You’ve probably seen those ads on Facebook and Instagram that promise you a better life on the other side of the world. They show smiling faces, pristine white beaches, and exotic cultures. 

The job is teaching ESL, and the deal seems too good to be true: spend a year teaching adorable little kids how to speak English, and travel to your heart’s content. 

But is it really that simple? Is it really so easy? 

Let’s look at what you need to know to get started as an ESL teacher.

What is ESL?

ESL stands for English as a Second Language. You might also hear it called EFL (English as a Foreign Language). Basically, it means teaching English to people who speak another language as their mother tongue. 

That’s me when I was a new teacher, many years ago!

ESL is a booming industry. As the world becomes smaller, and as the internet opens up opportunities, more and more people want to learn to speak English. Of course, they need teachers and so there is a high demand around most of the globe for people who can teach.

Do you need to be an expert to teach English? Not really. In fact, you really just need to be able to speak English! It certainly helps to have some qualifications (we’ll come to those later) but for most ESL jobs you just need to be a native English speaker. Any other qualification is a bonus. 

What Do You Need to Get Started in ESL?

Every job and every country is different, so you need to look into the individual criteria, but a typical ESL job post will ask for native speakers with university degrees. 

It doesn’t matter whether you have a degree in art or science or history; they just want to know that you are educated. This is usually enough to qualify as an “expert” capable of teaching English. 

Beyond that, some jobs might require (or at least prefer) you to earn a TEFL certificate, or some other sort of teaching qualification. A graduate qualification from your home country would be ideal, but there are easier routes to get credentials: 

  • TEFL – Teach English as a Foreign Language. This certificate can be completed online or in a special language school. There is no central authority, so some are worth more than others. 
  • CELTA – Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults. This can be done in about a month. It is quite intensive and expensive, but opens up lots of opportunities. The next level up is DELTA. 

You can read more about qualifications for teaching English, and how to find jobs around the world, in my book, A Beginner’s Guide to ESL:

Beginner's Guide to ESL
My essential e-book guide to ESL.

Where Can You Teach ESL?

People are learning English all over the world. You could probably find a job as a language tutor in your nearest town or city! However, most ESL teachers want to go abroad to teach, so let’s look at where you might choose to go.

Right now, China is the hottest destination. Here you can earn huge salaries and the cost of living is really, really low. Of course, you will be trapped behind the Great Firewall of China and often choked by giant smog banks, but for all the problems, there is also an ancient culture to be uncovered.

South Korea is really popular, too. It used to be the biggest destination for ESL teaching, but the market became a bit saturated in the early 2010s and salaries stagnated. Still, there are loads of opportunities. It’s cleaner and nicer than China, with much better internet. 

Japan is more competitive than the other two and generally requires longer working hours, but many people prefer the lifestyle there, which generally offers a higher standard of living.

Colombia is the leader in South America, although wages are pretty low compared to East Asia, and in the Middle East the best place is Saudi Arabia, where you can earn vast sums of money. However, you’d need to be comfortable living on a compound and venturing out in 50-degree heat (that’s Celsius!). 

To find out about more destinations, you can pick up a copy of my book. 😉

How Do You Actually Teach ESL?

 Gosh, that’s a difficult question, and it depends on a million and one factors. Are you teaching adults or kids? What materials do you have? 

In most cases, you will have textbooks and materials, and maybe even some co-workers to show you what to do. Hopefully, you have done a TEFL or CELTA course before starting, and have some good ideas.

Games help children learn quickly.

The first thing to do (and the most important) is to figure out what you’re going to teach, and then make a lesson plan. Think about timing, aims, and materials. With experience, this becomes easier, but in the beginning you will really need to think about the little details and be ready for all possible outcomes.

Often, you can think of a lesson plan like this:


that means show them some language, have them practice with it, and then have them use it

Now, there’s more to it than that, of course. Is this something you will explain, or let the students figure out for themselves? The latter approach is called “guided discovery” and although it seems lazy, it’s actually a really valuable approach. It means letting students explore the rules of language rather than simply telling them. It helps the lesson stick in their head better. 

Other things to consider are:

  • how to communicate with students
  • discipline 
  • fostering a communicative atmosphere
  • testing

and so much more.

Again, check out my book for more detailed information. 

How to Find an ESL Job

Once you have decided to become an ESL teacher and have gotten some form of qualification, you will need to look for a job.

There are loads of places to search for these online. For example, a famous one is Dave’s ESL Café. This was popular when I first started teaching fifteen years ago! It’s still going strong today.

You need to figure out where you’d want to work and then filter jobs by that region. Of course, you may want to look for online jobs.

You will need to figure out what is an appropriate salary and what sort of hours you are willing to work. Keep in mind that a teacher’s job is not only in the classroom! Twenty teaching hours may well be forty or sixty hours of work! (Here’s a breakdown of how teachers spend their working hours.)

Do a little research beyond just the job advertisement. Many people have been trapped in terrible schools for their first year in ESL because they failed to research the company. In fact, that’s exactly what happened with my first job!

Finally, make an impressive CV and send a polite but professional e-mail to the recruiter. With some luck, you’ll soon be offered an interview!