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.
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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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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