teaching english as a second language

Teaching English as a Second Language: 4 Steps to Start Your Journey

Close your eyes, and think:

Where would you like to see yourself this time next year?

Eating tapas and drinking wine at a Spanish bar?

Becoming fluent in a new language?

Relaxing on a stunning beach in Vietnam?

Making a difference in your local community?

Guess what—you can accomplish any one of these diverse goals by teaching English as a second language.

Have you been thinking of making a change? Are you toying with the idea of teaching English, either at home or abroad?

Being an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher can be a deeply fulfilling and enriching life experience.

But there are a few things to consider before you buy yourself a one-way plane ticket or walk into a classroom full of eager faces.

Before you do anything, be sure to read through our guide to getting starting to ensure you’re the most prepared ESL teacher of them all.

But First, a Moment of Self-reflection…

As with any career, teaching English isn’t for everyone. Before investing your time and money in this endeavor, have a long think about whether this is something you really want to do. Here are the most important questions to ask yourself:

Do I have the qualities of a great ESL teacher?

Here are some of the top skills you’ll need to excel in this profession:

  • You need to possess confidence and adaptability. Some of this will be learned on the job, but before you get started, you’ll want to have the self-assuredness to stand in front of a group of people and provide them with dynamic English lessons.
  • You need to be highly organized and detail-oriented. ESL lessons aren’t going to plan themselves!
  • You need to know your stuff. Be sure that you’re on top of all the latest materials, trends and changes in the English-teaching world to create engaging and practical classes.
  • You need to know the ins and outs of English grammar. Being a native English speaker isn’t enough. Do you know the difference between a direct and indirect object pronoun? Can you provide examples of countable and uncountable nouns off the top of your head? If not, make sure to study up on your English grammar so that you can answer your students’ questions.
  • You may need to acquire an officially recognized teaching certificate such as a TEFL. (For more info on this, keep reading.)

Once you know if you can be an ESL teacher, you’ll next have to consider if it’s something you want to do. So, the next step is to ask yourself if you’re ready for this adventure. Specifically:

Am I ready to…

…open myself to completely new cultures?

…meet new and interesting people from around the world?

…potentially spend a long time away from home?

…work a meaningful and life-changing job?

Have you answered yes to these questions?


Now that we’ve reflected, let’s dive in.

Teaching English as a Second Language: 4 Steps to Start Your Journey

Step 1: Choose Which Type of English Teaching Is Right for You

It’s important to define your English teaching goals before moving forward.

Here are some questions that you need to be asking yourself, as well as my key pointers and experiences, picked up while working in several ESL positions with learners of all ages.

Do I want to teach in my home country or teach abroad?

This is the big question. Are you hungry for adventure? Or looking to make a big impact in your local community?

Teaching ESL at home can be an incredibly rewarding experience, as you’re often teaching refugees and immigrants. This means you get to meet people who now call your home, their home! Not to mention, you can stay close to friends and family, may not have to move and won’t experience such a profound lifestyle adjustment.

On the other hand, if you decide to teach abroad, you’ll have the opportunity to immerse yourself in a completely new culture while having a potentially life-changing experience abroad. This comes with opportunities to travel and meet friends, as well as possibly develop skills in another language.

The international job market can be easier to break into. But on the other hand, it doesn’t always pay as well, and you may need to search for additional sources of income such as teaching online.

Do I want to work with adults or with children?

While both groups of students have their pros and cons, deciding on a classroom demographic can make or break your ESL experience. Have a think about how you’d deal with a classroom full of boisterous children or a room full of serious adult learners who expect top-quality teaching class after class.

Teaching adults can be a deeply satisfying job, as you’ll be able to share life experiences and form a meaningful connection with your students. Plus, classroom management is far simpler when teaching adult learners, as they’re dedicated and committed learners.

However, the classroom environment can at times feel overly serious, with none of the fun and games of an elementary school.

Teaching children can also be rewarding. It can be encouraging to watch children develop their language skills at a rapid pace, as their brain plasticity aids their language development. Plus, their excitement and joy can make for a positive, high-energy classroom environment.

On the other hand, if you plan on working with kids, remember that you’ll need to polish up on your behavior management as well as grammar rules!

Children will also be far more dependent on their teacher, and you may need to infuse your classes with stimulating additional resources such as music, videos or games. And you’ll have to get ready to deal with demanding parents, too!

Do I want to teach ESL short-term or do I want it to be my career?

While it may be difficult, it’s entirely possible to make a career of teaching English as a second language. This is something that can really only be decided once you’ve begun your English teaching journey and start to get a feel for it. Keep this in the back of your mind as you progress.

Teaching ESL for a year or two can be a great way to take a step back if you find yourself a bit lost in life and earn some extra money while you decide what’s next. It’s also a great way to earn extra cash while traveling and meeting new people. Plus, if you’re only in it for the short-term, you may be able to avoid having to go through a certification course.

There’s also a benefit to positioning yourself as someone who’s in it for the long haul. The TEFL world is expected to grow rapidly in the near future, and there won’t be any shortage of work as English is in high demand around the world.

If you think about English teaching as a long-term career right from the get-go, you’ll have more incentive to grow your teaching skills and build your resume with courses and certifications, which will make you a highly desirable candidate for jobs.

While this is a lot of work up front, it’ll eventually help you find higher-paying positions with more stability—and plus, it’ll make you a more effective teacher.

If you’ve gotten this far, the next step is to think about whether or not you’ll need a teaching certification. Have a look below to assess which certificate would best suit your needs.

Step 2: Research Teaching Qualifications

TEFL, TESOL, TEAL… To a newbie, it can seem like there are an infinite number of different acronyms to refer to various styles of English teaching and their associated certifications.

While in every option you’ll be teaching the English language to non-native speakers, for the purpose of acquiring a job it may be important to differentiate between all these acronyms.

Let’s break it down!

Different types of teaching qualifications:

  • TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) is the one to go for if you’re looking to work abroad. A TEFL certification usually takes 120 hours, and it can be taken as a fully online course, a classroom course or a combination. Because of the emphasis on travel, TEFL is usually the preferred choice for gap year students, travelers and adventurers. Note: TEFL is generally used as a catch-all term for all English teaching related jobs.
  • TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) is generally the recommended choice for those who want to teach English in a native English-speaking country, for example to immigrants or refugees.
  • TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) is very similar to a TEFL and may be heard being used interchangeably. However, a TESOL is generally recommended for those hoping to teach English in their home country, although a teacher holding a TESOL certificate may also be permitted to teach internationally. Think of this one as a sort of combination of the TESL and TEFL.
  • TEAL (Teaching English as an Additional Language) is a new acronym currently in usage, just to add a little more confusion to the mix! TEAL emerged as a response to the acronym TESL. The problem with TESL is that many English learners aren’t in fact learning English as their second language, but rather, their third, fourth or even fifth! So, if you see a TEAL certification course you can think of it as similar to a TESL.
  • CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) is sort of like a fancy TEFL. It’s a highly regarded certificate in the industry and will take about a month to complete. While it’s more expensive than the other options, it opens up a world of opportunities (literally) for the keen teacher. As you can guess from its name, this one’s best suited to teachers interested in working with adult students.
  • DELTA (Diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) is a higher-level form of accreditation which is only open to teachers who’ve taught for a period of one year. It’s recommended for those looking to turn their passion for ESL into a career.

If you’re overwhelmed, don’t worry. Many job postings will simply ask for a teaching certificate and will be happy with whichever one you have. In the meantime, you can take a look at YouTube to see some real teachers talk about their experiences and what worked best for them.

Psst…I’ll let you in on a little secret: some jobs don’t even ask for a teaching certificate at all. In fact, my first TEFL teaching job didn’t require a certificate! However, this is fairly uncommon. These days most English schools and academies will require their teachers to be accredited with one of the previously mentioned certificates.

With that seemingly never-ending list of acronyms at your disposal, it’s time to think about which qualification is right for you and where to study it.

You may need to consider factors such as cost, time, where you want to teach and if you prefer online or in-classroom training.

Where to find more information on teaching certification programs:

Once you’re ready to look for a program, here are a few resources to get you started.

  • TEFl.net has a great search function, which shows you the various institutions offering these degrees in your country.
  • GoAbroad is a great resource for not only travel but also for finding accredited institutions to undertake your ESL studies.
  • Cambridge English has incredibly useful information regarding the higher-level qualifications as well as fantastic resources related to the ESL world as a whole.
  • OnTESOL is a top-notch resource for comprehensive training and information on the TESOL certification.

You can also take some time to research your local colleges and training centers to see if there are any available courses. Whatever path you choose, always be sure to read the reviews of the institution. If possible, try to make contact with some former students to ask about their opinions of the course.

Step 3: Check the Job Market

Work, work, work, work, work.

That’s what we’re here for! But finding the right gig can be a tough, well, gig. It’s all about using the right tools.

Here are some of the most popular job boards to check out:

  • Dave’s ESL Cafe is considered the gold standard blog in the English teaching world. There are daily updated job postings as well as endless materials, resources and information at your disposal. (Don’t be put off by the outdated web design.)
  • ESLbase is where I came across my first job teaching in Spain. It’s very comprehensive and also includes a handy scam guide.
  • TEFL.com allows you to search for jobs within very specific parameters, meaning you can find that ideal gig if you already have some specifics in mind, such as location or length of contract.
  • /r/TEFL, the TEFL forum on Reddit, is another option, where you can get crowd-sourced info and potential leads for teaching positions.

Step 4: Research Target Schools

Like any industry, it’s important to do you due diligence. There are certainly cases of dodgy dealings, scams and teachers having horrible experiences with their ESL journey. Luckily there are a few steps to overcome this.

First, when you’ve identified a target school, look at its online presence. What does the website look like? Does it have any sort of social media presence? Informing yourself about the school won’t only help you avoid scams, it’ll also make you a more attractive job candidate.

Next, talk to as many people as you can. This includes your potential boss and co-workers. But also, if you can, contact some ex-teachers to ask about their experiences.

Forums can be a great place to get in touch with others who’ve taught in a similar region, program or even school. Facebook pages such as this internationally-oriented one are a great way to approach the job hunt with the added bonus of being able to read comments posted on the various opportunities, often by current or ex-teachers. If you can find a specific Facebook page or forum for your target city, that’s even better.

Some websites are designed to help job candidates research potential employers. For example, the TEFL blacklist on Reddit is a helpful resource to read about past negative experiences and potential places to avoid. Workplace review sites such as Glassdoor may also be helpful when searching for further information.


If we were to include a step five, it’d be: “Get ready for the exciting adventure of a lifetime.” As long as you’ve done all your research and prepared accordingly, teaching English as a second language can be a highly rewarding career choice. So be thorough, ask questions and enjoy every minute!

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