I’ve taught English Language Learners (ELL) in the USA, South Africa, China, and now in Mexico. I have learned a few things in my short career as an ELL/ESL teacher and I thought I would write this article to inform you on the inevitable circumstances you will find yourself in if you decide to pursue a career in teaching ESL students.
1. terrible pay
You are probably aware of how terribly teachers get paid, in almost every country, except maybe Luxembourg. Teaching ESL isn’t any different in regards to pay scale, possibly worse. With ESL being a niche field you can get paid a little more when you teach abroad in some countries like South Korea, China, Japan, and Dubai.
2. You have to create/buy your own materials
If getting paid measly wages isn’t enough to make you stay clear from the ESL teaching field you should know that you are often expected to create your own curriculum and materials, as well as purchase all the resources you need for the classroom.
While I cannot speak for every country, this is true for all the countries that I have taught in. But HEY! at least you don’t have to follow another boring English workbook or worry about administration breathing down your neck about following a particular curriculum! You get to do decide what your English students need to learn and it is up to you to plan it all out (no pressure).
If planning a curriculum wasn’t hard enough, wait till they throw in some real game-changers, like a class of students that range from the ages of 10 to 33, just be glad you don’t have a required curriculum or that would darn well be impossible!
3. It is a tiring job
Teaching in general is a tiring job, you are on your feet the entire day (heels if you work in Mexico), you have to manage 30 little humans, (60 HANDS!!) and then you go home and all you can think about is how you can help and better teach these little humans so that they can grow into their full potential.
Their burdens become your burdens and their hurt becomes your hurt. If you teach ESL you will probably have students that carry much larger burdens. Maybe your students are refugees, immigrants, or students who are growing up in multicultural homes. It is your job as a teacher to find ways to relieve some of these burdens for your students and to create a safe and secure environment for them to grow in.
4. Communicating in a language you don’t speak is exhausting
Whether you are in a mixed language classroom or you are in an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) classroom where students all speak the same language, communication between students and teacher is difficult. When I was in the USA I had over 60 students representing over 40 different languages. Even if I had the magical powers of a polyglot, there is no chance that I would be able to learn all these languages.
As an ELL teacher you learn how to communicate with your students through other means like drawing pictures, photos, online translators, or moving and contorting your body into weird shapes (the students like this best). Trying to find ways to communicate with your students and teach them in a way that they can understand is exhausting (but well worth it)! I used to go home every day after school and take a nap before I could be a real functioning human again.
5. You will never stop thinking about your students
The job doesn’t end at 5, at 7, or at midnight, yes, I dream about teaching… scary. You cannot and will not catch a break, (don’t pull that summer card on me, I work summer camps!). My life basically revolves around my students and how I am looking for better ways to help them including researching ways to improve my practice, attending conferences that I pay for out of pocket, or staying up well past midnight creating my own materials and lesson plans that will help support student learning.
Even when they aren’t your students anymore they will still be on your mind. I have only been teaching for 3 years and I cannot forget even one of my past students. I wonder where they are now, praying that their home life improved, or that they kept pushing through a particular challenge and questioning if I did everything I could have.
6. You will never be able to stop learning
Teaching ESL students means you are always learning. You want to make connections with your students and understand their background. When you have kids coming from over 40 countries, you have a lot of work to do. That means learning a few words in their language, learning cultural values, traditions and researching political environment or current conflicts.
Your students will teach you so much about yourself as well, what you thought you knew or what you didn’t. ESL is a quickly developing field and it is vital to stay up to date on on the latest research and teaching practices that will best support your students.
If any of these reasons seem like a bad gig or a game changer, please find a different career because teaching is freaking hard and these kids need teachers who are all in for the long haul. Teaching has it challenges and ESL even more so, but I would never choose a different career, it is the best job in the world. Teaching ESL is also the next best thing to traveling because you still get to experience diverse languages, cultures, customs, international friendships, and you don’t even have to buy a plane ticket!