Teaching ESL in a Language Centre: What to Expect

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Have you come across a lot of job ads which want you to teach ESL in a language centre in China, Vietnam or anywhere else?

You may wonder what working is like in an ESL language centre and what the differences compared to regular or public schools are.

I can tell you: The differences are huge!

Working in a language centre requires a change in the typical routine which most of us have experienced during some point in our working lives.

You no longer have to set an alarm on weekdays and weekends suddenly become your longest working hours.

If you have previous experience of teaching in a different setting, you may also be in for some pleasant surprises.

Typical Working Hours in a Language Centre

Night owls will be pleased to know that most language centre work takes place in the evenings, which leaves you with long, lazy mornings to relax before work.

On Weekdays

At the centre I work in the classes run from 5.30 to 7.30pm each weekday evening, with adult classes running from 7.40 to 9.40pm.

Only a small handful of teachers at my centre take adult classes meaning that most of us are out of the door and on the way to grab some dinner by 7.35.

Other major language centres follow a similar schedule, with the latest finish time I know of for non-adult classes being 8.45pm.

On Weekends

The weekends are where, for a vast majority of language centre workers, your longest days take place. Teachers at my centre will work, on average, 12-16 teaching hours over the two days.

This doesn’t include planning and preparation time which can certainly add several hours to your workload depending on what materials your centre provides and how experienced you are.

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Working the entire weekend isn’t as terrible as it may initially seem. Being in a language centre, you are likely to make friends who also work in a similar setting so you’re all in the same boat.

Change in Routine

You might find that your new weekend becomes Tuesday and Wednesday, or your new big party night is a Sunday. Bars and clubs in areas with teaching expat communities reflect this lifestyle and it soon becomes the norm.

Benefits and Drawbacks

The obvious benefit of this schedule is that you have way more free time during the week to lay in bed, pursue your hobby or finally get started on that side-hustle you’ve been dreaming of.

You will typically still get two days off per week to do your own thing too.

One downside is that you face two long days per week, which may be typically longer than an average working day back home.

Another is that you may find your schedule changing quite regularly to meet centre needs. This means that you might get used to having Tuesdays and Wednesdays off for a few weeks, but then a new class opens and you find that you now have Tuesdays and Fridays off instead.

Read our guide about teaching English in Vietnam to gain deeper insights.

Work Environment

Language centres are full of cool people and a lot of them will also have some pretty cool resources to help your lessons along too.

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Colleagues and I preparing for the annual spelling bee competition. (Photo: Abigail Burrow)

Your Teaching Colleagues

Teaching in a language centre draws in a range of people from different English-speaking countries and backgrounds.

Most teachers will be in their 20s or early 30s, but this isn’t a hard and fast rule. It is a job which can suit a range of ages and any language centre may reflect that.

In terms of qualifications, at my centre most teachers have a 120-hour TEFL or a CELTA.

Depending on who you choose to work for, your previous experience may not matter too much as they could be happy to train you and provide in-house professional development opportunities.

Local Staff

The entire operation would not be possible without local staff, including teaching assistants. You will find that you work alongside a range of local staff who are working hard to ensure that the centre keeps running and turning a profit.

These are the people who you might find are most willing to help with any questions or worries you have if you have recently moved to the location in which you are working.

They will probably have insider local knowledge about all the best food spots, where to get a medical check or how much you should really be paying for a taxi.

IT Resources

Depending on where in the world your language centre is the quality of IT resources they provide will differ.

In Asia, you are more likely to find higher quality resources and equipment in a language centre than you will in a public school.

The centre I work at provides each teacher with a laptop to be used at work and each classroom has a projector.

We also have an IT guy who we can annoy with menial problems before we’ve even tried the age old switching it off and on again.

Teaching Resources

Some language centres will provide fully completed lesson plans for you to follow with each class. Great time saver, but not necessarily great for professional development purposes if you’re looking for a long-term teaching career.

Others will leave you to it and expect you to make your own way, at which point you can turn to a wealth of ESL resources online such as the British Council’s fountain of knowledge.

My language centre falls somewhere in the middle. Lessons plans should be completed by the teacher, but there are a range of helpful resources, workshops, courses and co-planning sessions which can be attended and used to help you get there.

Learning is game-based and fun so the trick is to learn a range of games and activities which match the stage of your lesson.

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When I first started out, I found that the best way to do this was to simply ask. Other teachers will have an idea for you, even if they’ve only been working there for a couple of months themselves.

Range of Classes

Being flexible is a huge winner in language centres, it means that you have the opportunity for more working hours and therefore will have more cash in your pocket at the end of the month.

In an ESL language centre, usually most learners are kids or teens.

Age Range

In Asia particularly, most learners are children or teenagers who are participating in extracurricular English classes after school.

Speaking English is valued as a lifelong skill, so many parents will enroll their children at a language centre very young in the hope that they can grow up learning the language.

It goes without saying that there are also a number of adult students who are learning English for a range of reasons and you may find that your language centre offers adult classes too.

Language Proficiency

Just as you are likely to teach a wide range of ages at a language centre, you are also likely to teach a wide range of levels and the two are not always connected.

For example, you may teach a beginner level adult class one evening, and a bunch of 8 years olds the following evening who you can converse with easily.

This vast range of age and proficiency can be great for helping you to refine your preferences in terms of teaching. It also keeps things fresh and interesting as no two lessons are the same.

Possible Benefits of Working in an ESL Language Centre

Overall, working in a language centre comes with a range of notable benefits which you may not find in other education settings.

In the Classroom

Support in the classroom is likely to be more plentiful than that found in mainstream education.

My language centre provides at least one teaching assistant (TA) per class, two if the class size is over 18 students and two for all Kindergarten level classes.

The TA can help with classroom management, setting homework and providing the essential bridge between you and the parents so that you can communicate any notes about students’ progress or behaviour.

Depending on how well established your language centre is, you may find that your classroom is also well equipped so that you can do your job properly.

This may mean that you have a range of resources to use for Kindergarten classes, that you can easily hook your laptop up to the projector, or that you always have enough whiteboard pens in your teacher toolbox.

Working Overtime

New classes starting, your company being a chain with several centres, or other teachers going on vacation can all work in your favour in a language centre.

It is common in language centres for there to be ample opportunity to pick up extra classes if you want to boost your pay packet. This is often short term but can be so helpful if you’re saving up for something or have just had to pay out for a house deposit or similar.

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Having said that, take a look in the ‘possible drawbacks’ to see how these opportunities might become more of a curse than a blessing if you’re not interested in taking extra classes.

More Freetime

Almost every language centre teacher I know loves this part of their job, who wouldn’t?!

During the week you have the bulk of the day to do your own thing, which can be really valuable if you have a particular passion or hobby.

I know several people working in language centres who chose the setting specifically so they can pursue other interests too.

If you don’t have a hobby at the moment, working in a language centre gives you the chance to find one. You may find your creative side coming out or that you really love coffee and are determined to visit every coffee house in your city – the world really is your oyster…

My daily commute to work includes crossing Hanoi’s famous Long Bien bridge. (Photo: Abigail Burrow)

Possible Drawbacks

As with any job, there are also several drawbacks which you may just find annoying, or could become dealbreakers.

Covering Classes

As I’ve already mentioned, taking extra classes can be invaluable if you want some more cash in your pocket or even want to gain experience teaching a new level/age group.

However, sometimes you might just be happy with the schedule you’ve got, the wage you’re earning and the new routine you’ve settled into.

In this case, being asked to cover classes on your days off can be so annoying.

Of course, at my language centre anyway, it’s not compulsory – you don’t have to say yes.

But, if you’re anything like me and a bit of a people pleaser who doesn’t like to let anyone down, then it can tug on your conscience that you’ve chosen laying in bed with Cheezits and Netflix over helping your boss out by covering for a teacher who’s called in sick.

Sick and Holiday Pay

I’m only speaking from my own experience, but at my centre teachers don’t get any sick or holiday pay.

Usually, you will earn enough cash that you can afford to take a week off work and still stay financially afloat.

However, if you’re not too good with numbers then you will have to work hard to figure out what you can and cannot afford to do when some of your wage won’t be there.

You may also find that you’re dragging yourself into work when you don’t feel 100% because you know you won’t get paid for that day’s work if you don’t.

This rings particularly true on a weekend where you could potentially lose 6-8 hours of paid work.

Unstable Routine

As a creature of habit, receiving a weekly schedule which could be different every time is something I’ve had to force myself to get used to.

The lack of predictable routine is something which may bother you if you like to have plans laid out in advance.

You may find that one of your classes has been swapped, your days off have changed or that you have taken on an extra couple of hours which are still within your remit.

In any good language centre there should always be the opportunity to discuss your schedule and voice your preferences, but in reality you’re one cog in a bigger machine which may be relying on your flexibility in order to continue running smoothly.

To Wrap Things Up

No job is perfect and different work settings suit different people.

Language centres are a great way to experience teaching without the pressures of mainstream education and often provide a comfortable environment in which to do this.

You have the time to enjoy your new country, city or town whilst still earning enough cash to keep you going and developing new skills as a teacher.

Take the good with the bad and enjoy!

About Abigail Burrow

Abigail Burrow is an English teacher from the UK, currently living and working in Vietnam. After graduating with a Bachelors in English Language and Linguistics and completing her PGCE, she began her teaching career in UK secondary schools before moving into the ESL field. In 2016 she completed the NCTL Pathways to Leadership course and is currently working in Education Management for an English language company in Hanoi. You can hire her as a freelance writer.

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