Published: June 5, 2023

Wherever there's a need for students to learn or improve their English, there's a need for English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers. But how do you decide if it’s right for you?

As in any field, it helps to understand the fundamentals of teaching English to non-native-speaking students and the occupation's outlook. Learn more about this career path to see if working as an ESL teacher fits your goals and interests.

What does an ESL teacher do?

ESL teachers help students master the fundamental skills of speaking, reading and writing English. Whether you teach adults, teens or children, online or in-person, at home or abroad, you'll provide the rudimentary language skills that equip non-native speakers for future success in school, business and life.

Standard job duties include:

  • Creating and teaching lesson plans
  • Offering personalized instruction based on students' unique needs
  • Helping teach students English skills that can help them in day-to-day life
  • Connecting students with resources that help them succeed outside of the classroom

Kelly Burlison, associate professor in the reading and ESL program at Lynn University, says the best way to help students is to be aware of individual learning styles, needs and abilities.

“An educator's gift to our learners is seeing each one of them,” says Burlison. “We need to know our students to better support them in the classroom.”

Is there a high demand for ESL teachers?

Teacher shortages, combined with rising immigrant populations, may lead to a growing demand for ESL teachers in the U.S.

According to a December 2022 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, 45% of schools had at least one teaching vacancy. ESL teachers landed in the top two teaching positions with the highest vacancy rates at 6%, second to only special education teachers at 7%.

The percentage of public school ESL students has risen significantly over the past decade. A May 2022 NCES report states there were 5.1 million English learners in public schools in 2019, compared to 4.5 million English learners in 2010.

“Incoming students from various countries—who either do not speak English or who have English as their second language—need English skills to function in a new setting,” Burlison says. “Teachers must provide scaffolded instruction, assessment and support, so ESL students can use their social language and comprehend the English language.

“Many teachers are not trained in ESL strategies and don't know how to instruct and assess diverse learners,” Burlison continues. “Teachers may not have the tools to support non-native English speakers. As a result, many students are not proficient and continue to struggle in school.”

As an ESL teacher, you'll be trained to effectively instruct students and reach unique populations that can benefit from the special skills ESL teachers possess.

What are the qualities of an effective ESL teacher?

ESL teachers need to be comfortable speaking in front of groups, building one-on-one relationships with students and staying organized. According to a LinkedIn article by corporate trainer Gabriel Ejitokun, other skills you’ll need include:

  • Interpersonal and communication skills: ESL teachers must communicate and collaborate with both students and administrators. They may also consult with parents about the unique learning needs of their children. A welcoming attitude is important.
  • Cultural awareness: “[A good ESL teacher] must learn something about the cultural background of the students in the classroom, so as to be able to understand the individual differences of the learners,” Ejitokun writes. “Learning to speak one or two phrases in the students' language can even kindle the students' interest in learning. This makes them feel more comfortable around the teacher, and it makes them willing to attend the lessons.”
  • Flexibility: While ESL teachers need to plan and strategize items such as lessons, homework and projects, they also need to understand students' needs and adjust their teaching strategy as needed.
  • Classroom management skills: Teaching is a stimulating profession that requires a variety of duties, ranging from interacting with students to being accountable to administration and guardians. ESL teachers must be able to organize their tasks so they can be efficient and meet their teaching standards and goals.
  • Patience and empathy: “Each student has their learning style and personality. An ESL teacher should have the patience to help students build their speaking, writing and listening skills,” Burlison says. “ESL teachers can use patience and kindness to understand their students and help them progress in the most effective ways.”

How do you become an ESL teacher?

The first step is gaining the necessary education. Aspiring ESL teachers must hold a minimum of a bachelor's degree in elementary education or a related field.

“Teacher candidates will need to either earn a degree in ESL or an education degree focusing on language arts, English, elementary education, reading or exceptional student education,” Burlison says.

After obtaining their degree, graduates can qualify to become ESL teachers by meeting their state-specific training requirements, which vary. For example, in Florida, you can qualify to become an ESL teacher by obtaining an ESL endorsement or an ESL certification, which requires taking specific courses and exams (see part IV of this report from English for Speakers of Other Languages in Higher Education).

“I suggest future teachers contact their local districts and inquire about the requirements to become ESL trained or certified in their state,” Burlison says.

What does the future hold for ESL teachers?

ESL teachers are needed in various environments to help bridge language barriers and provide non-native English speakers the opportunity to learn and speak English fluently. There are opportunities in all types of learning settings, including public schools and higher education establishments in the U.S. and abroad.

Consider the type of population you'd like to work with and where. With the proper education and a passion for teaching, you can help others master English and add value to their lives.

“Aspiring teachers work in middle and high schools as ESL coordinators and reading teachers, for nonprofit organizations, in private tutoring and adult education,” Burlison says. “Also, you can travel and work worldwide assisting and supporting bilingual students. The possibilities are vast.”

Consider an ESL teaching career

Most of the U.S. is currently experiencing teacher shortages, particularly with ESL teachers. You can make a difference in students' lives by becoming an ESL teacher.

Check out Lynn's online bachelor's degree in elementary education program for details on the education that can help you become an ESL teacher. Request program information to learn more.

Notes and conditions - PLEASE READ

Employment and career advancement: Actual outcomes vary by geographic area, previous work experience and opportunities for employment. Lynn University does not guarantee employment placement or career advancement.

About the Author

Lynn University

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