach English outside of the United States in locations ranging from China to Turkey. The working conditions, compensation and requirements for teaching English overseas, however, are by no means consistent.

EFL teachers often work with associations and agencies that connect educators with international teaching positions. While some opportunities provide extensive training, assistance with visas, travel reimbursements, overseas housing, health care and pay remarkably well, there are agencies that offer very little compensation, as well as place the bulk of the responsibility on would-be teachers to find their way to a new country and make arrangements to teach English in a new linguistic and cultural context. For some, teaching EFL overseas is an appealing option for educators with an interest in travel to ‘see the world’ or make a difference in an underprivileged country.

Due to the fact that many foreign language schools are subject to few regulations, they are often willing to hire teachers with no formal EFL credentials. As with private language schools in the U.S., however, the most reputed foreign schools typically seek to hire teachers with at least a bachelor’s degree and some form of TESOL, TESL or TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification. As a rule, would-be EFL teachers are strongly advised to acquire relevant training before leaving the U.S., and to thoroughly research the agency, company and location associated with their future education plans.

What is the compensation for ESL teachers?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salaries earned by ESL teachers in 2014 (not including those who teach abroad) have been determined by average grade-level salary statistics, as shown below:

  • Elementary and middle school teachers – $53,760 – $54,940
  • High school teachers – $56,310
  • Postsecondary teachers – $62,330

The overall salaries of ESL teachers are primarily determined by the grade or school level taught, years of experience, educational credentials, and geographic location. For instance, some states are known to pay their ESL teachers higher salaries than others. In 2011, ESL teachers in New Jersey earned the highest average pay by state ($70,210), with California (which employed the highest number of ESL and adult literacy teachers than any other state) following behind with $69,460 per year.

To make the most money, ESL teachers may find the most lucrative positions internationally. Depending on location and salary packages, teachers who teach overseas may benefit from added perks, such as free room and board to generous insurance options – all of which contributes to healthier salaries and a lower cost of living.

ESL teachers with a TEFL certificate and teaching experience (such as volunteer time, private tutoring or full-time teaching experience in their home country), tend to land the highest-paying overseas positions. For example, according to Go Overseas, the highest paid ESL jobs can be found in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which offers salary packages between $2,400 and $4,000 a month. The UAE requires ESL teachers to possess certification in their home country and several years of teaching experience.

Adult education ESL teachers instruct non-native speakers at adult education centers, libraries, night schools, and through in-home arrangements. The BLS cites the average salary for those who teach adults is a little more than $50,000 per year. Those who hold private classes or have a flexible tutoring schedule can set their own wages, which can potentially lead to earning a higher overall income. ESL and adult literacy teachers working at colleges and universities typically pay one of the lowest average salaries per year, when compared to other places of employment.

What is the job outlook for ESL teachers?

Bilingual teachers are becoming increasingly needed across the nation, which qualifies them for a wider scope of employment opportunities that accommodate all levels of education, from preschoolers to adults at a community college. Many factors come into play when determining the level of job security, flexibility and options for ESL teachers.

For instance, some regions of the United States exhibit a greater need to hire ESL teachers. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, five of the six states with the highest percentages of ELL students within the public school system were located in the West. Ten percent or more of the students in public schools throughout Alaska, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas were English language learners, with ELL students representing 22.8 percent of public school enrollment in California.

To boot, the U.S. Department of Education releases an annual listing of teacher shortages on a nationwide basis, which identifies the states and school districts demonstrating the greatest need to hire educators able to fill specific subject- and grade level positions.

The annual Department of Education listing revealed that the following states experienced a widespread shortage of ESL and bilingual teachers in regards to the 2015/2016 academic year: Arizona, New Mexico (bilingual teachers for kindergarten through grade 12), North Carolina (ESL teachers), Ohio (for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages – TESOL), Oregon (for Bilingual/ English Language Learners), Rhode Island (for Bilingual and Dual Language, and English as a Second Language), Wisconsin (English as a Second Language/Bilingual Education) and Wyoming (for English as a Second Language).

ESL teachers for Spanish-speakers are in especially high demand in certain regions, which means the job outlook for teachers willing to relocate or already living in specific states is above average. The recent census revealed that the South continues to experience one of the largest increases in Hispanic residents in the country, particularly in states such as Florida, Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi. The need is so great for bilingual teachers in certain areas that some schools are forced to vary their approach, such as the Beltsville Academy in Maryland, which in the past, has hired teachers that are still learning English.

The government and state legislation also plays a role in the number of jobs that become available for ESL teachers. For example, Illinois lawmakers enacted a law that requires all public schools with preschool programs to offer a bilingual program for children who do not speak English; thus, increasing the need to hire Spanish-speaking teachers.

Additionally, while the demand is high to hire teachers who work specifically with ESL students, Huffington Post reports that schools across the nation are seeking core subject teachers who can assist Spanish-speakers experiencing difficulty with math, reading, science, and other primary subjects. Overall, a bilingual educator not only qualifies for the average teaching positions associated with their specialization, but also possesses the added benefit of teaching non-English speakers, which is especially attractive to potential employers.

Those who are qualified to teach the English language to non-native speakers will also find many job opportunities abroad. According to Language Magazine, the TEFL certificate goes far in Southeast Asian countries, especially in Vietnam, which demonstrates a great need to hire English teachers. In Oceania, an extensive population of people is also interested in learning the English language in locations such as Indonesia.

In conclusion,  teachers with the ability to educate non-native English speakers are in high demand across the United States, qualifying them for an extensive range of opportunities to teach at all levels of education, from kindergarteners to adults. The variety and number of employment openings for teachers largely depends on the language spoken and the regional need of schools where they live. Additionally, ESL teachers are in demand outside of the U.S., hired to teach at international schools with an increasing thirst to learn the English language.

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