A lot of people ask me what I do when I’m not blogging. So I decided to make this post so you could understand my life of being an ESL teacher. ESL, for those of you who might not know, stands for English as a Second Language. It’s crazy because when I was growing up I never thought that one day I’d be able to travel all over the world and communicate with people in English. For better or for worse, English has become the global language, and therefore the number of people who want to study English is only increasing. The British Council projects that by 2020 two billion people will be studying English worldwide!
Now that I’m living in Germany I see how high the demand is for learning English. My boyfriend Christoph needs English for his job now. Although the majority of his day is conducted in German, he is emailing, telephoning and having meetings with people in English very often. This trend is true for the majority of Germans I have taught so far. Most of my students come in because they need English for work. Sure, there have been a few that come for the sake of learning a new language to travel on their holiday or make small talk, but those people are the minority.
With the high demand for learning English there is also a rising demand of ESL teachers needed for this growing market. To be honest, I definitely didn’t choose being an ESL teacher, it kind of found me. I first worked as an English teacher for little children in Germany from 2010-2011. Let’s just say I was not suited for that kind of job. I wrote an article about my first time being abroad and teaching English that you can read here.
But, from there, I went on to teach English again in Germany to adults which I started in 2014. Since that time, I’ve observed and learned so much. I wanted to share some of those things with you so you can understand the life of being an ESL teacher a bit better. I also hope this might inform new ESL teachers of what is to come in your life! So here’s a list of things I’ve learned being an ESL teacher:
I may be a native speaker of English, but ESL teaching it is a whole different story
What’s the difference between past perfect progressive and past progressive? If you’re a native English speaker I bet you’d have trouble defining and giving clear examples to demonstrate the difference within a few seconds. But, trust me, when you are standing in front of a classroom you better be able to answer that question! That means not only having an answer but also being able to give examples and timelines to demonstrate your answer.
I struggled with teaching all the tenses in English at the beginning of my teaching career. I spent my evenings relearning what each tense was about, drew timelines and came up with clear examples for my students. Now I can define the difference between all the tenses without needing to consult my notes. But, it definitely took me some time!
It isn’t just about tenses either. You seriously need to know and understand the grammar of English like the back of your hand! It is not a task that is cut out for everyone, but it is worth the time and energy invested when you know you are helping someone learn an entirely new language.
It’s a lot harder to learn a language as an adult
There is a lot of science behind why this is true, but I’m not going to get into the meaty details of it. Let’s just say the statement, “use it or lose it” is definitely true in language learning. Adults who have learned many languages in their childhood or youth often times have a much easier time learning languages as adults. I have definitely witnessed this in my classroom before. I had one woman who spoke four languages, and she picked up English so easily. But, so many of my students aren’t in that position. Most are in the ages of 30-55 and have other obligations besides learning a language.
These people really struggle with learning a new language, and honestly I feel for them. Sometimes they feel defeated as if they will never be able to learn. But, this is not true. From my experience I can say that it is possible to learn a new language as an adult. I’ve seen amazing progress from my students who started at level one only being able to say, “Hi, my name is Anna.” From there some of them have made awesome progress that I am so proud of. So, what’s the trick? Persistence. Patience. Practice. I mean like all day every day.
First of all, I really want to mention that doing worksheets all day to learn English and studying from a book is not going to get you far. My biggest complaint from my students is that they don’t feel confident speaking, because they never were given the chance to practice. That’s why I believe the immersion method is the best way. I teach only using English even to beginners. I never communicate back to them in their native language! I also place the most emphasis on speaking.
My students who have made the most progress are the ones who totally embrace this way of teaching and learning. They also go home and review their vocabulary, or spend their weekends studying. Some of them watch English movies or listen to English songs. They also recognize that learning a new language takes time and they have to learn bit by bit. Finally, they just don’t give up. Even if they have five terrible days, they keep on coming back and challenging themselves. The progress when these students have patience, practice and persistence is truly remarkable!
On the flip side, I see my other students who come to class during the week. They go home and only communicate in German. Their progress? Next to none, and it won’t get any better unless they are willing to put in the work. It’s not easy, I know that. But, it is the truth and now I have seen hundreds of students to be able to say I believe this to be true.
The connections I’ve made with some of my ESL students is super rewarding
I’ve met so many amazing people and different personalities while working as an ESL teacher. There have been many times I’ve been sad to see some of my students go. Luckily, I’ve been able to keep in touch with quite a few of my students and for this I am so happy! For me, one of the best parts of my job is getting to know my students. At first the student might be a bit shy around me. But, after some time when they warm up they start telling me about their life, family, hobbies, passions and dreams. I find it truly beautiful to get to know people in this way. I’ve heard so many interesting stories along the way. It’s honestly awesome.
Pushing past my comfort zone made me realize I can do just about anything
Never in a million years did I think I’d be able to stand in front of a classroom and teach them all the things I am teaching. But, now that I’ve done it, I know I can do anything. I’ve actually learned that I enjoy speaking to large groups and being able to help people. I also learned that I like to inspire people and make them feel confident.
Sometimes when we push past our fears of what we think we can’t do, we realize it really isn’t that scary. This helps us to see that we can do just about anything in our lives. I for sure figured that out while teaching and so happy I learned that!
Not everyone wants to learn English (even if they need it for work)
I’ve had a few students come to me who just didn’t want to learn English. They basically communicated to me that their boss was making them take the class, and I could already sense that they weren’t happy about it. So, I told them point blank that I am not there to force them to learn English. I also told them that it wasn’t my choice that English became the world language, which is totally true. But, I did tell them that they were going to work with me on learning, and I was going to help them to the best of my ability.
Usually what happened is the person recognized that I was not a teaching trying to beat them over the head with English grammar and vocabulary. They saw that I was just trying to help them. After that, I was able to really help quite a few of them. Over the course of several weeks they started to soften up, and saw that it was possible for them to learn.
Of course there were a few who just didn’t like English and didn’t want to learn. This is the hard truth of the world we are living in. Some people aren’t happy that English is the world language, and don’t want to have to learn a new language for their workplace. It’s something I would like people to be aware of.
Planning can eat your life away
Seriously, last night I was planning my lesson until 9 p.m.! I wasn’t even finished but just put my books down and called it a night. For those of you who think that teachers just turn up in the classroom and start teaching, this is so far from the truth. All of us spend hours planning lessons and coming up with activities! This I do all on my own time, I’m not paid for it.
At first, I had no idea what I was doing
Seriously, not at all. I remember finishing up my training course and wondering how I was going to teach people. I spent so much time planning my lessons, but that still didn’t help. There is a steep learning curve when you first are in a classroom. In my opinion, this is the hardest time of being an ESL teacher—or any teacher for that matter. I fumbled over my material for a few months, and had to figure out what was working and what wasn’t working. I kept revising my strategy of teaching and saw that I was getting better and better as the months passed. Now, I feel totally confident walking into a classroom. But, when I look back on my first days I definitely cringe!
A lot of people don’t consider ESL as a real job, and have judged me for it
So many people hear the word ESL teacher and they automatically see some teacher hopping from one country to another having conversations with people in English and getting paid for it. That is not my job.
I’ve gotten so many negative comments from people about what I am doing right now I can’t even count anymore. Most people keep asking me, “when I will get a real job.”
I’ve finally begun to tell people that I actually do consider this a real job, and I don’t understand why they don’t. First of all, this job is not easy. It is something that is challenging and requires a certain type of person. Those who aren’t cut out for it don’t last very long! Second of all, you really have to be quite intelligent to be an ESL teacher. You need to have a very large vocabulary (or be willing to learn), and be adept at teaching the subtle nuances in English.
Honestly, I want to ask those people to come in and do a mock lesson for me when they say I don’t have a real job. Then we’ll see what they really think!
I’ve become a jack of all trades
Engineering, accounting, cardiac nursing and negotiations. Those are just a few of the topics I had to learn on in order to teach my students! Learning these things was challenging. I remember planning a lesson for English for accounting and needed 30 minutes to get through one page! Then I had to go back and figure out how to come up with a lesson plan for this kind of material.
Although learning specialized material can be difficult, I find it interesting because I am also learning. My students have taught me so many things as well! I find it a really great part of being an English teacher.
Is it all worth it?
Totally! I love my job right now. Sure, some days are easier than others, but isn’t that the case with any job? Being an ESL teacher has provided me with so many amazing opportunities not only to live abroad, but also to learn about myself and my students. I am proud to be part of the ESL community! If you are considering becoming a teacher, you can always reach out to me. I’d be happy to help you 🙂