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The Facts About Becoming An ESL Teacher

By Edited May 15, 2015 3 6

Time For A Change

Sometimes people just need a change. Maybe your current job is getting you down, or maybe your life circumstances have changed and you find yourself looking for something different, a chance to branch out and find new opportunities. It's sometimes easy to find yourself feeling like your feet have suddenly stuck in a big pile of mud, that you can't seem to wade out of. Often one of the first things that people look at changing when they feel this way, is their job. Depending on your situation, one option that is worth considering is ESL teaching.

Why ESL Teachers Are Important For English Learning

ESL is an acronym meaning - English as a Second Language - ESL students is the name we give to people from non english speaking countries, who are endeavouring to learn the complexed English language. They can be any age and learning English at any number of different facilities such as kindergartens, primary schools, middle schools, high schools, universities, places of employment, private language schools or home tutored. These learners need authentic English speakers to help them learn the finer points of speaking our language. In many countries it can often be difficult to find native speakers of the language you choose to learn - anyone who has learnt a foreign language should already know this - and practicing pronunciation, listening and conversing with a native speaker of which ever language you are learning is extremely important. I have often heard stories about students who have learnt something like Japanese for years, but when they arrive in Japan, they can't understand or be understood. This is the difficulty facing many English learners, no opportunities to practice what they learn and this is where the role of an ESL teacher steps in.

Note : There are many acronyms for teaching English as a second language. Here are some common examples - ESL EFL TESOL TEFL, they all essentially mean the same thing.

Starting Your ESL Journey

Yes,  jet setting off to many countries and cultures sounds extremely exciting... and in reality, it is. I have already talked about this in another article Teaching ESL - You're Ticket To See The World, but being an ESL teacher is also very hard work, so what I want to talk about in this article today, is the reality of what is involved in the everyday work and life of an ESL teacher.

Starting at the very begining...The work that is involved in packing up your life as you know it, into a suitcase, selling things to fund your journey into unknown territories and saying good-bye to your family and friends... takes a lot of courage. Not to mention the work and funds involved in gaining your ESL certification, time spent deciding what country you will go to, finding a suitable job (dependent on what age you want to teach), signing a job contract and organizing visa's, passports and health checks. You would think that finally getting on the plane should be a relief, but venturing into the unknown could leave you feeling a little like I did...What am I doing on this plane? and then closely followed by what the heck am I doing in this country? Finally arriving at the airport can be dizzying and confusing especially if you still have to get to your final destination of a smaller city or town. Trying to find your connecting flights, trains or coaches can see you having to face your first experience of trying to communicate in your new countries native language. What at first may seem exciting, very quickly can become terrifying, but five years later down the track, I can now speak with experience and tell you that I came here as an anxiety ridden mouse, facing life's difficulties front on, in a totally foreign, non English speaking country and in return it has given me the opportunities I needed to grow in so many different ways, and grow is what I've done.

The Life Of A Chinese Based ESL Teacher

Depending on the contract that you sign, your working conditions including working hours, time spent at your workplace (when not teaching), living conditions, class sizes and ages can all vary. Be very careful when signing a contract that you don't take on more than you can handle. When you initially see something written along the lines of - no more than twenty teaching periods a week - You may scream with delight, but be warned...twenty teaching periods, which in Chinese schools are usually 45 minutes in length, may sound like a luxuriously short working week, but you also need to consider these things

You have to prepare your lessons - You can't just walk into the classroom with nothing to teach. This can take many extra hours on top of your teaching hours of scouring the internet and teaching materials for fresh and interesting ideas. To successfully prepare lesson plans you need to take into account the students different culture, meaning make sure you check for things like:

  • Taboo subjects - things that you should avoid teaching or even talking about because of cultural differences.
  • How willing to participate your students are (most Chinese kids are extremely shy)
  • Is the content age and level appropriate? - anything too difficult and you will lose their attention as they lose their ability to concentrate. Planning lessons becomes even more time-consuming if you are teaching a few different age groups, all needing different level appropriate material.
  • Does it have a fun aspect to it? - You are not the students core subject teacher. You have to make your lessons enjoyable, otherwise your life will become very difficult and miserable. Being faced with a classroom of up to (in my case) 60 children, who don't want to be there...I can guarantee is not fun.

Extra Responsibilities - Make sure you check if there are extra responsibilities that you have to take part in. Some schools may have relatively few classes but may expect you to still be at school in the office, conducting English clubs or English corners or even teaching their English teachers.

Learn To Adapt

This job gives you many chances to adapt things from your western life into fun, exciting and interesting lessons for kids to learn. Sports, card or board games...I've even effectively used drinking games like sentence memory games, obviously adapted so they only use suitable vocabulary and of course no drinking. You really need to use your imagination to keep your classroom alive. Being a big sport fan, I really enjoy incorporating sports vocabulary and activities that the children often don't know. One of the most popular sport activities I have taught is Four Square. Chinese kids have not heard of many sports, as it is a country that concentrates mostly on academic life, and that doesn't include sport or the arts. To give you an idea of the atmosphere in a Chinese ESL classroom, have a look at a video of  an ESL activity being carried out in my class.

Lesson Ideas

ESL Games: 176 English Language Games for Children: Make your teaching easy and fun
Amazon Price: $19.99 $15.06 Buy Now
(price as of May 15, 2015)
You will need material like this to help you plan lessons.


Slap, Slap, Clap, Clap is a circle game and also what we call an icebreaker. It's great for learning new classmates names. Very basically you have to say your name followed by another students name whilst keeping the rhythm.

Slap Slap Clap Clap : Name Chant

Keep A Level Head

Having an ESL certificate to teach does not make you a bonafied "super teacher". In China the visa you receive if you are teaching ESL is titled "Foreign Expert". Now I have seen this title often go to teachers heads, suddenly thinking and acting like they are a highly qualified teacher, drilling the students in even more grammar and clauses than they already have forced down their neck. Unless it specifically says so in your contract, usually the role of an ESL teacher is to teach Aural (Listening skills) and Oral (speaking skills) and not what they already get taught in their everyday classes. My contract also states that I should include teaching the students about different western cultures and ways of learning. On the opposite end of the scale to the "I'm an all important super teacher", I have also seen the Foreign Expert title add huge pressure to new ESL teachers, thinking that they have to live up to some humongous responsibility, and when the kids don't respond seriously to their classes, it all feels like they have taken on too much to handle and they fall apart. The important thing to remember is that when you are teaching anything, you are holding a position with responsibilities...but don't look at your job unrealistically. You most likely haven't spent many years at teachers college nor are you likely holding a specialized degree in education, so stick to the job you are employed to do.

Yin and Yang

Teaching ESL is full of adventure, can be extremely satisfying and even interesting work. You can make new friends, learn new cultures and explore new lands... but keep in mind that it can also be very draining to your energy supplies. Your life will become full, day after day of talking to kids or adults, trying to explain activities and get them to understand, whilst also potentially handling classes of either highly excitable or totally uninterested kids. All this whilst living in a foreign country away from your family and friends. If you think you've got what it takes to be an ESL teacher, you can start your journey by joining an ESL accreditation course at one of the many online companies or what I recommend is to attend one in person, at a location near you. Once you have your certificate, you can journey off into the ESL sunset, to the country of your choice. Who knows, I may even see you in China!

Career Change

Career Change: Stop hating your job, discover what you really want to do with your life, and start doing it!
Amazon Price: Buy Now
(price as of May 15, 2015)
Stuck in a rut, want a change. Maybe this will give you some help with finding some answers?


Apr 22, 2013 5:44am
Nice read. Brought back memories of my relocation to China five years ago. You're spot on. Voted up.
Apr 22, 2013 6:08am
Hey ChinaWriter :-) Are you still here? Thanks very much for the read and taking time to comment. Much appreciated!
Apr 22, 2013 6:23am
Chopsooy... yep, still here. Married and living in Huizhou, Guangdong. What about you?
Apr 22, 2013 6:28am
Yep...Five years on for me too..I'm in Yichang, Hubei.
May 15, 2013 10:10am
Chops, I saw the title of the article and KNEW it was you. :) Congrats on another feature and another great article! Thumbs up.
May 15, 2013 3:51pm
Thanks Kim, appreciate the support!
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  1. "Tesol Can Change Your Life." Australasian Training Academy. 19/04/2013 <Web >

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