For those drawn to foreign cultures, languages and learning, becoming an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher is a superb opportunity to become immersed in a multicultural experience, whether at home or overseas. Today, English is the world’s principal language in international business, technology, communication and education. Roughly one billion students study English worldwide, making the ESL market massive, with ample opportunities to find work. While teaching doesn’t suit everyone, for those who are curious, enjoy explaining things (over and over again) and value job satisfaction over money – a very important distinction here – an ESL job is a ticket to broader horizons.
If markets are a number’s game, the numbers in ESL are huge. A report by the Association of Educational Publishers estimates that 1 billion Euros is spent annually on English Language Teaching materials in Asia alone. In the US, job growth for ESL teachers is projected to grow 14% between 2006 and 2016 (faster than average for all professions) according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. Abroad, in Asia, Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe there’s a great need for English. Simply put, demand far outpaces supply – a great equation for those who are job hunting.
The English teaching field is an alphabet soup of acronyms. There’s ESL, used when teaching English in an English speaking country; EFL or English as a Foreign Language, used when teaching English in non-English speaking countries; ELT (English Language Teaching), ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages); within the field, there are further acronyms: TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or ESP (English for Specific Purposes) for starters.
While being fluent in English is obviously a prerequisite, this alone isn’t enough. To qualify, you will also need a bachelor’s degree, and a TEFL certificate or CELTA (Certificate for English Language Teaching to Adults) to gain a working knowledge of grammar and classroom skills. Essentially, these courses teach you how to teach. Requirements for teaching vary from country to country or in the US, from state to state. To teach university-level and adult education programs in the US requires a Masters degree in ESL.
Certificate courses, which run four to eight weeks, are offered by language schools around the globe and cost more in high-income countries, such as the US. Distant or online learning courses are also available, but as teaching takes place face-to-face, actual classroom experience is more practical. Teaching is as much about responding to actual students (and their questions, challenges and doubts) as it is about theory.
Two of the most recognized international qualifications are the Cambridge/RSA Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) and the Trinity CertTESOL (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages)
What to expect on the job
An ESL teacher’s first consideration should be: where to teach? Those enticed by foreign lands and the promise of cultural exploration usually opt to go abroad, but even those who choose to work in an English-speaking country will be exposed to a diverse range of students within the classroom – from Kazakhstan and Thailand to Spain.
ESL teachers also work with diverse age groups, ranging from school children to working, professional adults (for Business English). Lessons can be one or several hours long, several times a day. During a typical lesson, teachers cover a variety of areas: explaining what vocabulary means, correcting pronunciation mistakes, or introducing grammar (potentially yawn-inducing but necessary.)
Outside of class, teachers spend their time planning lessons, marking homework, exploring and evaluating new materials and discussing methods with fellow teachers – often time that goes unpaid. While those teaching in non-English speaking countries will teach students who share a common language and can translate their ideas, those with students from diverse backgrounds will have to rely on more physical demonstrations or visuals to relay vocabulary or grammar. This is where the job requires creativity, patience and definitely, a sense of humor.
The Pros of Teaching ESL
Teaching requires a certain aptitude for language and its underlying structures, and a certain temperament for dealing directly with people, continual change (your best lesson plans will be mislaid) and constant feedback. It is very much like being on stage, conducting a large orchestra, for the entire process and its results rests on the teacher’s shoulders. At best, teachers enjoy incredible job autonomy. For those who like variety, building rapport with a diverse range of people, and enjoy the intensity of thinking fast on their feet, teaching is a stimulating and incredibly fun way to spend the working day. The qualities that make a good teacher: being a people person, patient, creative, flexible and resourceful. Teachers meet people from all over the world and gain insights into different cultures and people, which makes for a rewarding career.
The Cons of Teaching ESL
Aside from teaching grammar (a must!) teachers are responsible for managing the class, which means coming to work prepared and planning in advance. You will take your work home with you. Managing students can also be tricky. Depending on age and temperament, some students are a challenge to teach – remember when you didn’t want to be at school? – and this requires a great deal of staying power. Finally, although billions of dollars are spent the ESL field every year, teachers see much less of it than they should.
The field attracts young, adventurous people eager to live abroad (and willing to live on very little,) so wages are typically low. ESL teachers are paid for contact hours (classroom time only), initial contracts are often temporary or part-time, creating less job security, and this results in a high turn-over rate. And after years of constant preparation and focus, meeting the needs of volumes of people, ESL teachers can burn out.
As a career, teaching is not for everyone but for those who it suits, it’s a job that offers activity, mobility – you can teach anywhere in the world – and contact.