ESL Teacher Career Guide

English as a second language (ESL) teachers work with non-native speakers to help 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 be found in all age ranges, from children to adults. 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 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 plan and deliver lessons and assess students on their progress, strengths, and weaknesses. They might teach an entire class or teach students in small groups. ESL teachers organize activities and administer and grade tests. They work with child and adult students of varied ages from diverse backgrounds. Some adult students may 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 related paperwork, and stay informed with changing teaching methods and standards. Because of the increasing use of technology in the classroom, ESL teachers need proficiency in computers and various classroom technologies. 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

All states require that public school ESL teachers have at least a bachelor’s degree, which may be in English as a second language or a related subject. Prospective teachers must complete a state-approved teacher preparation program either as part of their bachelor’s program or as a stand-alone program following graduation. Depending on the position, a master’s degree may also be required. Education and training with a focus on teaching adults, linguistics, or second-language acquisition is preferred. In public school districts, ESL teachers are required to obtain state teacher certification, commonly with an ESL or ELL endorsement. The typical path to this career is as follows:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree in English as a second language or a related subject, such as teaching English to speakers of other languages.
  2. Complete a student teaching internship in an ESL setting.
  3. Take your state’s tests for teacher licensure with an endorsement in ESL.
  4. Apply for your teaching license.
  5. Begin applying to open positions for ESL teachers.

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 successfully teaching students from diverse cultural backgrounds. ESL programs also instruct students on how to integrate teaching English with other subjects, such as science, mathematics, and history. Those who have a bachelor’s degree in another subject but would like to teach K-12 ESL classes may be able to qualify for a license by earning a master’s degree.

ESL Teacher Salary and Job Outlook

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual salary for elementary school and high school teachers is $54,550 and $57,200 respectively.1,2 The BLS also reports that adult literacy teachers, a category that includes adult ESL teachers, earn an average median salary of $50,280.3 Wages are directly affected by job location, training and experience, and available funding for ESL programs. Job openings for ESL teachers are higher in states with larger non-native English populations, such as New York, Florida, California, and Texas. While the US Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t provide projections specifically for ESL teachers, it does estimate a 6% increase in elementary and high school teacher jobs by 2024.1,2 Adult literacy teacher jobs, including those in ESL, are expected to increase by 7% through 2024.3

ESL Teacher Career Interviews

  • Texas ESL Teacher Trainer and Founder, Kid World Citizen, Becky Morales

Helpful Skills and Experience

Prior experience working with ESL 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 large membership-driven association providing information and resources for professionals involved in teaching the English language to non-native speakers.

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 college 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. US Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/kindergarten-and-elementary-school-teachers.htm
2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, High School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/high-school-teachers.htm
3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Adult Literacy and GED Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/adult-literacy-and-ged-teachers.htm