My Career Careered: How I became an ESL teacher

This is the first in a short series.  I plan to write more, including telling those interested how to get started in my field of work.

I haven’t spoken of it before (not that anybody asked), but I work teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) and have done this for more than fifteen years.  Anyone who has taught ESL will have eyes wide open at that number because they know most people last just one year, very few last two, and the percent who last five is tiny.  Of the hundreds of expatriates I know or know of, less than a score have been abroad for a decade or more.

How did I get started?

Back in 2000, I was underemployed and living paycheque to paycheque at a wretched “rent to own” company.  My former college (which will not be named) has a student placement office where current and former students can check job boards.  Many were from businesses seeking to recruit recent graduates, so there were often jobs not offered elsewhere.

I didn’t get offers for any of those.  What I did get, though, was a copy of “Teach English in Korea!”, a posting from a recruiting company.  I had previously applied for teaching jobs in Japan but was rejected because I didn’t meet the Japanese government’s required qualifications. (“Anata wa nihongo o hanashimasu ka?”).  I did, however, meet the South Korean government’s requirements.  I figured, “What the hell, it’s a new experience and better than where you are,” so I applied.  (Thanks, Kris.)

The interview went well and the confirmed hiring me a day later, though I didn’t realize at the time that being a warm bodied native speaker with a white face was enough.  (The first time in my life I began to understand privilege.)  Within six weeks I had gone from working a dead end job to a passport, plane ticket and my life in two suitcases.  The yard sale to sell off everything helped a lot both in load and money.

The next two months were a whirlwind, flying for the first time in my life (I’m still a white knuckle flyer), training, and most shockingly, living in a foreign country where I didn’t know a word of the local language.  Thankfully, the Korean hangeul script is dead easy to learn and read.

I’m going to leave it there for the moment because the next point would be another thousand words: What is it like to teach ESL?  I’ll save that for another day, preferably tomorrow.


  1. says

    The interview went well and the confirmed hiring me a day later, though I didn’t realize at the time that being a warm bodied native speaker with a white face was enough.

    As a non-native speaker EFL teacher it’s something that annoys me to no end. I studied English long and hard. I know a lot more about the history, structure and varieties of English than most native speakers. Why should some high school dropout (not saying this applies to you) be better qualified for such a job than me?

    BTW, why do you use ESL as opposed to EFL?

    • says

      ESL is teaching English to non-native speakers in their countries. I live in Taiwan and teach children and adults, and have also worked in South Korea.

      Nearly all countries require a Bachelor’s degree to teach, and some (e.g. UAE, Japan) require a Master’s degree or a teaching degree, though there are legal exceptions. Some of those who come across to teach are…less than able, to put it politely (e.g. can’t name parts of speech, poor grammar, etc.), even those with a BA or BSc. Generally speaking, the most competent ESL teachers tend to be those who studied science or business in college, fields which require precision in language (technical details, document writing, legal wording, etc.). “Near enough is good enough” is NOT good enough.

      I’m now encountering my own problems in finding new jobs: ageism. Some schools want only young faces, ability isn’t their top priority. And I readily admit that racism is often a problem. At one school I worked, a British citizen applied for a job, a woman with an impeccable accent and a Master’s degree, and more competent than the three white faces who worked there. She was turned down because she was of Indian descent. Horrifying, disgusting, and embarrassing.

      • says

        ESL is teaching English to non-native speakers in their countries.

        I know, it’s just a minor quibble, but that’s not correct, which is why I was asking.
        ESL means “English as a secondary language”. EFL means “English as a foreign language” and they are usually defined the exact other way around. A secondary language is one that you use in that respective country. For example I taught German to Syrian refugees as a secondary language.
        I know that’s also not a clear cut distinction. I was an ESL speaker when living in Ireland, but use it as a foreign language right here and now.

        It’s good to hear that many countries require some formal qualifications now, though I still don’t think that just having a degree in something is good enough*. Still often the job ads just require a “native speaker”. The native speaker fallacy is an interesting one. Native speakers as a didactic principle was actually developed after the UK started to export tons of “native speaker teachers”.

        *That job where I taught German to Syrian refugees? Many of my colleagues were wonderful and dedicated teachers, but they simply lacked the didactics that I learned in college, even though I’m actually not a trained German as a secondary/foreign language teacher, but at least I’m a foreign language teacher.

  2. A. Noyd says

    You only need a bachelors to be an assistant English teacher in Japan. And that’s just a requirement of the work visa, not a qualification for the particular job. I don’t know what you officially need to be a full teacher, but unofficially you need to be completely fluent in all levels of spoken and written Japanese and to have a doctorate in masochism. Foreigners becoming full teachers is super rare for, well, a lot of reasons.

    I’m two months from completing my second year as an assistant English teacher in Japan and have signed up for a third. I definitely want to stay in Japan, though I don’t know if I’ll keep teaching the whole time. But I’m not sure I’d be so keen to stay if I wasn’t already fairly fluent in Japanese. It seems to make a huge difference in both my ability to live comfortably and for others (like Japanese coworkers) to be comfortable around me.

    • says

      I don’t disagree that Japan only requires a BA or Bsc degree. I have never worked there, but those I know who have tell me schools dictate the market, and that people often need a higher qualfication to get noticed. You have your feet on the ground, and maybe I’m not being told the full story.