The 13 Rules for Being a Great ESL Teacher

The demand for ESL teachers throughout the world increases each year and teaching ESL has become a popular career among English speakers. It’s not difficult to become an ESL teacher. However, being a good ESL teacher certainly is. In this post, you’ll learn the 13 rules which help you to teach ESL effectively.

Learning English empowers people from all over the world to pursue a successful career and to connect with other people and cultures internationally. That’s why teaching ESL is such an attractive job: As a native English speaker, you can find employment nearly anywhere, travel the world, finance yourself and make a difference in other peoples’ lives.

But teaching ESL, in fact, is not about you, it’s about your students. Once you decided to become an ESL teacher, you should strive for constant improvement and not settle for anything less than providing great ESL classes to your students.

Besides mastering the language and teaching techniques, what really makes a good ESL teacher? Before we dive into the 13 rules on how to be a good ESL teacher, let’s talk about what teaching ESL is and what the basic requirements for ESL teachers are.

What is Teaching ESL?

Teaching ESL (TESL) means “Teaching English as a second language”. Others use the term “Teaching English as a foreign language” (TEFL). Both terms are more or less interchangeably.

ESL teachers teach English to people whose mother tongue is any other than English. The highest demand exists in China and the rest of East and South East Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. You can teach ESL to immigrants in native English countries like the US or Canada as well.

The majority of jobs are to teach English to children and teens in Kindergartens,  private or public schools. If you want to teach adults, language training centers, community schools or business classes are the options to find teaching jobs.

Teaching ESL is different than teaching English. It is more than merely teaching grammar, writing, or vocabulary. First of all, English language learners want to get the possibility to talk with a native, learn to imitate their way of pronunciation and accent and learn about the culture in Western countries, too. That’s why conversation and speaking practice are the most important parts of ESL classes by far.

How to Become an ESL Teacher?

Teaching ESL is a responsible profession, so you should be well-prepared and -educated before you teach your first ESL class. But worry not, the requirements to become an ESL teacher are not too high.

In Your Home Country

If you want to become an ESL teacher domestically, inform yourself about the requirements of the country or state you live in. Most likely, they don’t differ too much from the requirements set forth for teaching other subjects in schools. You may have to acquire certain degrees and get certified by the responsible authority. Of course, you can freelance and offer private ESL lessons without a teacher certification, too.

Teach ESL Abroad

To teach abroad, the requirements heavily depend on the country you want to teach in. However, the requirements you must meet are quite similar anywhere in the “hotspots” in Asia or Latin America. To get an ESL teaching job abroad a candidate must:

  • Have a passport from a native English speaking country
  • Have a bachelor’s degree in any subject
  • Have a TEFL certification
  • Complete and pass a (criminal) background check

13 Rules on How to Be a Good and Effective ESL Teacher

Enough of the introduction now – the reason you came here is that you wanted to know what qualities actually make a good ESL teacher. Or, in other words, how you can become an effective ESL teacher, wow your students during your ESL classes and help them to achieve a proficient English level quickly.

Here are the 13 rules on how to be a great ESL teacher:

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. Maximize Your Students’ 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. 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. If the language learners aren’t talking, then they should demand a full refund or complain to management.

I’ve walked by many classrooms where the students sat in complete boredom as the teacher kept droning on about some minute grammar point. Obviously, a good instructor has to have a firm understanding of grammar and writing structure, but the bottom line is that the ESL students have to speak during the class.

In an ESL class or any language 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. In other words, if the class is sixty minutes, the teacher roughly speaks for twenty minutes and the students speak for forty minutes.

Learn to Be Quiet and Let the Students Do the Work

So how does a teacher get his or her students to talk for the majority duration of the class? The first thing that teachers should remember is to learn to be quiet and stop talking! If you are new to teaching or just a teacher that talks too much, learn to talk less and listen more.

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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. By the time the class finishes, they should feel slightly exhausted from speaking so much in another language.

3. Be a Coach and Provide Feedback

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 so, 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 is your job to motivate the students and give them a reason for being there.

4. Use Humor in the Classroom

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 lot 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.

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.

A note: 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 as you can working in an office. There are days when you don’t want to speak to anyone and don’t feel like joking, 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.

5. Be a Creative ESL Teacher and Make Lessons Fun

I have honestly met some teachers who believe that learning should be hard. I’ve also met teachers that believe it should be fun, but don’t always show the evidence of that in class.

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? 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. Your ESL classroom should never resemble this scenario in no shape or form. Learning should be made fun where possible.

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. A good time in class is likely to keep students coming back, although naturally, it is equally important that the good time was achieved while some learning was going on.

Traditional teaching methods do not work when it comes to language instruction. It is your job as the ESL teacher to construct a classroom setting around creative activities, exercises, and discussion questions.

Admittedly some things are inherently less fun than others – English language learners often moan at the mention of writing, and exam classes can feel incredibly dry. Even still, it’s not hard to ensure that at least some moments in the class are fun.

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.

It would be impossible to make every moment the best – peaks and troughs are natural and to be expected – but make sure your lesson isn’t a two-hour trough!

Find great ESL lesson resources and ideas in our specialized section.

6. Keep Students Busy

The devil makes work for idle thumbs, so they say. It’s absolutely true in a young learner class and a sure-fire way to have kids misbehaving. Even in adult classes, the students might tolerate it, but only for a while.

Ensure that students always have something to keep them occupied: whether it’s an extra question, coloring (for kids, I hope that was obvious!) or finding difficult words in a text. Keep ’em busy.

Equally, don’t allow the strongest students to dominate any whole class activities. This means that some students are not being involved as much and again these students could cause problems for you.

If students are being quiet, try to include them in the conversation. If their level is low, look for opportunities to build their confidence by asking them questions to which you know they have the right answer.

7. Try Out New Things

For new teachers, this isn’t usually a problem as it’s all new! But teachers do face a danger of slipping into always doing things the same way. When this happens they become less willing to adapt and perhaps start to get frustrated as they notice the problems in their teaching but simultaneously refuse to change.

There are no perfect teachers, no perfect lessons, students, techniques, approaches or activities. If we’re lucky, something might occasionally work so well it feels perfect, but it’s unrealistic that this will happen all the time.

However, the more we tweak our methods and our lessons, the more frequently we can enjoy these moments where we seemed to get everything completely spot on. Experimentation is key.

8. Reflect and Seek Out Feedback

As with the previous point, good teachers reflect on their lessons. Even after good lessons, it is important (and more pleasant) to reflect on what worked and what didn’t and the reasons why that was. Teaching is a never-ending cycle of improvement, so long as we keep the wheel turning by reflecting.

Reflecting can take many forms. It can be sitting on the bus or metro thinking to yourself, it could be keeping a journal, meditation or recording your thoughts with a digital recorder.

To help with reflection, good teachers seek out feedback from their ESL students and other professionals. Mediocre and bad teachers are afraid to be told how mediocre and bad they are. Good teachers are not afraid because they will generally be told they are good, or they will turn it into good feedback next time.

There are many ways to collect feedback besides the standard evaluation forms. Many can be incorporated into classroom routines. Collecting feedback from colleagues and bosses generally tends to involve observations, but could equally come from discussion, sharing resources and lesson plans or perhaps even demonstrating techniques to each other.

9. Look Presentable 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.

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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 in 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.

10. Don’t Be Sensitive and Uptight

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 a 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 worldview. Of course, you can share your opinions and your students will value your views, but you need to accept their perspectives as well.

11. 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 English 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.

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.

12. 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 about 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 dinner, for example, is a great way to get to know another culture. I also like to do this because I love to eat and have fun during my classes.

13. Forget a Bad Day at the Office

The first piece of advice I got given as a teacher was that it’s not surgery. If we give a bad lesson, no-one is going to die (or it would have to be a very bad lesson!). When you realize that the worst thing you have done after a bad lesson is waste some peoples’ money and time it makes it a bit easier to get over it. Okay so that’s still not great, and it’s a horrible feeling, and one you will hopefully not want to repeat.

However, before you forget the bad lesson try to reflect on what was bad about it. What could you change if you did this lesson again? Then take the learning points and forget the lesson – you can’t change it!

And go into the next lesson as confidently as you can and give the best lesson you know how. As Samuel Beckett once said, “Try again, fail again, fail better.”

Conclusion

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 an ESL class 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 ESL.

Every teacher is a student at the same time and should never stop learning and improving. Now that you know how to be a good ESL teacher, it’s up to you to put things into practice.

Do you have additional tips on how to teach ESL effectively we didn’t mention in this post? Please leave a comment and share your point of view with us.

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