Ever had Doubts About Teaching English as a Second Language? This Will Convince you to Follow Your Dreams!

“You meet the most amazing people from all over the world”. Find out more compelling reasons why teaching ESL rocks!

Jennifer Helfand is a writer and ESOL teacher. She was born in Philadelphia and grew up just outside the city, longing to leave it and see the world. She has now lived in several different countries and too many apartments to keep track of. Jennifer has published one children’s book, Nikolas and the Misfit Shapes Find Their Place, and her second, The Life of Zerah (an allegory for adults), will be published in May.

What are your qualifications?

I have a CELTA from International House Madrid and a Master’s Degree in TESOL from Boston University.

How long have you been working in the ESL industry?

Since 2004

What made you choose teaching ESL as a job?

I had never planned to teach ESOL. I had, however, always wanted to live abroad. I read that if you can speak English, you can get a job abroad very easily. (It was, in fact, very easy to get a job. It was very difficult to get a good job.)

I enrolled in a CELTA course at International House Madrid about a year before I planned to move. I thought if I had at least one year of teaching experience before I moved, it would help me get a job, so I volunteered to teach ESOL at an immigration center for adults.

I fell in love with my students and teaching ESOL within the first five minutes of my very first class.

What challenges do you face in the classroom?

At this moment none because I teach online. My greatest challenge was figuring out how to teach online in a way that was as engaging as in-person classes.


What are the biggest obstacles in securing a position?

I’ve taught in three countries outside the U.S.: Spain, Mexico, and Argentina. I taught for about a month in Mexico and Argentina and almost four years in Spain. I had friends who had worked in Mexico and Argentina, and so I had connections.

Traditions - Cultural Benefits of ESL Teaching

I got a job very easily. One of my classmates in my CELTA course in Spain recommended me to his language school. I went for an interview and they offered me the job. So getting a job in Spain was also very easy.  However, it was extremely difficult to get a good job.

In the U.S., the biggest challenge was getting a teaching degree. Without a teaching degree, it was much harder for me to get a teaching job in the U.S. than abroad. The CELTA isn’t valued in the U.S. in the same way that it is in other countries.

What do you wish you knew before you walked into the classroom for the first time?

I wish I’d known that speaking English as a native language doesn’t mean you can teach it or will have the knowledge to answer your students’ questions. I had no idea what I was doing when I started. I didn’t even know what a phrasal verb was. Every single class my students asked me questions that I couldn’t answer, and I felt very bad about that.

There was definitely a big learning curve.

I also wish I’d known how generous and forgiving my students were. They were never upset that I couldn’t answer their questions.

I wish I’d taken the advice I’ve always given my students: It’s OK to make mistakes. I wish I’d known how much I would love teaching ESOL. I would have started teaching much earlier and taught in more countries than I have. And I wish I’d known that you will never be 100% ready to do something. You just have to dive in.

If you are teaching in a foreign country what obstacles do you face from a cultural perspective?

When I lived abroad the first time, my biggest challenge was to stop comparing everything to the U.S. When I moved to my second country, my biggest challenge was to stop comparing everything to my previous country. Other challenges presented themselves the longer I stayed.

What are the greatest rewards with this kind of work?

The rewards are immeasurable.

You meet the most amazing people from all over the world. You learn about other cultures. You have opportunities to travel that you might not have otherwise.

If you teach abroad, you are able to experience a different culture firsthand, and you learn so, so much. You face challenges that you might not face otherwise. These challenges make you a better person. Your mind and heart open in ways that you never expected.

You find out, to quote from Winnie the Pooh: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

I think language learning is a time when masks come off, and you get to see people’s vulnerability, and that’s quite beautiful. I think a lot of people always try to present a “together” image. “Everything is OK” even when it isn’t. When learning a language, people admit they’re afraid, and you discover that everyone has the same fears: being laughed at, not being understood, not being thought of as smart enough, etc.

What is your top tip for people considering becoming an ESL teacher?

Just dive in. Start as a volunteer at an immigration center. First, they need teachers. Second, you will meet incredible people. Third, you will fall in love with your students really quickly, which means that if you decide to enter the field, you will be really motivated to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible so that you can prepare excellent classes for them.

You’ll become a better teacher pretty quickly.

How do you manage cultural differences and expectations in the classroom or with parents of students?

I’ve mainly taught adults. For the most part, I think cultural differences are really easy to manage when you approach different cultures with a sense of wonder, and establish an environment in which your students are also teachers, which, of course, they are.

What do you least enjoy about life as an ESL teacher?

Lesson planning and correcting homework.

What are your long term career goals?

Become a full time writer and set up some kind of cultural exchange program. However, I will always have to teach at least a couple English classes. I would be so sad not to have that as a part of my life.

Rewards of ESL Teaching

What do you wish the general public knew about the ESL industry?

Speaking from the perspective of an American, and most especially with regard to the current political situation in my country, I wish people knew:

  1. How incredible the students are
  2. How challenging it is to learn a language
  3. That ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) is a better description than what the industry usually uses, as there are many students for whom English is their 3rd, 4th, or 5th language, not their 2nd. Sadly, there are some monolingual people who complain about others’ lack of “perfect” English. Meanwhile, ESOL students are, or are on their way to becoming bilingual, trilingual, or multilingual.
  4. How valuable the field really is, not just in terms of language learning, but as model for how other subjects can and should be taught. Overall, I have found ESOL classrooms to be places which shine a light on what students bring to the classroom. Other approaches to education often focus only on what students should absorb.

What do you wish was covered more extensively in your training/education?

In terms of my volunteer experience and CELTA course, I was genuinely happy with both. I learned a great deal in a very short time. In terms of my master’s program, I wish there had been much less theory and many more ideas for classroom activities, and instruction on multiple approaches to teaching various aspects of grammar as well as all the other key skills. I wish pronunciation and intonation had been covered much more extensively than they were.

Do you have an English only classroom? Do you think this is effective?

When I taught at universities, I tried to establish an English-only environment about 95% of the time (let’s call it an “English-mostly classroom”), because 95% of my students spoke the same first language, and they spoke it often. Not only did this hinder their progress, but it also left out the other 5% of the class who didn’t speak the same language, and didn’t have anyone to translate new words for them.

In adult education, I did not take that approach at all, for a variety of reasons. I also never had to ask students in those classes to speak in English, as they almost always did. When I taught adults in Spain, the issue never really came up. Students would make a few jokes or comments in Spanish every now and then, but that’s it. The rest was English. Students’ motivation for learning the language varies, and that also affects how much English they use.

I would never have a class that is 100% English only all the time. Using English the majority of the time is great. It forces language learners to use more language to explain things instead of using Google Translate. But I think when you tell a student that they can never use their first (or second, third, etc.) language in class, you are telling them that they cannot bring a part of their culture, a part of themselves, to the learning environment. I always asked students to teach me some words in their languages, and my students always wanted to learn a few words in their classmates’ languages.

How much time do you spend lesson planning?

Way too much.

Local Festivals - Cultural Benefits of ESL Teaching

How do you measure whether your students are engaged and learning?

After the lesson is over and we’re reviewing the next day, I measure by how well they’re using the grammar/vocabulary we learned the previous day. (Of course, the other factor I measure is how well I taught the material.) During the lesson, I measure learning by how often they are using the target grammar, vocabulary words, etc. I measure engagement by how happy they are. A happy atmosphere makes learning easier, more enjoyable, and (usually) keeps everyone interested.

What is a good learning activity you have had success with in the classroom?

A great speaking activity (that also requires no prep time) is called The Expert.

Students each get a piece of paper on which they write at the top: I’m an expert in ______. They fill in the blank with whatever they’re an expert in. It can be anything. My students’ answers have included their culture, football, travel, soap operas, dancing, and making friends.

After they write the first sentence, they pass their paper to the person next to them. That person writes down a question they would like answered about the topic. (As an additional part of this activity, teachers can review question formation with the students before the activity begins or after it’s over.)

Cultural Benefits of ESL Teaching

Students keep passing the paper to the person next to them until every student has written one question on each paper. When each student gets their own paper back, they take turns answering the questions on the paper. (For large classes, you can divide the class into smaller groups. For smaller classes, teachers can also participate.)

Students get practice speaking about activities they are passionate about. Their abilities and interests are celebrated. The students who are listening pay attention because they will have their own specific question answered.

Teachers can jot down a few new vocabulary words related to those interests and go over them after each student speaks or at the end of the class.

If you’d like to get in touch with Jennifer please contact her here

We’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions and answers!

If you have any other questions you’d like answered let us know and we will endeavour to get answers from an experienced ESL teacher.

Does teaching English as a second language sound like something you’d be interested in? Find out how easy it is to get your TESOL qualification now!

The opinions expressed in this article/interview are the interviewees own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Just ESL Jobs or Travel Everywhere – Earn Anywhere. The content is as supplied to us, and no changes have been made.


Further reading:

Is Doing a TESOL/TEFL Certificate Really That Easy?

Discover Why Teaching Online is Perfect for Life as a Digital Nomad!

A Day in The Life of a Digital Nomad


    1. Hi Felicity. I can advise you on Spain, but I think some of this advice will hold true for other countries. Try to get a job before you go. The salary (at least in Spain) won’t be high, but you’ll likely be working at a school for children or teaching most of your classes in a language academy for adults and children. I only worked at language academies, but I didn’t have a contract. I traveled all over the city, from one company to another and then back to the language academies in the evenings. A website dedicated to finding teachers jobs and posting job advertisements, like justesljobs.com and eslcafe.com are also great places to start your search. If possible, request to speak to someone who worked at the school you’re applying to. And when you move to another country, I’d start looking for private students as soon as possible. Once you have enough, you can work for yourself full time. If you decide to move to another country and want to teach online, you can continue teaching your students. Hope that helps! If you want more suggestions, just send me an email. Happy teaching! 🙂

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