So you’re thinking about teaching English? But you’re asking yourself, is it hard to be an ESL teacher. Well, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, an ESL teacher of 14 years tells all about the difficulties, rewards, ups, and downs of teaching English as a second language (ESL) or teaching English as a foreign language (EFL).
Is it hard to be an ESL teacher, or easy?
Different people have different images of what it means to be a teacher of English language, and often, it’s not as easy as people think it is. However, that doesn’t mean it’s hard, and with the right attitude, understanding of the job, and a willingness to take it seriously, even a busy English teaching position can feel easy because it is so rewarding! So, to make sure the job is a pleasure, and not a chore, you need to consider the following things: qualifications, experience, location, culture, methods, industry conditions, and your approach to the job.
Are you interested in the good and the bad of ESL and EFL teaching? Let’s look at a collection of each below:
Is it hard to be an ESL teacher? The positive:
- Your students
- Making a difference
- Transferable skills
- Experiencing new cultures
- Salaries and benefits
- Personal language learning
Is it hard to be an ESL teacher? The negative:
- Industry conditions and competition for places
- Discrimination in hiring policies and student preferences
- Cultural differences?
The benefits of being an ESL or EFL teacher
One of the most important things to consider when asking is it hard to be an ESL teacher, or an EFL teacher, is your students. Well, you’re in luck! Teaching a language is a communicative challenge, one that means you really get to know your students and your students get to know you. In lessons, there is usually little simply staring at a textbook or quietly studying for long periods of time – though of course this is important in class as well. Rather, you will find yourself engaging with your students to discuss interests and beliefs, opinions and dreams, and more.
This means teaching English to students from children to adults can be a fun and energising experience. There is a real flexibility in what you teach, and how you teach. Even if you are focusing on a single grammar point, there are a thousand discussions to be had using it. And whether you are teaching a class of school children, or a businessperson focused on a specific goal, you have the freedom to work as you see fit, developing the course that you and your students want.
Making a Difference
For many people, learning a language is a lifelong challenge. Even more so, learning a language, especially English, is not just a hobby but a necessity. In many areas around the world, having a good command of English is vital to secure decent employment and a better income. As an English language teacher, you often get to see directly the results of your students efforts, and your own. Especially in the private sector, students study with you for a long time. You will know when they get into that university they were aiming for, or when they get that promotion they wanted.
Teaching English to speakers of other languages will help you develop a wide variety of transferrable skills. Of course, firstly you will develop your teaching skills. The English language classroom has a lot in common with the classrooms of other subjects. From understanding how to prepare a syllabus to understanding how students learn, the English language classroom is an excellent place to become a better teacher.
Of course, you will also gain excellent language skills. These skills include a grasp of pronunciation and grammar, You will also learn to speak clearly and read efficiently. This means you will gain a stronger grasp of English with every class you teach. These skills are easily transferrable to other areas, from education to business and public speaking. You will also understand more clearly the nuances language can carry, and how to use these effectively.
Another set of skills you will gain is presentation skills. every lesson, you will need to think carefully how you can convey meaning in a variety of ways. From visual aids, gestures, and movement to the words you choose and the images you use, you will learn to prepare slick, effective presentations. And this will include not presentations using audio and visual materials, with plenty of preparation time, but off the cuff presentations using nothing but your wits and background knowledge.
On a related note, you will also learn to prepare high quality materials. To succeed in ESL and EFL, it is important that everything from hand outs and task-cards to text and slide shows are easy to understand. The best type of material is one that is self-explanatory, where the students know what they are supposed to be doing by simply looking.
Also, when asking is it hard to be an ESL teacher, it can be at the start. But eventually, you will develop excellent technology and IT skills. You will learn to make high quality audio and visual materials and how to use video editing software. You may even how to mix sound correctly, and more. These days, most classrooms use smartboards and networks to connect entire schools – though this should not be taken for granted.
On top of this, you will learn further skills such as how to efficiently assess work in limited time. However, the most valuable set of skills you will learn is flexibility and adaptability. Every day is different in the ESL classroom!
Experiencing new cultures
Whether you are teaching ESL or EFL, and whether you are teaching in your home nation or abroad, you are guaranteed to meet people from different places and cultures. When you are teaching a language, you are often also teaching a culture, or cultures. To do this, you need to know about the cultures of the people you are teaching, and consider your own. What do you take for granted as “common sense”? What about the diverse peoples that speak English is the same, and what is different?
Your students will come from various language backgrounds, and have different ideas about what is “normal,” and about traditions and social customs. So, when you ask “is it hard to be an ESL teacher?” you need to consider this: can you adapt and see from the point of view of someone else? If the answer is yes, then you are already a step ahead of the game! If the answer is no, then you will need to ask – am I willing to try? Do you want to be flexible and adaptable?
And the travel…
Of course, teaching English is a great opportunity to travel abroad. There is a booming EFL industry around the world. English teaching is a huge industry in Asian nations such as Japan, Korea, China, and Vietnam, there are plentiful jobs in Europe and the Middle East, and positions can be found from the biggest of cities to the remotest of towns. Teaching in Saudi Arabia is a contrast to Spain, Taiwan to Japan, and London very different to Hanoi. Do you want to experience life in South America, or an archipelago in the Pacific? As an English teacher, you will always have the option of moving to another part of the world.
Of course, it is important to balance travel with professional development. There are of course those who teach English simply as a way to travel overseas, especially for fresh university graduates, but if you are planning to make this your career, it is important to find a balance between travelling, personal growth, and professional development. We will look at this more below, when discussing the potential downsides to ESL and EFL teaching.
Salaries and benefits
Teaching, language teaching, and English teaching in particular, is notorious for the prevalence of low-salary work available. However, there is money to be made, and a decent salary and high standard of living easy to achieve. To do so, however, you need to realise English language teaching is a job. We have already said so, and will say again, but when asking “is it hard to be an ESL teacher?” you need to ask yourself – how hard are you willing to work to make your job rewarding and worthwhile?
A brief search of sites such as Dave’s ESL Cafe and TEFL.com will show you the large number of jobs available, and the salaries offered. The vast majority of jobs will offer salaries that are comfortable for a young, single graduate to live off, but are fixed and relatively low for those hoping to advance as they get older (though these salaries are far from terrible, and can provide a comfortable lifestyle for those who choose so).
So what should you do to score a good job in ESL?
The higher salaries, and the opportunity to move from contract-work to a permanent position with the commensurate benefits such as pension, severance pay, and security, can only be found once you have worked in an area for some time. You will find out where more permanent positions are advertised, learn what the goals of language teaching are in the region, and if overseas build up the language skills needed for these positions.
For example, for those based in Japan, JREC is a good example of what is available for career advancement. In Japan, language teaching at the university level is a well-paid job with great vacation and salary benefits. For those who achieve tenure, there is hardly a position more secure. To get there, though, requires a commitment to not only teaching, but research and publishing. You should also be constantly seeking to improve your own classroom methods.
The key to finding an ESL or EFL job with decent salary and benefits is – know the region you are working in.
Personal Language Learning
When asking Is it hard to be an ESL teacher, you need to ask – how hard is it to learn a language? Because, as a language teacher, you are almost certain to need to learn a language yourself. This is crucial both for understanding what your students experience and the challenges they face, as well as allowing you to see the reasons why certain mistakes are repeatedly found among learners who share a native language.
Living in Kyoto teaching English? Learn Japanese! Teaching in Rio de Janeiro? Portuguese! Barcelona? Spanish and Catalan! Even if you are living in an English-language majority nation, you still will have ample opportunity and reason to study the languages of your learners.
The downsides to being an ESL or EFL teacher
But every industry has downsides, and the English language teaching industry is no different. When asking “is it hard to be an ESL teacher?” it is important for you to consider these downsides, and how you would handle them.
Industry conditions and competition for places
While there are plenty of decent employers in the English-teaching world, there are also large numbers of companies looking to make quick cash without investing any substantial funds into their lessons and teachers. And the reality is, often they do not need to. For many students looking to learn a new language, price is often something they consider more than the skills of their teachers. Thus, especially in the private English teaching world, firms can easily hire inexperienced, unqualified but “native” speakers of English to be teachers for a low salary. Anyone who has taught English and other languages for a while will know that there are skills and strategies required to help students improve, but even students themselves may not realise this. Besides, for many private language learners, they don’t necessarily want to study, but rather chat.
There are a large number of English language schools that “train” staff in only two or three days, sometimes even less, and this training is usually simply showing them the textbook – if there is one. Many EFL teachers started in a school like this. For a teacher with the right personality and attitude, this is a great place to start. However, the large pool of possible recruits for such easy-to-enter positions leads to wage deflation and job insecurity. This is not a criticism of teachers who work in such institutions – often they are hard-working and produce good lessons and really help their students. However, as they gain experience they will want career security and advancement. Yet there is usually someone around the corner willing to do the job for less.
You may also find yourself working for a firm that is, shall we say, less than ethical. English language teachers, hired from overseas and on temporary visas, are usually less protected in law than most other workers. Companies sometimes go bankrupt or change the number of employees they need, leading to contracts not being renewed.
Often, English language teaching is contract based. This is especially true when teaching overseas – EFL. ESL teachers in their own nations may have a better chance at job security, but may not. Either way, as we said above there are jobs available that offer permanency: it is just a case of finding them. Until then, when you ask is it hard to be an ESL teacher, you need to ask what kind of contract you are thinking about entering into. Check if there is a time limit. Ensure there are no clauses allowing for instant dismissal without a strong reason. And check online to see what previous employees have said about teaching there.
There is, in some nations, also discrimination against those who don’t fit the stereotype of a “native” speaker. In fact, the native versus non-native speaker issue is a key area of a lot of academic research. The problem is twofold. First, a proficient speaker of English who learnt it as a second language is somehow deemed less valuable than a first-language speaker. However, this person may well understand the trials of learning English better than a person who speaks English as their first language!
Secondly, the term “native speaker” can conjure up the risk of stereotypes and even racism. The world of TEFL can be racist, with school refusing to hire people of colour because they don’t fit the idea of an English-speaker. Students themselves may harbour prejudices. With over 840 million speakers of English in nations around the world, English is far more than just the language of the US, UK, or the core Anglosphere nations. Unfortunately, EFL and ESL teachers who do not fit this stereotype may encounter more difficulties in finding work in the industry. How prevalent this discrimination is is unclear. The author of this article has seen such discrimination first-hand at times, yet the majority of schools he has worked in had strong policies to promote diversity and inclusion.
As we said above, your students will come from various language backgrounds. They may have different ideas about what is “normal.” They will have different traditions and social customs. So, when you ask “is it hard to be an ESL teacher?” you need to consider this: can you adapt and see from the point of view of someone else? If the answer is no, then you will need to ask – am I willing to try? Do you want to be flexible and adaptable?
Whether teaching in your native country or abroad, a language teacher must be extra aware of cultural differences, and understanding of them. Culture underpins much of language, and it is impossible to teach English without also involving cultural biases and assumptions. Some people may find this a difficult challenge, though it is an exceptionally rewarding one.
So is it hard to be an ESL teacher?
The answer is: it is what you make of it. If you are committed to the job and are ready for the challenges, then ESL and EFL is an incredibly rewarding industry. But it is an industry, with the same negatives as any working environment. Attitude is vital, and you should be careful not to simply see the job as a chance to travel. See travel as a huge plus to the job.
With great students, the chance to make a difference, gaining skills and experiencing new cultures, English language teaching can be hard, but is definitely rewarding!