Ten Rules for Being a Great ESL Teacher

pretty female teacher

The reality is that almost anyone on this planet can become a teacher. In other words, they can obtain the necessary credentials that will land them a job teaching a subject of some capacity in a public or private school or institute. Whether it is ESL, foreign languages, computers or teaching kids in a public school system, there has always been and will always be a high demand for teachers. While there are thousands out there that call themselves a ‘teacher’ as designated by their job title, only a minority of these so-called instructors are actually any good. No matter what the subject, teaching is a craft and not everyone excels at it. However, most individuals can eventually become good teachers over time and the majority of quality teachers start off poorly.

I’ve been teaching in some capacity for over eight years. While I’ve mostly taught ESL, I’ve also spent a fair amount of time instructing political science at the university level along with stints as a substitute teacher in American public school systems, a teaching assistant as a graduate student and even a few TESOL courses. I still remember my first couple of years. I was awful to say the least, but I worked at it, matured as a person and I consider myself now to be quite good. This blog is about teaching ESL. So the rest of this article is going to focus on how to be a superb ESL instructor. However, my recommendations can in reality be applied to most levels of teaching, age groups and demographics. Whether you are teaching English, computers or basket weaving, teaching is ultimately about making connections with others in a classroom setting. Is less about disciplining and more about inspiring, engaging and getting results. If you find yourself teaching English as a second language to a group of adults, here are ten tips that you should keep in mind that will surely make you a better instructor.

For more on teaching methodology, read The Best Method for Teaching English. 

1. Don’t be a dictator when teaching ESL

As a teacher, the classroom is never about you, but only the students. This is not to imply that you should let students walk over you or that they shouldn’t conduct themselves in a respectful manner. What it means is that you should create a classroom environment where the students feel comfortable to speak, ask questions, be creative and engage not only with you, but with their fellow classmates.


It is not your job to get up there and lecture and talk down to the students. If you are a person with control issues, then you ought not to be teaching ESL or any subject for that matter. If you are teaching adults, remember that your students are adults and never treat them like children. Just because they speak English at a low-level doesn’t mean they aren’t well-educated and dignified in their own language. If you are teaching adults at a private language school, the reality is that if they can afford to take your course, then they are probably a hell of a lot more successful in life then you are, so give them their respect.

2. Teaching ESL is all about maximizing student talk time

This one is somewhat related to the first tip. If you are a dictator in the classroom, then your students aren’t talking enough. If the students aren’t talking, then they should demand a full refund or complain to management. Whether it’s English, Spanish, Chinese or any language, class time is for the students to talk as much as possible and not for you to carry on about some nonsense. Remember that if you are teaching at a private institute, the students are also paying customers who are eager to practice the language. I’ve walked by many classrooms where the students sat in complete boredom as the teacher kept droning on about some minute grammar point. In an ESL class or any langauge class for that matter, the students should be talking at least 60% of the time and the best teachers get their students to speak 75% of the time. If you are teaching grammar, show them a few examples on the board, check their understanding and then have them engage with each other in pairs or find other activities. Every opportunity to speak in the classroom should be afforded to the students. If someone asks a question about vocabulary, ask a more advanced student to explain the answer. Don’t read directions of an assignment, but have a student do it. In other words, make the students do as much work as possible,which ultimately will make your job easier and provide them with more opportunities to speak.

For more about maximizing student talk time, read Please Stop Talking if You Teach ESL. 

3. Learn to be a coach

Teaching English as a second language or any language is not really about being an instructor in the traditional sense. You should never be lecturing or have a regimented structure to your class. Instead, your class should be fluid, creative, innovative and open. While doing do, you have to learn to be a coach. Each student and class has different needs, strong points and weak points. It is up to you to identify needs and proceed from there. The mentality in your classroom should not be that they will master English in 60 minutes, but rather that you as the teacher-coach introduce a grammar point, vocabulary or pronunciation patterns and it is up to the students to practice outside of the classroom. As a coach, you should provide feedback on a weekly or biweekly basis. Point out positive things that they are doing and remind your students of their weak points. While reminding them of their weak points, do so in a constructive way and offer advice on how to rectify them. Finally, as a coach it your job to motivate the students and give them a reason for being there.

4. Look presentable when you are working as an ESL teacher

This might seem like a no-brainer, but you would be amazed by some of the things I’ve seen over the years. How you look in the eyes of the student has a significant impact on how they perform in the classroom. If you make an effort to look presentable, the students will be more inclined to work hard. Think about it. Would you want to take a language class from an instructor with wrinkled clothes, messy hair, who is unshaven and wearing tennis shoes? I am not saying that you have to dress in business attire. In fact, I am quite opposed to wearing a suit while teaching a language since language teaching requires a fair amount of movement and activity on the part of the teacher. I actually wear jeans on some days. This is partly because I prefer to work in more casual institutes. However, while I may wear jeans, I wear a nice shirt or sweater and attempt to dress at least with some sense of fashion.


In the morning, I am clean shaven, fresh, showered and smelling good. Yes, this is another issue with many teachers. That being hygiene. If you were going out on a date, you would certainly be expected by the other person to arrive smelling good and looking sharp. There is no exception to this when teaching. Don’t enter the class with messy hair, sand under your eyes as if you haven’t showered or even washed your face and smelling of mildew or alcohol. I’ve caught both male and female teachers that have been guilty of this. In fact, take a page out of your students’ book as people from non-Western countries tend to make more of an effort in looking presentable for work or school.

5. Don’t be sensitive and uptight if you want to be a good ESL teacher

One of the great contradictions of the English-speaking West is that although we champion our individualism, we tend to be quite uptight, bound by political correctness and entirely too sensitive about what others say. The reality is that Western individualism is often pretentious and most of us are terrified sheep that are desperate to fit in with the crowd. If you going to teach ESL either abroad or in your home country, then you need to develop thick skin and realize that political correctness is not widely accepted in other countries. There also isn’t this underlying friction between the sexes in other cultures as there is in say the United States or the UK. For the most part, people throughout Latin America and Asia are quite flirtatious, playful and enjoy teasing each other. Nobody wants some uptight Westerner telling them how to think and behave. Although we think we are saving the world via our crusade of political correctness, aren’t we in reality merely espousing our ethnocentric views? My point is that people of Asia, Latin America, Africa and even parts of Europe simply do not think like us and we shouldn’t want them to change. They are wonderful the way they are. They often say what is on their minds and you have to respect them for that. Remember that the ESL classroom is not a platform for you to get on your high horse and preach your world view. Of course you can share your opinions and your students will value your views, but you need to accept their perspectives as well.

Want your classroom to be fun? Check out Humor, The Key to Teaching ESL. 

6. Don’t talk too much about your personal life

Remember that classroom time is for your students and not for you to go and on about your personal life. Of course it is  great to share stories with your students. This is particularly true if you have traveled as they will always appreciate hearing about your adventures. However, keep your personal issues and problems to yourself. Maintain a positive classroom  that encourages learning, engaging and having fun. More importantly, never let your personal problems show in the classroom. This can be quite difficult at times since teaching does not afford the opportunity to zone out like you can working in an office. There are days when you don’t want to speak to anyone, yet it is your job to be active and to engage with your students for hours at a time. It is difficult to keep a smile on your face and to be cheerful when dealing with a personal issue. However, you will lose credibility quickly with your students if you appear to be irritable, upset or aloof. Sometimes you just need to power through.

7. Use humor in the classroom when teaching ESL

I feel that this is one key component to teaching English that is ignored too often. There are some Westerners who feel that they must be uptight and on some kind of power trip when instructing a class. But being too serious in the classroom is the worst thing you can do when teaching ESL  and such an attitude will antagonize a great deal of students. In reality, teaching ESL is half teaching and half entertaining. This is not to say that you have to be a clown and you should never be a clown. There is a qualitative difference between being a clown and being humorous and funny.


As mentioned before, people from other countries aren’t as uptight and pretentious as we are in the English-speaking West. They are serious about studying, but they want to be entertained and laugh consistently throughout the class. It’s perfectly fine to make jokes, tease students and allow the students to act in a humorous way with each other. One way of creating a class full of humor is to use a lot of activities. If you are teaching adults, have some interesting, yet funny discussion questions and implement some creative group exercises into the mix. If you are teaching kids, make sure to have plenty of fun games and never be too serious with them. From my experience, the most successful ESL teachers have always been the ones that are good at injecting tasteful humor into the class. Most importantly, a good laugh here and there will allow your students to relax, stimulate the creative parts of their brains and feel more comfortable speaking up in front of the class.

8. Be creative as an ESL teacher

Think back to a few boring classes you had in high school or university. Can you remember a class or two where the instructor was painstakingly dry, mundane and seemed to drone on and on for eternity? Better yet, can you remember a class when the instructor just lectured the entire time like a dictator with little feedback from the students? Your ESL classroom should never resemble this scenario in no shape or form. As stated before, you should never be lecturing up there even when teaching grammar. The ESL classroom has to be fluid, fast-paced, engaging and active. In my opinion, this should apply to all language courses. I’ve taken a few Spanish and Japanese courses in which I felt I was being held hostage for 60 minutes. Never let your students feel in this way. Traditional teaching methods do not work when it comes to language instruction. It is your job as the ESL/language instructor to construct a classroom setting around creative activities, exercises and discussion questions. Teaching grammar is no exception. It’s ok to show them  a few examples on the board and explain it, but do it quickly and efficiently. Find creative ways to allow them to practice the language during class time, so they can effectively use it outside of school. As stated in point number 2, student talk time should always be maximized in the ESL classroom and being creative is the only way to hit that 70% mark.

9. Don’t be a racist

This one might seem obvious, but I’ve come across quite a few teachers both in the United States and abroad that seemed a bit racist and xenophobic. If you are going to spend a significant portion of your day around people of other cultures and colors, then you need to be open-minded and receptive to these differences. If your only interest to teach abroad is to save money, then you should reconsider. Sure, saving money is a worthwhile goal,  but teaching abroad is also about the experience of living in another country. It’s 2015 and the world has changed drastically during the past twenty of thirty years. If you think that because you are white, people will love you everywhere you go, think again. The world has become hip to reality and knowledgeable on matters of race and culture compared to even twenty years ago. This rule also applies to how you treat other teachers. If you are planning on teaching in Asia. you are going to be working with teachers of other colors as the demographics these days of who actually teaches abroad is changing rapidly. When living abroad, you will be in the same boat as every other foreigner, so learn to get along and put preconceptions about people on the back-burner.

10. Be knowledgeable of other cultures and countries

This one goes a long way when teaching ESL and it will gain the respect of your students. Whether you are teaching domestically or in a particular country, be knowledgeable your students’ countries and cultures. I am not saying that you need a master’s degree in East Asian studies or Latin American politics, but having a general grasp of the history and cultural nuances will make your life a lot easier. Being well versed in geography, historical cities, ancient capitals and so on will also draw the admiration of your students. Basically, you don’t want to be the socially awkward, red-faced English teacher, but rather the open-minded one that can have fluid discussions with his or her students about such matters. Don’t be afraid to use class time as an opportunity to learn about the culture of your students as most students will be eager to share during periods of classroom discussion. Personally, I encourage all of my adult students to bring in food to the classroom. A potluck is a great way to get to know another culture. I also to do this because I love to eat and have fun during my classes.




Teaching can often be a rewarding experience and a chance to make genuine connections with others. However, different approaches in the classroom are needed according to the subject that is being taught. Instructing a class in English as a second language or any language needs to be taught in a certain way since the way in which we learn a language may be quite different than other applications. In my opinion, being creative, engaging, open, active and encouraging students to speak as much as possible is the best way to teach another language.

About JT 71 Articles

JT taught English for four years in Japan. He also has extensive experience teaching ESL in the United States. JT has also traveled throughout Asia and South America. He began JimmyESL in 2014 as a way to provide honest information for those interested in teaching English abroad. These days, he spends most of his time building Wordpress sites, blogging and teaching others the nuances of digital marketing.