How to Become an ESL Teacher

Congratulations! You’ve decided to become an ESL teacher. Teaching English as a second or foreign language is an incredibly rewarding career path. However, it does take certain skills, training, and experience to become a successful teacher. Below are the steps you need to take to make a career for yourself in ESL.

The Basics: Building Your Foundation

ESL isn’t something you can just jump into. First, you need to acquire a basic skill-set and complete a certain level of education before you can hope to get a job. Below are the three steps you need to complete before you can make an informed decision about what kind of job you want to have.

Get a bachelor’s degree

A bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement for any paid ESL position. [1] A bachelor’s degree in any subject will hold you to a high academic standard, providing you with a basic professional skill-set in critical reading, technical and academic writing, scholarly research, professional debate, conversation, and conduct, critical thinking, and high-pressure problem-solving. You need all of these skills to be a successful ESL teacher, and no, you don’t get this kind of training in high school (even if you went to a fancy private school). If you are committed to teaching ESL, it makes sense to choose a related degree. Some universities offer bachelor’s degrees in TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language). But a bachelor’s degree in education, English, and/or technical writing are also common and useful choices for prospective ESL teachers.

Get an ESL certificate

Getting a BA in ESL isn’t necessary is because, even with that degree, you still have to get TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certified to teach ESL. TESOL certification programs teach prospective teachers how to assess student language proficiency, teach grammar, and plan lessons, among other skills. [1] Most basic TESOL programs are 120 hours and can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. However, more money doesn’t necessarily mean a better education. It usually just means better opportunities. For example, there are ESL certification programs that will send you to other countries, train you in real classrooms with real teachers and students, and even provide job-placement services. All of this is wonderful, but if you don’t have the cash, don’t worry. Your basic 120 TESOL certificate can be easily obtained online for a few hundred dollars, and you get the same training, just without the bells and whistles.

Decide where you want to teach

Every US state has different professional qualifications for ESL teachers. [2] And, of course, professional qualifications will also vary from nation to nation. It may seem early to make this kind of decision, but after you’ve completed your TESOL course, location will have a big part in determining your next steps. Some states require that you have a teaching license on top of your TESOL certificate. Others don’t. Some countries will accept ESL teachers with no prior teaching experience. Some won’t. Some states accept foreign teaching licenses or teaching licenses from other states. Some don’t. First, you need to decide where you want to teach, and then learn what the minimum professional requirements are for ESL teachers in that state or country.

The First Steps: Cultivating a Skill Set

Now you know the basics, but sometimes the bare minimum doesn’t quite cut it. Below are two additional options to consider before heading out into the field.

Get a teaching license

If you want to teach ESL in the United States, a teaching license is something to consider. For starters, many states won’t let you teach ESL without one. Even states that don’t require a teaching license are legally bound, under Title III (the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act), to provide “high-quality instruction” to English language learners [2]. You may be an incredible teacher with ten years of experience, but nine times out of ten, the state is going to play it safe and give the job to the teacher with a license. It’s another year (at least) of schooling, and it’s not free, but if teaching in the States is something you want to do, it will be worth the extra time and money in the long-run.

Get a master’s degree

Most ESL positions only require a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s degree is highly valued by most ESL employers. [3] So just because it’s not strictly necessary doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. A master’s degree can make you competitive even without any experience, and it can open up a higher level of job opportunities that you may not have known existed before. Master’s programs often have scaffolded teaching opportunities built into them, so if you’re still unsure as to what kind of teaching you want to do, a master’s program can be a safe space to try out different options without having to commit to one company or career path too quickly.

Making a Career

Armed with a bachelor’s degree, a TESOL certificate, and anything else you need to teach in your target location, you’re ready to start teaching. Or so you think. Teaching ESL can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also be incredibly challenging. Below are three guiding ideas to help you navigate the bumpy roads of your first few years in the field.

Furthering your education

You have a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, a teaching license, and a TESOL certificate. What more schooling could you possibly need? The reality is that, as a teacher, you can’t be educated enough. ESL teachers are highly encouraged to take courses in linguistics and theories of second language acquisition. [3] These courses are the most valuable (ironically) after you’ve already become a teacher. Language acquisition theories don’t mean much unless you’re actually in a position to try them out. All of your degrees have given you a foundation, but that doesn’t mean your education should stop once you’ve landed a teaching job.


Completing a student teaching internship in an ESL setting is a common step for prospective teachers. [4] Often, these internships are paid, but even if they’re not, the experience, feedback, and professional connections you make by doing them is invaluable. Student teaching internships tend to prioritize teachers who are seeking to obtain a teaching license, so it may make the most sense to include an internship as part of your licensure.

Applying for jobs

In the United States, ESL teachers can be expected to make between $54,000 and $58,000 per year. [4] Teaching ESL abroad is often less lucrative, but can be incredibly fulfilling work, and offer life-changing opportunities to experience new countries and cultures. Better still, programs that send native English speakers to non-English speaking countries often only require a bachelor’s degree and a TESOL certificate, and some programs will even pay for your TESOL education. Therefore, teaching abroad can be an excellent opportunity for teachers just beginning their careers who wish to gain some meaningful experience. A third option is teaching ESL online. It can be difficult to pay the bills and teach online, but it provides freedom, flexibility, and accessibility that no school or company will be able to match.

Essentially, the three major career paths available to ESL teachers are teaching at home, teaching abroad, and teaching online. When you are applying for jobs, consider all of them, especially if you seem to be striking out in one path or another. When it comes to teaching, experience counts for a lot. If you want to teach in the US but can’t afford a master’s degree, a few years in the Peace Corps may give you the same knowledge, experience, and marketability. If you want to teach abroad, a local teaching license may make you that much more attractive to international programs looking for English teachers.

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Cheat Sheet and Key Takeaways

  1. Teaching ESL is an incredibly rewarding career path.
  2. A bachelor’s degree is the minimum professional qualification for ESL teachers.
  3. If you want to teach ESL in the United States, you may need to get a teaching license.
  4. Teaching ESL is fulfilling, but it can also be very challenging without the right preparation.
  5. ESL has three main career paths: teaching at home, teaching abroad, and teaching online.