Bridge the Barrier: How to Become an ESL Teacher in 8 Steps


In a time when new cultures need to be welcomed more than ever, becoming an ESL (English as a second language) teacher is a socially conscious decision. Often working with immigrant children or children whose parents are immigrants, ESL teachers serve as a bridge between a student’s native culture and their new surroundings.

They work with students whose primary language is not English  and help them acquire fluency through demonstration, repetition and visuals. Unlike foreign-language teachers, ESL teachers do not share a common language with their students.

And with 9.3 percent of public school students now identifying as English language learners, ESL teachers are needed more than ever to meet the rising demand.

Are you up for the challenge of helping students assimilate into new cultures and environments? Keep reading to see how you can step up to the plate and serve the next generation of English speakers and successful citizens.

8 steps to becoming an ESL teacher

Pursuing a new profession doesn’t have to be complicated. You know you were meant to become an ESL teacher. You just need to know how to carry out that mission. Keep reading as we break it down into eight simple steps.

1. Choose an undergraduate education program to set you up for success

You’ll find there are a variety of ways to become an ESL teacher. While requirements to teach vary by state, an ESL career typically begins with an education at the undergraduate level.

You’ll want to find an accredited, state-approved teaching program in order to lay a strong foundation on which to build an effective ESL career. Whether your undergraduate education is at the early childhood or elementary level, you’ll want to concentrate your studies on subjects such as reading comprehension, pronunciation and sociolinguistics.

2. Select courses and extracurriculars that enhance your world perspective

While working to earn your undergraduate degree, be strategic in the courses you select and how you spend your time outside the classroom. Taking foreign language courses can give you a get a better grasp on the process of learning another language and will heighten your understanding of your future English-learning students.

Getting involved in tutoring and afterschool programs is also a smart choice for aspiring ESL teachers. You might also consider getting a part-time job at a preschool to gain more classroom experience. Anything you can do to gain experience working with children who are immigrants or of immigrant parents can also help demystify the experience, says Dr. Jenny Eva Jacobs, assistant professor of language and literacy at Wheelock College.

She also suggests taking advantage of service trips and study abroad experiences. Both are opportunities for future ESL teachers to build a more international worldview.

3. Get your feet wet by student teaching

Once you’re nearing the end of your undergraduate education, you’ll get the chance to apply what you’ve learned in your studies in a hands-on classroom experience. This semester or two of student teaching will provide you with valuable real-life experience with students and under the guidance of a seasoned professional.

It’s a life-changing experience for an impressionable soon-to-be teacher. You’ll gain firsthand classroom experience and begin developing a foundation for managing your own classroom. This is one of the last rites of passage for soon-to-be teachers, so enjoy it and soak up all you can before you’re leading students of your own.

4. Graduate and acquire your teaching license

Donning that cap and gown is a monumental achievement for any student after years of hard work. But you should feel especially proud in that moment you cross the stage to accept your diploma. That diploma is not just a sign of personal accomplishment. It’s also your ticket to making a profound impact on the next generation of students you’ll empower and educate.

But before you can take over your own classroom, you’ll need to obtain your teaching license. The licensure you earn will depend on the grade level you intend to teach — there are different licensures for preschool through third grade, first through sixth grade, and seventh through twelfth grade. Be sure to check your state’s requirements, however, as they vary across the country.

5. Gain classroom experience as a teacher

After you’ve earned your undergraduate degree and obtained your teaching license, it’s a good idea to get some experience under your belt before taking the next step toward your ESL career. Learning how to manage a classroom, establish a routine and organize lesson plans are all valuable skills to master before progressing into ESL.

“It’s a big plus to have work experience in the classroom. It’s harder to land a job in ESL straight out of the gate,” Jacobs says.

6. Obtain your ESL license

Once you have your teaching license and professional status, accompanied by some experience teaching in the classroom, you can set your sights on an ESL license. This process is much more straightforward for those who are currently teaching, according to Jacobs.

The process of obtaining an ESL license often requires coursework, tests and a required amount of hours in a classroom setting. Many colleges offer curriculums, certificate programs and other licensing options for aspiring ESL teachers.

7. Find a master’s program to set you apart from the pack

Depending on your state of residence, you may be required to obtain a master’s degree in order to become an ESL teacher. Because requirements vary across the country, be sure to check with your local licensing board to identify the teaching requirements in your state.

Some states don’t require master’s degrees, but you may still choose to seek an advanced degree in order to further your education or qualify for more positions in your job search.

8. Start making a difference

With all of the boxes checked above, you’re now ready to become an ESL teacher. All of your dedication and hard work will be well worth it when you start building relationships with children and watching them thrive in their environments. What could be more rewarding than that?

Are you ready to make your mark?

Even though licensing requirements vary from state to state, this guide should give you a better idea of how to become an ESL teacher. Still think you’re up for the challenge? Do you have what it takes to overcome cultural barriers? To provide students with the language skills to succeed in school and life? To be the hand that reaches out to bridge the gap?

Check out the Wheelock College Language and Literacy Studies page to learn more about supporting second-language acquisition in students.