How to Become a Successful English Teacher
Last night, I was reading Mr. Money Mustache’s blog and felt inspired.
If you aren’t familiar with the blog, Mr. Money Mustache teaches people to transform their lives and retire early, which people call the FIRE movement. The blog is full of anecdotes that illustrate Mr. Money Mustache’s top tips for building an authentic, successful lifestyle.
Well, it got me thinking about this site because I have my own personal, hard-won secrets, too.
They aren’t about saving money. They are about teaching English online.
My secrets to making it as an ESL Teacher
So, here are my earnest, top tips for making it as an English as a second language (or English Language Learner) teacher.
They aren’t about the company to work for or the best lesson plans. They are bigger than that. Broadly speaking, they are about how to take yourself seriously, and how to invest in your growth.
Who will succeed at teaching English?
First of all, many people ask me for advice on how to get a job teaching English online.
They are usually sick of their jobs and want an easier gig. Or, they want to travel and figure teaching online is an easy way to do it.
Many of these people demonstrate fundamental two fundamental errors in thinking and mindset before they’ve even gotten started.
First, they don’t take themselves seriously. (They don’t take me or other English teachers seriously, either, but I’ll get into that later).
Second, they aren’t willing to invest the time and energy needed to continue to grow in the field.
So, here are my suggestions for these people. These are my brutally honest, earnest, top tips for succeeding as an English language teacher. Unfiltered.
Take yourself seriously.
My first tip for teaching English online is to take yourself seriously. Or, put another way, stop disrespecting English teachers by not taking them seriously. And, yes, it is basically the same thing.
Take a real, honest, hard look into why you want an online English teaching job. Is it because you think it is an easy job anyone can do?
If so, get off my blog.
Teaching English as a foreign language isn’t a job anyone can do, in spite of what many ignorant people think.
I can’t doctor, and you can’t teach
Let me tell you a story.
I was with my 7-year-old daughter at a bounce house party a few months ago. You know the type: the kids jump on indoor trampolines and the parents mill about chatting about polite topics.
It was the birthday party of one of my adult language learner students, “Anna.” She is from Venezuela and is a focused English student who always participates in class. Anna is a nanny, and her employer was at the birthday party, too. Her employer is a primary care doctor. From here on out, I will call her Doctor Lady.
So, Anna’s boss and I started chatting about kids and life and all that good stuff. Then, Doctor Lady asked me, “So, what do you do?”
I was a little confused. My student had just enthusiastically and flatteringly introduced me by stating, “This is Ingrid. She is my English teacher and she’s a great teacher!”
So, I looked at Doctor Lady and said, “I am an English teacher?” She replied, “Oh, ok! Anna said that but I wasn’t sure if that was your real job or just a volunteer gig.” I laughed and assured her it was very much a real job, with a paycheck and everything.
Now, even though I’m writing this story, I wasn’t insulted. I still think Doctor Lady is lovely. She made an honest mistake. Many people do, in fact, volunteer to teach others English.
Still, a part of me bristled at the obvious contrast. Anna introduced her boss to me as “a doctor,” and I didn’t immediately ask Doctor Lady, “Oh, so what do you do?” afterward. I do wish I had said, “Oh, sorry, I wasn’t sure if being a doctor was a real job or a volunteer gig!”
I’m sharing this story to point out an obvious fact: many people don’t think teaching English is a ‘real’ job. It isn’t only English teachers who deal with this. If you are an artist, a poet, or any number of professions, many people won’t think you have a ‘real’ job, either. I am not telling you ground-breaking information right now.
But, to make it as an English teacher, you have to push through this and take yourself seriously, even when others don’t.
In fact, you need to understand that these people are morons.
Don’t be one of them.
Don’t be a moron.
You can’t view teaching English as something anyone can do.
If you think teaching English is something anyone can do, you’ll find that anyone else can and will; and, you’ll be out of a job.
I don’t care if you’re a college dropout and you teach for the lowest-paid online English company. You can’t view teaching English as a fake job anyone can do.
If you think this way, you’ll find that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You’ll be churned out and spit out by these mega-companies as they’re on to the next ‘English tutor’ willing to work for less than minimum wage.
My job, though, is secure.
Why? Because I take myself seriously.
Here’s another story
Let me share another anecdote to demonstrate my point further.
My partner didn’t have a college degree, and he needed money quickly. He asked me for some tips to start teaching English online. Specifically, he asked if he could work for Cambly.
First, I encouraged him and said he could absolutely teach English online. After all, he is charming, intelligent, and eloquent.
Then, I saw how little effort he put into it.
I quickly realized…no. Actually, he can’t teach for Cambly. He might get hired, and he might do all right, but eventually, his rating will drop, and it’ll all be a massive waste of effort for him and for me.
You don’t need a college degree to teach for Cambly, but you do need to take yourself seriously.
Teaching English online isn’t a job anyone can fall into, even though many people think so. For example, check out this post below.
My Master’s degree and fifteen years of teaching experience are insulted. My years studying two other foreign languages to keep my grammar sharp were insulted. I thought of the time I invested in my professional development through SABES, teaching skills books, conferences, and various other professional development organizations, and I just stared at this post in horror.
What even is this nonsense?
This person is a moron.
Do you even know what a stative verb is? Can you identify “pick up, pick on, pick out” as phrasal verbs? When a student asks how she can improve her pronunciation, will you immediately point out the/schwa/ sound and give her targeted exercises?
And rest assured that if you are American, your students know more English grammar than you do.
Your students know more grammar than you
You read that right. Most foreign students learn detailed English grammar in high school. They’ll know what a past participle is, identify the 12 verb tenses, and might ask you about dative cases. Meanwhile, you’re sitting there thinking, “I thought you just wanted to chat?”
It’s time to get real.
Teaching English isn’t chatting
Teaching English isn’t just talking with students.
If that’s all it was, then no one would bother paying you!
My cousin grew up in Romania in the early 90s, prior to the widespread internet, and speaks fluent English. He learned it by watching movies for free.
Now, it’s 2023. We have this thing called the internet. Anyone can find people online to chat with in English. Heck, your students can open a Discord account to chat about their favorite hobby, take a coding class with foreigners online, or play live-action video games all day long if they want to chat with English speakers.
They can do it for free, have more fun, and actually learn a directly marketable skill while doing so.
How will you compete?
If you don’t step up, you are worth less than nothing
If you’re just there to chat, your value is *less* than zero.
Stop complaining that online ESL companies are paying native speakers five dollars an hour because you’re lucky you’re even getting that.
You are worth a negative amount. That student could be doing a million more enjoyable, or far more lucrative, things than reading some Breaking News English article and discussing it with you.
So, if you’re on my blog because you think teaching English is a job anyone can do, then just do yourself a favor and leave.
Other ESL teachers are out here with doctorates in linguistics and similar qualifications. For example, my good friend has a M.S.Ed. in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania and she proctors the IELTS exam and teaches international students. There are private language academics that only hire English teachers once they have a Master’s in Education and a decade of experience, minimum. You can’t do any of these people’s jobs.
This leads us to the obvious question: Why did I write such an accessible blog if I’m now claiming teaching ESL is such a niche field?
Anyone can teach English if they take themselves seriously
That’s because it is accessible to anyone who takes themselves seriously.
You don’t need a bachelor’s degree to start. You don’t need any fancy certificates. All you need is some basic respect for this profession because you’ll need to learn all the things that teachers with those things have. And you’ll need to learn them fast.
That’s ok, though! The good news is you can learn them on the go as you teach.
Grow as you go
In the ESL field, you can grow as you go.
What other profession is like that?!
No one’s going to pick up a scalpel and teach themselves neurosurgery before a big operation, but you can teach yourself the past perfect tense before you teach your next lesson.
If you make a mistake, no one is going to die. Just don’t keep making mistakes. Learn and grow. Keep improving and perfecting your mastery of English while preparing for each lesson you teach.
Challenge yourself by choosing to teach lessons that force you to polish up your skills before you get into that (online) classroom.
Be humble and understand that you must familiarize yourself with English grammar, pronunciation rules, teaching strategies, and so on to command a decent wage in this field.
This brings us to my second suggestion for making it in this field.
You have to invest in yourself
Just like any serious profession, you need to be growing constantly.
So, my second major tip for teaching English online is to invest in yourself.
Eventually, you will need to get certified. Professional qualifications ensure you have the theoretical framework to teach ESL effectively. So, as you grow your skillset, you should consider getting a TEFL, TESOL, CELTA or MA in teaching or linguistics, roughly in that order.
Join Teacher Groups
Meanwhile, do yourself a favor and immediately join every teacher group out there.
Join every Reddit group. Then, sign up for regular professional development, such as SABES courses or ESOL instructor courses, to keep your skills fresh. Finally, look up yearly conferences and attend. Many are remote now, which makes it even easier to attend many.
Stay up to date on research
Additionally, researchers are constantly learning more about the brain and how it acquires language and makes sense of the world, so make sure you keep up with research in the field of language education. The ESL field is always changing and the best methods for language teaching are always changing. My tip to all English language teachers is to stay involved, stay connected, and stay current.
Website Resources for ESL/ELL Teachers
Several reputable websites provide valuable resources for ESL/ELL teachers. Use them to stay up to date with the latest research in the field of language education. Here are a few examples:
- TESOL International Association: TESOL is a professional organization dedicated to English language teaching. Their website offers a wealth of resources, including research articles, publications, webinars, and conference information. They are all full of tips for teaching English.
- The Modern Language Journal. This is a leading scholarly journal in the field of language education. Their website provides access to current and past issues, as well as research articles and other resources.
- Applied Linguistics: Applied Linguistics, published by Oxford University Press, covers various language learning and teaching topics. Their website offers access to research articles and other content.
- Language Learning & Technology: Language Learning & Technology is a journal focused on the intersection of language learning and technology. Their website is perfectly tailored for teaching English online and provides excellent tips in its articles, reviews, and other resources related to technology-enhanced language education.
- ResearchGate. ResearchGate is a platform where researchers share their work across various disciplines, including language education. You can search for specific topics, follow researchers, and access their publications.
- American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. ACTFL is an organization that promotes language education. Their website offers resources, publications, and information on conferences and professional development opportunities.
- Linguist List: Linguist List is a comprehensive resource for linguistics and language-related information. It includes announcements of conferences, job postings, and a variety of linguistic resources.
Finally, academic journals and professional organizations are generally reliable sources for up-to-date research in language education.
Those are my top tips for teaching English online. If you want to make it in the online ESL field and actually turn it into a living, then level up.
Finally, if this interests you, you might want to check out these other posts I wrote to learn more.
- Teach English Online without a Degree
- My top picks: The best books for an ESL teacher
- Tired of teaching? Here are some ESL teaching-related careers(Opens in a new browser tab)
- ESL vs ELL
- ESL Companies that hire students
And, as always, happy teaching!