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What is an ESL Teacher?

An ESL teacher has a classroom where English Language Learners meet to learn the dominant language of their new nation. Depending on your credentials you might teach Early Childhood, Elementary, Middle Grades, or High school students. Your hard work and dedication will not only help your students survive and thrive in our society, but you will also be helping their parents and wider community. You’ll be helping their parents because, many times, the young children in an immigrant family, with easier access to language learning and an easier time picking up new languages, become interpreters for the older members of the family. This can last for just a few months or years, but for some families it can last a lifetime.

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Steps to Becoming an ESL Teacher

If you want to become an English language learners teacher, first you need to determine if you have a passion for teaching children, language acquisition, and helping immigrant communities. Make sure that you have this deep desire, because your students deserve a dedicated educator. If you are driven to this field, you are more than halfway there, but there's more work to do.

You must complete an education bachelor’s degree and ESL classes through a state-approved teacher preparation program. During your studies, your program will likely insist that you specialize in an age group such as Elementary Education, Middle Grades, or High School. Your program and state may allow you to graduate with a specialty in ESL teacher candidates. If not, you'll need to do some extra work to receive that endorsement.

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Once you graduate, you'll be prepared to complete your state's application, find a suitable school in need of your services, and land a job teaching ESL.

  • Step 1: Earn a Degree

  • Step 2: Student Teaching

  • Step 3: Pass Your Exams

  • Step 4: Find a Position


Step 1: Earn a Degree

The first step on the way to becoming ESL teachers is to study for either an associate's or bachelor's degree. While a bachelor’s degree is optimal, and will qualify you for a teaching license, you can also start with an associate's degree in education. If you choose the AA route, you can likely qualify to work as a Teacher's Aide or a Paraprofessional, depending on your state's particular nomenclature.

As you work towards a bachelor’s degree, you should take as many foreign language courses as you can. If your college offers a course in linguistics or language acquisition, you should take that as well. Your program will be able to guide you along the steps toward full licensure as a Paraprofessional.

You should seek a degree in education that includes a state-approved teacher-preparation program. If your program offers a specialty in ESL, you should take that route. Some states will have you receive a credential in your age group and then add the ESL endorsement later, as a separate specialty. Your college adviser will be able to help you with this.

Step 2: Student Teaching

Along the way to completing your Bachelor's degree, you will need to complete a student teaching experience. This is considered a significant rite of passage for teachers and is separate from your classroom work. That's because your student teaching experience is where the rubber meets the road. You will be paired with a mentor and she will monitor your classroom experience, offering feedback and reporting to your college at the end of the term. You will also have a coach or mentor from your college with whom you will communicate. They will offer you feedback and encouragement.

To be as successful as possible, make sure that you are well-organized, well-rested, and, depending on the age group, up for the challenges posed by a classroom of skeptical students. You should be prepared to do things such as keeping a detailed journal of the experience, creating a portfolio that illustrates what you taught and what skills you used.

Step 3: Pass Your Exams

Every state has standards for testing teachers to qualify them for teaching their specialty area. Most states rely on the PRAXIS series of tests. In those states, you will first need to pass PRAXIS I, which will demonstrate your math/verbal competency. The Praxis I is not unlike the SAT or ACT.

Depending on your state's requirements, ESL teachers at the Early Childhood or Elementary School level, will need to pass a PRAXIS II for that age group. That test often is a comprehensive exam that covers the primary areas of an all-inclusive classroom: language arts, mathematics, social studies, and science.

Once you have passed the general qualifications to teach your grade level(s) you will likely need pass a special test for ESL. Thus, you will have a wider range of job possibilities than teachers with a standard credential. If you plan to teach secondary ESL students, your PRAXIS II requirement may only involve that specific test. However, keep in mind that each state has its own special requirements. Further, you might be well served by qualifying to teach an in-demand foreign language as well as ESL. That will broaden your job prospects.

Step 4: Find a Position

Once you are in the midst of your student teaching experience, and are a senior looking at pending graduation, you'll want to start seeking a job. Your first target school should be the school where you are engaged with student teaching. After all, you will have some familiarity with the principal. You can also start looking around in your school's local district. Having references in that same system, you will be ahead of the game.

Once you have completed all parts of your teaching application, including your testing, background check, and education, you only need a job to gain full licensure. Once a lucky principal hires you to teach, they will send a recommendation to the state Board of Education to confer a license to you.

What Does an ESL Teacher Do?

An ESL teacher is involved in the education of English language learners from a variety of nations and cultures. Your day-to-day responsibilities will involve following a curriculum plan designed to help your students. Your state government may have set objectives and outcomes for you, or you may need to design a plan of action for every day, and every student.

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Since each student might be at a different stage of language acquisition, you will need to remain organized so that each student receives the instruction they need. Though ESL students are not required to have Individual Education Plans, they each have unique needs. You will also need to coordinate and communicate with your students' parents. Often you will need to work through a translator to communicate most effectively with parents, but their involvement will ensure the best outcomes for your students.

You may also need to coordinate with your students’ teachers so that the children receive the accommodations they need. You might also gain added insights in to your students' learning styles by working with the rest of their education team.

ESL Teacher Skills to Acquire

Five most suggested skills:

  • Knowledge of a Foreign Language
    Though you won't likely need to demonstrate full fluency, most state licenses require that you take at least one full year of a foreign language. It will be most beneficial if you study the most common foreign language in your state or targeted district.

  • Linguistics Training
    When you study a foreign language, you will gain experience in second language acquisition. However, you will gain extra insights when you study linguistics and language acquisition from a strictly academic vantage.

  • Classroom Management
    This skill is vital for any and all teachers. No matter how well you understand teaching or language acquisition, if you cannot establish a peaceful place to learn a lot of time will be lost. You can practice Classroom Management while doing your student teaching, and you're sure to take at least one course that covers the subject.

  • Instructional Skill
    All teachers need to have a bevy of instructional approaches that will keep students engaged and absorbing information. You will develop these skills over the course of your career, but you can start out by following the examples of your mentors.

  • Organization
    This is one key part of teaching that outsiders don't quite recognize. You will be well-served by starting your first day of teaching with a well-organized lesson plan that includes contingency plans, etc. Your career will be made all the easier if you create a binder that includes every day of the school year, includes test templates and other class materials, and to which you can add notes or make other changes.

Alternative Paths

Given that many school districts are having a difficult time finding and keeping highly qualified teachers, states have opened up their licensing practices to include teachers from outside the traditional routes. Thus, if you have a bachelor's degree that doesn't happen to be in education, you can still become a teacher. For ESL, any special experience you have working with non-native populations or with foreign languages will be a benefit.

Each state has its own particular methods for alternative routes, but you should enroll in education courses, and seek out a job in a classroom. One popular route is to first start teaching as a substitute. If you're able, seek out a long-term substitute position. This will give you a truly immersive experience which you can parlay into a full-time position later on. You will still complete a mentoring program, classroom education, and satisfy the testing requirements for you state licensure, but you'll be fully engaged in the classroom as you do so.

Note that there are also special programs for former military personnel to enter the profession. These programs are often given names such as, Troops to Teachers. Your state Board of Education is sure to have more information.

ESL Teacher Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


As an ESL teacher, you are most likely to teach in your state's public schools. These jobs require that you complete specific requirements in order to receive a license. You will also have job opportunities all over your state. There are also well-defined routes to augmenting your license if you wish to make a change.

Another environment is alongside the military. You won't have to enlist, but once you receive a license from your state you can apply to teach on bases worldwide. Though ESL teachers might not be as in-demand as basic classroom teachers, you can always investigate to determine their need.

Private schools are yet another setting for ESL teachers. Whether secular or faith-based, private schools frequently have smaller class sizes and allow greater flexibility in the curriculum. The pay rates for private school teachers is frequently lower than that for public schools, but many private school teachers love the smaller, more familial work environment.

You can also teach for Charter Schools in your area. These are often highly specialized, and you might even find a charter school that specializes in ESL students. There you could implement innovative approaches to the ESL curriculum and leave a unique fingerprint on your students and the field at large.

Potential Career Paths

The field of education is very broad and diverse. If you hear the call to work with our nation's children, you will have a wide range of jobs available to you. Then, once you start working in one specific area you can always attain a new endorsement or even a whole new license to teach a different age group. The choices are yours. Here is a selection of possible jobs for passionate educators:

Early Childhood Education / Preschool
The evidence in favor of robust education of children from birth to age five continues to mount. This profession is quite diverse and can allow for great creativity. The most important part is to make sure the kids know you care and can be counted on for support.

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Elementary School Teacher
With this certification, you can teach up to grade six, depending on how your state defines elementary school. Nonetheless, you will teach an inclusive classroom. As such, you will need knowledge of math, science, language arts, and social studies.

Kindergarten Teacher
Once the kids pass through preschool, this is their first stop. Depending on their background, your students may already have a working familiarity with the alphabet and numbers, but your pedagogical expertise will help them advance even further.

Middle Grades Teacher
The definition for what qualifies as Middle Grades can now include sixth grade, depending on your state's approach. Regardless, you will teach kids between grade 6-8 in a specific subject area such as Earth Science, Pre-Algebra, or Literature.

High School Teacher
Your PRAXIS II subject exam for high-school is bound to be quite detailed and in-depth. Your students will be well on their way to adulthood, yet still with a foot in childhood. This job can thus offer interesting challenges, met only by equal successes and joys.

Special Education
This field covers a wide range of students. Some SPED teachers help Ivy League bound students with their learning disabilities. Others have classrooms with profoundly disabled individuals who struggle with basic skills. Regardless, your special population will remain special to you for a lifetime.

Vice Principal
This might be your first step into school administration. You'll need a master's degree, a new set of PRAXIS scores, and at least five years of classroom experience, but this job will pay off in many ways. You will assist your Principal with teacher development and student discipline.

As the head of a school, you will have the ability to mold your faculty, guide student curriculum, and mentor students. You will need a master's degree and special licensure for this job, but the satisfaction that comes from guiding an educational organization is incomparable.

ESL Teacher Career Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
TESOL Teacher $43,000 $45,000 $57,000
Special Education Teacher $40,000 $49,000 $61,000
Elementary School Teacher $40,000 $46,000 $59,000
Secondary School Teacher $39,000 $49,000 $63,000
School Counselor $44,000 $52,000 $67,000
Gifted and Talented $34,000 $47,000 $71,000
Elementary School Principal $68,000 $82,000 $93,000
Secondary School Principal $62,000 $90,000 $97,000
Elementary School Vice-Principal $65,000 $69,000 $91,000
Secondary School Vice-Principal $50,000 $70,000 $103,000
Social Worker $41,000 $50,700 $58,000

Career Outlook

As long as our population continues to grow, so will the teaching profession. That includes positions for ESL, as our nation continues to grant humanitarian amnesty for families from all corners of the globe. Thus, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the teaching profession at large is slated to continue growing at a rate of 7% through 2026.

If you teach in public schools, you'll see that your pay rates are well-defined and regulated. If you achieve a master's degree, for instance, you will see your pay rise immediately. Your experience will also result in gradual salary increases. Further, public school teachers often receive representation from state and national organizations who act as salary watchdogs. These organizations also help regulate the profession, ensuring best student outcomes, teacher salaries, and an overall high standard of workplace satisfaction.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Advancing From Here

Once you have experience in the field teaching English as a Second Language, you are not limited to your same classroom for the remainder of your tenure. In fact, with the ESL endorsement, many states and school districts will allow you to teach students from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

You can even attain an education master's degree and begin teaching at the post-secondary level. You could teach education courses at your local community college or in a full four-year teacher preparation program. With a doctoral degree you could go even farther and land a full-time, tenured job teaching future teachers.

Yet another possibility is that of an educational consultant. This is a little-known field, but with the right experience and credentials, you could be hired to conduct seminars at schools state-wide. You may even find a national audience. To help you might consider publishing articles and even textbooks in your subject area.

Where do ELS teachers work?

ELS teachers work in private language schools, public schools, hospitals, community colleges, community-based organizations, and universities.

How long does it take to become an English language learners teacher?

To become an English language learners teacher you will need a bachelor's degree. After you have your bachelors degree, you will need to complete a student teaching experience that will vary in length by state.

How much do ELS teachers make?

ELS teachers make around $55,000 per year.

What is the job outlook for a English language learners teacher?

English language learners teacher jobs are expected to decrease by 5% by 2030.

What qualities should a English language learners teacher have?

English language learners teachers need to be caring, respectful, and passionate. They need to be good at building relationships, facilitating learning, and have excellent communication.

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