Becoming a Great ESL Teacher: From Qualifications to Career Paths

Becoming a Great ESL Teacher: From Qualifications to Career Paths
If you’d like to make a career out of helping students learn to read, understand, and speak English, chances are that you’ll be able to find work in a school in the U.S. or abroad. Image from Unsplash
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Christa Terry July 2, 2019

Teaching English as a second language in the school system — or outside of it — means you’ll give students (and sometimes entire families) a leg up in life. While ESL teachers encounter many challenges in the course of their careers, they also reap many rewards.

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More than just a job, teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) is a calling. The teachers who make the choice to work with ESL students fulfill an important need in the school system; according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 9.6 percent of all public school students in the United States are learning English while also trying to keep up with the standard curriculum.

And yet, according to Face the Facts USA, fewer than 1 percent of all teachers in public schools are ESL instructors. This means that across the country, there’s only one ESL instructor for every 150 English language learners (ELLs) who need help learning English.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • Helpful acronyms for ESL teachers
  • Educational commitment to become an ESL teacher
  • Licensure and accreditation to become an ESL teacher
  • Skills required to become an ESL teacher
  • ESL teacher job opportunities

If you’d like to make a career out of helping students learn to read, understand, and speak English, chances are that you’ll be able to find work in a school in the U.S. or abroad. Curious about how to become an ESL teacher? Read on to learn more about who is attracted to teaching ESL students, the different paths ESL teachers take, and the qualifications and experience you’ll need to join their ranks.

Helpful acronyms for ESL teachers

The world of ESL education — which encompasses not only public schools but also charter schools and private schools, language academies, colleges, schools in other countries, and tutoring centers — is a world replete with confusing acronyms. Most often, these refer to the different types of ESL programs, instructors, or certifications. Here are some of the most common.

  • TESL stands for Teaching English as a Second Language and is often used interchangeably with ESL.
  • TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language. TEFL instructors work abroad in countries where English is not the primary language in schools, companies, and universities, and for other organizations.
  • ESOL stands for English for Speakers of Other Languages and usually refers to programs outside of the K-12 school setting. ESOL programs are commonly found online and at community colleges or are taught privately. ESOL education may include an adult literacy component.

In public school settings, programs for English learners and degree programs for ESL teachers may be labeled ESOL, ESL, ELL, TESL, and TESOL. In Florida, for instance, the certification for public school teachers is referred to as the ESOL certification, while in Georgia, a similar certification is called the TESOL certification.

Educational commitment to become an ESL teacher

Educational requirements for ESL teachers depend on whether you plan to teach in the public school system or in a private setting, and who your students will be.

Teaching TEFL abroad

If your goal is to teach English abroad, you’ll probably need at least an undergraduate degree (in any subject) and a TEFL certification. Unfortunately, there’s no single global accrediting body for TEFL certification, and there are a lot of TEFL teacher preparation programs online — some more reputable than others — because literally anyone can create and market a TEFL course.

Choosing a course offered by an accredited nonprofit university is the safest bet; a university course should provide the necessary 120+ hours of instruction to gain your certification, and it will bear the imprimatur of a respected institution.

Teaching ESL in the US

On the other hand, if you want to teach ELLs in the US public school system, you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree and a state teacher certification with an ESL or ELL endorsement. The quickest path is to get a BA in TESOL or ESL, though many ESL teachers also pursue English degrees or linguistics degrees before pursuing teacher education programs and ESL certification.

Students who have already earned a bachelor’s degree in a field other than education can take advantage of alternate routes to certification in all fifty states, though these vary. In many states, you can still teach without a master’s degree, but you may discover that you have a tough time competing for jobs against teachers who have earned a TESOL master’s.

Coursework in ESL degree programs at both the undergraduate and master’s degree levels will include:

  • Strategies for teaching reading comprehension
  • Teaching students from various cultural backgrounds
  • Teaching other subjects while also teaching ESL
  • The history and future of the English language
  • Grammar and linguistics
  • Most programs will include an internship component
  • Some programs involve bilingual education, but most do not

Licensure and accreditation for becoming an ESL teacher

The next step is to obtain the necessary certifications, which, as with almost any teaching discipline, vary widely by state. The best way to find out what you’ll need is to contact your state’s Board of Education to ask about the licensure and accreditation for becoming an ESL teacher. In many states, that involves passing state-administered tests for a teaching license and applying for an ESL license; note that many states have several certificates available for ESL teachers. Oklahoma and Connecticut both offer ESL as a primary endorsement, while Arkansas and North Dakota offer it as an add-on endorsement. Some ESL teachers also pursue additional certifications not required by the state because those certifications can lead to more teaching opportunities.

From there, instructors often take advantage of further accreditation or education for ESL teachers like classes and seminars; public schools often require both as a condition of keeping your teacher license current. Each state sets its own standards with regard to required hours of professional development and other renewal requirements.

Skills required of ESL teachers

Students in both the public and alternative school systems are typically grouped by grade-level aptitude, not by their level of English proficiency. As a result, ESL teachers are frequently faced with groups of students whose English aptitude varies greatly.

An ESL teacher needs to be able to:

  • Assess students’ skills and then balance the needs of all the students in a classroom in order to help each one achieve the highest English proficiency possible in the shortest amount of time.
  • Act as intermediaries between a student and his family and the schools, making sure that ELLs and their families understand communications coming from the school, and vice versa.
  • Surprisingly, what isn’t required of ESL teachers is the ability to speak multiple foreign languages. Many people assume that an ESL teacher would have to speak at least one foreign language common among ELLs in the United States. However, as the US Department of Education points out, “ESL instruction is usually in English with little use of native language.” Which makes sense; an ESL classroom of 20 students could conceivably include speakers of 20 different languages. An ESL teacher isn’t a UN interpreter; she can’t be expected to know so many languages and be a proficient teacher of English.
  • For an ESL teacher, patience, respect, and solid research skills are much more important than the ability to easily pick up languages.

Job opportunities for ESL teachers

The outlook for ESL teachers in the classroom is good. According to the US Census Bureau, over 60 million people in the U.S. currently speak a language other than English at home, and the number of ESL job vacancies in the U.S. is going up as the number of ELLs does.

  • Some states offer financial bonuses to teachers who pursue an ESL certification
  • ESL teachers can become program directors and coordinators
  • ESL teachers can transition into research or designing curriculum materials for other instructors

Of course, money isn’t the main reason to teach ELLs. As an ESL teacher, you’ll know, without question, that you’re making a difference. And as Monica Brown, a current ESL teacher, told Emmersion Learning, that difference often extends beyond the classroom.

“The first time I heard my student, Jose, thank me because he was able to help his mother translate one of her conversations over the phone, I felt so proud to have indirectly helped another family member.”

That’s what teaching ESL is all about.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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Categorized as: ESL / ELL / TESOLEducation & Teaching