Thursday, June 25, 2009

How to Get a Good Job Teaching ESL

teaching esl

Dear Sarah Von,
I'm just starting out with teaching ESL and I was hoping to pick your brain a bit about it! I know lots of people just teach as a way to travel for a year, but I am hoping to make it into my career, like, for real. The job you have now sounds amazing, and I was wondering if you had any words of wisdom about how to find such a job in the US (I hadn't had much luck with full-time ESL jobs here), and what to look for in potential gigs abroad. How did you find the places you taught? Any thoughts on separating the good online job postings from the bad? Anything else ESL or otherwise related you are dying to impart to the first person that asks!?
I'd be happy to share my two kernels of knowledge! I feel incredibly lucky to have found a job that I genuinely enjoy (most days) and allows me to live almost anywhere I please. Here are a few of the things that I've learned after five years and five countries worth of teaching.

Finding an ESL Teaching Job Abroad
When it comes to finding a job, you really have two options, lining something up ahead of time or going to your country of choice and finding something once you get there. Both options have their pros and cons.

Lining something up ahead of time could mean free airfare, training, being met at the airport and job security. It can also mean being stuck in a job or town that you're not too keen on. Finding something once you get there may equal higher pay, better benefits and a working environment that fits you. But it also means all the normal stress of finding a job - but in a foreign, non-English speaking city. Wicked stressful, dude.

If this is your first time traveling in a non-English speaking country or teaching ESL, I would probably recommend trying to get something lined up before you go. Do some really in-depth research on your potential employers - check out expat online message boards and see what they have to say about the company and ask your school if you could chat with a few of their current employees. English school vary hugely so it's really important to find one that's right for you. There are approximately a gajillion ESL-job sites online; some of the best are, and Dave's ESL cafe.

Personally, I've taught English through UMM's Eltap program in Brazil, A.C.L.E. in Italy, Carisma in Peru, HESS in Taiwan, Making Futures Happen Institute in New Zealand, and Hmong American Partnership here in the U.S.

At Home
Finding ESL jobs in an English-speaking country is understandably a bit harder than when you're abroad, but it's not impossible. You just need the right qualifications and need to know where to look.

Required qualifications vary a lot depending on who and where you are teaching. Private language schools in areas with a population of wealthy ESL students will only require a B.A. and teaching experience. You can find schools like this in Sydney, London or New York. However, if you're teaching in the public school system, at a university or at a non-profit you'll probably need some sort of qualification - a teaching certificate, a TEFL or CELTA, or even an M.A. in TESOL.

To target your job search, you should know that there are three main areas of ESL: private English schools, adult basic education for refugees and immigrants and teaching in the public school system. The latter two are probably the easiest to find jobs in.

Private English Schools are usually found in large, cosmopolitan cities. The students here are often wealthy, young and attend these schools as part of a gap year or to improve their English enough to gain acceptance into an American university. The pay at these schools is decent, but there is often little job security and you can be laid off if student numbers drop too low. The atmosphere at these schools is pretty laid back and the students are often quite fun, if not always particularly motivated, because they are essentially on vacation. You can find these many of these schools in Seattle, San Francisco, L.A., New York and Miami.

I currently work in Adult Basic Education for refugees and immigrants. Many countries offer support to refugees if they make steps towards integrating into their new culture - steps like job training or English classes. There is a bit more job security in these jobs because the schools are government funded and the students' food stamps and subsidized housing are tied to their class attendance. The students are also incredibly motivated, respectful and thankful for all the help you give them, which is not always a common dynamic between students and teachers. The work can be a bit emotionally draining when you hear about the lives your students lead before they left their countries and the learning can be slow going as many refugees have never attended school before. You can find these jobs in any city with a sizable refugee or immigrant population; I would imagine there are heaps in Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona.

It's also possible to teach ESL in the public school system, though you'll need a teaching certificate. These jobs are a bit harder to come by because most schools only need one or two ESL teachers for the entire student population. Also, children learn English so quickly, many school systems don't even bother with ESL specialists for primary aged children. Six and seven year-olds can often become completely fluent in one school year, just from being immersed in English. However, these jobs do come with the other perks of public school teaching - three months off and tenure, so if you can find one (and keep it) you've gotten lucky.

Anybody else out there taught ESL? Any other advice for our teacher friend?

P.S. If you're looking for more advice about quitting your job and moving abroad (or just traveling for a long time) you might like this.

Photo (without text on top) by Gill Penney can be viewed here


  1. A great way to gain experience is by tutoring. If you're still in college, working at the university's writing center will give you the opportunity to work one-on-one with some of the university's foreign students. Plus, it's a much lower-stress-level way to gain experience than trying to keep a classroom moving, I'd think.

  2. Thanks so much for answering my questions! I'm heading off to my new TESOL job in Madrid in a month, but since I'm stuck in my boring suburban hometown til then, it's been feeling really far away. Your post helped get me in the ESL mode and dude, I'm pumped! :)

  3. This is great! I've been thinking about doing this for a while now but I wasn't sure where to start looking and what to consider, so thank you! :)

  4. semi-off topic, but I totally disagree about 6/7 year olds picking up English fluently in one school year.

  5. very informative & well-written post! so many people want to do this, but they lack resources and guidance. i myself got to teach for a bit (replacing someone for a bit) in the adult immigrant ESL sector and i loved it! so true abour the learning difficulties due to little education prior and the hardships-one student showed me the machete marks on her legs from the Rwandan genocide, where she lost most of her family.

  6. Thank you for this, I'm completing my MA in TESOL while working in Japan at a university (I'm one of the lucky few to do this without a masters) and am thinking to go back to the UK at some stage. I'd be interested in working with immigrants and refugees, and am looking for resources to help with that. TESOL is a rewarding career, and one I'd definitely recommend.

  7. I wish everyone well in all your endeavors. It is not easy to adjust to anew culture, new country, new job and you are doing all three at once. However, the fact that you are doing something that you feel will benefit the children of the world will help you to persevere whenever things get stressful. I know that there will be children who look back on the experience for many years to come and feel enriched by their education.

  8. Having students rewrite the rules in their own words is a great idea that I had never thought of. I will definitely give it a try!

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  9. if you are not interested to teach you could join other careers related to the English Language such as interpreter, journalist,reporter, news caster, public relation officer and others which the English use is in high demand.

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