ESL Teacher Career Guide

English as a second language (ESL) teachers work with non-native speakers to help these students learn to speak, read, and write in English. They may work in public or private schools, language academies, or teach private lessons out of their home or the homes of students. ESL students can range from children to adults of all ages. This guide provides further information on what ESL teachers do, how to become one, and the industry’s salary and outlook.

ESL Teacher Job Description

An ESL (English as a second language) teacher or ELL (English language learner) teacher is responsible for providing lessons and support to students who are learning English as a second language. Often ESL teachers use a real-life context to help students, many of whom are immigrants, grasp the complexities of the language. ESL teachers must be adaptable, creative and sensitive to the cultural differences expected when working with students from foreign countries. Often, those who teach English as a second language also act as mentors and advisors to students who are just getting established in a new environment.

ESL Teacher Requirements & Common Tasks

Teachers of ESL typically plan lessons, teach those lessons to a student or group of students (class), and assess students on their progress, strengths, and weaknesses. They might teach an entire class at the same time, or teach students in small groups. ESL teachers not only plan their class curriculum, but also organize activities and administer and grade tests. They work with child or adult students of varied ages and backgrounds. Some adult students might have been highly educated in their native country, while others may have little formal education. A flexible teaching style that adapts to varied student needs is a valuable skill for an ESL teacher. Excellent communication skills are also important.

Besides instructing students in English, ESL teachers must prepare their class lesson plans, complete any related paperwork, and stay informed of updates in available teaching methods. Because of the increasing use of technology in the classroom, ESL teachers may need proficiency in computers and various applicable software programs. As with most teachers, teachers of English as a second language often spend nights and weekends grading papers, planning their lessons, conducting activities, and meeting with parents and other school faculty. Teachers of adult learners specifically may be required to teach classes outside of regular working hours, since adult students often work during the day.

How to Become an ESL Teacher

Most states require that ESL teachers have at the least a bachelor’s degree. Depending on the location, a master’s degree may also be required. Education and training with a focus on teaching adults, linguistics or second-language acquisition is preferred by some employers. ESL teachers working with a government program may also need a license to pursue their specialty. At a public school, an ESL teacher is required to obtain a state teacher certification and in many cases an ESL or ELL endorsement. Obtaining a state teacher certification requires at least a bachelor’s degree and completion of a state-approved teacher preparation program.

ESL degree programs include classes in subjects dealing with the history of the English language, the way that the language has changed and is still changing, and strategies on how to teach the language to people whose first language is not English. Other ESL degree coursework includes teaching reading and comprehension skills, and operating within diverse cultures. ESL programs also instruct students on how to integrate teaching English with other subjects, such as science, mathematics, and history. It is necessary for ESL degree students to be able to develop their own curriculum, and they should expect to take classes on how to go about doing so. Earning an online ESL degree is another way to gain the experience needed to teach English as a second language. Online ESL degree programs provide a great deal of flexibility to those students who may want to study at home, from the comfort of a computer keyboard.

ESL Teacher Salary and Job Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual salary for elementary school and high school teachers is $53,400 and $55,050 respectively.1 The BLS also reports that adult literacy teachers, including some ESL teachers, earned a median salary of $48,590 in 2012.3 Full-time teachers are often paid a salary and receive benefits, especially those working for a government program or school system. Wages are directly affected by job location, training and experience, and available funding for ESL programs. Job openings are higher in states with larger non-native English populations, such as New York, Florida, California and Texas. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t provide projections specifically for ESL teachers, it does report an estimated 12% increase in elementary teacher jobs by 2022 and 6% for high school teachers during the same period.1,2 Adult literacy teacher jobs, including those in ESL, are expected to increase by 9% through 2022.3

Helpful Skills and Experience

Prior knowledge working with non-native students can help prospective ESL teachers stand out. A master’s degree in ESL or a related field may also help. Like all teachers, those who teach English as a second language should have good organizational skills, excellent communication and presentation skills, and sound decision-making skills. ESL teachers who will be working with children should have patience, and be able to remain calm and fair. A love of children and a kind nature are also helpful.

Additional Resources

TESOL International Association – A 12,000 member association providing information and resources for anyone involved in English language teaching.

ESL Degrees and Programs

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Frequently Asked Questions about Becoming an ESL Teacher

Question: What do I need to teach English abroad?

Answer: Requirements for teaching English abroad depend on the school hiring. Generally, they look for someone with a university degree, although it is not always necessary. Some employers like to see that you have TEFL or TESOL certification. You should also have some teaching experience and some knowledge of the language spoken in the country in which you hope to work.

Question: Do you need an ESL endorsement to be hired as an ESL teacher?

Answer: The requirements for ESL teachers are set by the state department of education and in many cases an endorsement is required. Check with your state’s department of education for details.

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/kindergarten-and-elementary-school-teachers.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/high-school-teachers.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/adult-literacy-and-ged-teachers.htm