Guide to Teaching English as a Second Language Abroad
10 Practical Tips for Becoming an Effective Teacher
Story and photos by Ted Campbell
Teaching English as a second language in places such as a university in Mexico.
You’ve read the articles online about how to land your first English teaching job in the country of your dreams: Mexico, Brazil, Italy, Egypt, Japan — practically anywhere in the world.
You’ve done some job-hunting on ESL job websites, perhaps already sent your resume to a few schools. Maybe you’ve gotten a certification, studying TEFL, TESL, CELTA. Maybe you’ve already observed a few classes or even taught a practice class on your own.
Well, the time will come when you’ll stand in front of your first group. It may be smiling adolescent faces, eager to learn from a native speaker. It may be a group of adults in business suits, in a small private school or a factory conference room, who will ask you difficult questions about verb conjugations and idiomatic expressions. Or maybe it’s 50 children running in circles and rolling around on the floor in a cramped public school classroom.
In fact, if you end up making ESL (English as a Second Language, aka EFL, English as a Foreign Language) your career, you’ll probably find yourself in each of these situations at some point.
For many people, teaching English is their ticket to life as an expat. It certainly was for me. When I accepted an English teaching job in South Korea 15 years ago, it wasn’t to fulfill my life’s ambition of being an English teacher. Far from it. I wanted adventure. I wanted to travel to the other side of the world. And yes, I needed a job — it was less than a month after I had graduated from university and I was totally broke.
Suddenly, after the excitement of a long flight and a new apartment in a new country, I entered my first classroom, full of small children. I became what I never thought I’d become — a teacher.
Three countries, six schools, and countless hours later, I’m still a teacher, working at a Mexican university. Over the years, I’ve seen many teachers come and go, some good and some spectacularly bad.
I’ve noticed that they often have two things in common. First, teaching English may not be their primary motivation. They imagine exploring a new country, paying off their student loan, and having that elusive cultural experience, but they don’t put much thought into the long hours every day that they’ll spend in the classroom.
Second, many of them don’t want a career as a teacher. They might say that they don’t like it, sometimes before they’ve even tried it. I believe that this is mainly because they still have the traditional, authoritative view of a teacher, who spends most of the class lecturing or writing on the board, keeping discipline and directing the class.
This simply doesn’t work for teaching a language. Language instruction requires a different attitude and approach than what works for typical grade-school subjects like math and science. Although most teacher-training programs do address this, recommending the Communicative Method, there’s no substitute for experience. You have to get in front of a class and try it out.
So with this in mind, here are 10 tips that will automatically make you a more effective teacher. And by becoming a more effective teacher, your experience as an expat will be that much better. Teaching ESL abroad might become more than an adventure or an escape from your previous life, but a career. Sure, you probably won’t get rich (though it’s possible), but the world will open to you as you realize that you can choose pretty much anywhere you want to reside with the skills to not only land a job but excel.
1. Expect to make mistakes
Teaching is almost always a performance without a rehearsal. You study the topic, make a lesson plan, maybe even have some practice classes, but when you teach the past continuous verb tense for the first time, you’re on your own, without a net.
This means that you’ll make mistakes, which is unavoidable. What you can control, however, is your reaction to the mistakes. If you learn from them, mistakes become useful, but if you deny or try to hide them and your students notice, you’ll lose their respect.
If you don’t know the answer to a grammar question, tell them the truth and that you’ll research it. Never fake your way through an improvised explanation. And follow up on your promise — research the answer, not only for your students but also for yourself.
You won’t only make grammar mistakes. At my first English teaching job, in South Korea, in one of my first classes I was given four students of very different ages and maturity levels. One teenage boy sat quietly at his desk, two ten-year-olds chased each other around the room, and a younger girl sat crying in the corner. It was a new school without any teaching materials — not even a book. What could I do?
I brought in a deck of cards, and we played Go Fish. The students loved it. We sat in a circle on the floor, and they spoke in English — reading out the numbers on the cards, asking questions, and crying out Go Fish! This went on for several days, and I slipped in some regular lessons between card sessions. I felt great — the lessons were working.
Then came the stern meeting with my boss. The parents were complaining, threatening to take their students out of the school. It was a big deal — they were some of the first clients in a newly opened small business. Why? Weren’t the students learning while having fun?
It turned out that anything remotely resembling gambling is seriously bad in Korean culture, so much so that Koreans couldn’t enter the only casino in Seoul at the time, which was full of Japanese people (and me). This includes decks of cards — and with children! No wonder the students were so happy.
It was a huge error, but I survived it, and now I see it as good practice for all the future mistakes I’d make — not only grammatical but also cultural.
An English school in South Korea.
2. Accept that every teacher is a student
Something that no one seems to tell potential teachers is that they will spend their lives studying. For language teachers, grammar comes first. People speaking their first language can use grammar correctly but have no idea how to explain it. The rules are somewhere deep in our brain, understandable only in an instinctive way.
Even if you do have a good understanding of grammar rules, it doesn’t mean that you’ll know how to teach them clearly and efficiently. Besides, languages are much more than grammar, but a means to communication, expression, and thought.
ESL teacher-training programs typically address grammar points, but they are no substitute for experience. Plus, especially if you start by teaching children (like I did), more advanced grammar may never come up until years later when you begin teaching adults and have long forgotten the content of your teacher-training program.
This means that you’re going to have to study. A lot. And you’ll have to take a critical view of what you learn. Grammar and its associated concepts are interpretations, not a science. Read five books and you’ll get five different explanations regarding how to use the present perfect verb tense. Becoming an expert on the subject — which is what an ESL teacher ideally should be — means that you can take contrasting explanations of grammar and form your own conceptions.
The good news is that the best way to learn a grammar point is to teach it. Make your plan and follow it in class, and then think about what worked and what didn’t. Every time you teach, you’ll see things differently and learn something new — if you stay open-minded.
Talk to other teachers at your school for ideas about teaching techniques. I still use some that were suggested to me years ago by senior teachers. I’ve adapted them to my own style and to many topics, and I’ve passed them on to other teachers who have surely done the same.
English teachers can supplement their training with books on a variety of subjects.
3. Study your students’ first language
A common misconception about ESL teaching is that you must speak your students’ first language. This isn’t true, and your lessons will be more effective if they are only in English, even for total beginners. It forces the students to use the language as if they were in an English-speaking country and had to survive.
But, while learning Romanian to teach English in Romania isn’t necessary for the classroom, it’s nevertheless a good idea, for several reasons.
First, understanding your students’ native language will give you insight into their mistakes. Often their most common mistakes are caused by direct translation from their language. This could apply to many aspects of language, from syntax to vocabulary.
Second, learning a second language will give you insight into — surprise — what it’s like to learn a second language. It’s not easy. It requires dedication, hard work, and time. It involves many skills, some you can practice on your own and others best learned in a classroom. For example, I quit several Spanish courses here in Mexico because the teachers only gave us verb conjugation exercises. I could do those at home — I wanted speaking and especially pronunciation practice, which I could not get from a book.
Finally, although obviously it’s a good idea to learn the language of the country you live in, many expats do not. They stay in their insulated expat community, or worse, expect the locals they communicate with to speak English.
Basically, a language teacher who isn’t interested in learning a second language is like Cross Fit instructor who’s in terrible shape.
Language is more than communication, but a window to culture — how people talk about things and the expressions they use will help you understand and appreciate the country more.
And at a more practical level, learning the local language will help you find other opportunities for work, like being a translator. There’s really no downside to studying a language, only the commitment of time.
4. Follow the principles of customer service
Customer service can be summarized in one sentence: The customer is always right.
When I worked at a pizza delivery restaurant and a customer called to complain, they always got a new pizza. Why? Well, even if they were lying, it was better to lose the price of one pizza than to lose a customer for life.
In language teaching, this has some unfortunate side effects, such as students advancing to levels for which they are not prepared. The truth is that, except for grade school and university (which is debatable), language teaching is a business. And for better or worse, businesses are shaped by competition.
If you get a bad pizza, you order from a different restaurant next time. If you take a class in which the teacher spends half the time telling personal stories and the other half doing verb conjugation exercises straight from a book, you will look for a new school.
In other words, a stubborn teacher who is oblivious to the needs of his students will cause the school to lose customers, which will cause the teacher to work fewer hours, and so forth. For the teacher, this means understanding what the students want and giving it to them.
Don’t teach the students what they can learn on their own, especially not what they can learn online for free. Give them face-to-face speaking practice with error corrections.
Don’t teach them as if they were elementary school students forced to attend who have no influence over the class. They do — and they will exercise it by taking their business elsewhere.
5. Understand the teaching situation
The first step to giving your students what they want — satisfying the customer, in other words — is figuring out what they want.
Every school, classroom, and student is different, so it doesn’t make sense to teach him or her all the same way. We’ve all had teachers who seemed like robots going through pre-programmed motions, oblivious to student reactions. You can describe this teaching style with one word — boring.
If it’s boring, it’s ineffective. But if you take the time to think about your students, who they are and what they want to study, you’ll instantly be better than 90% of teachers.
Are the students studying a language by choice, or is it a requirement? English is often a requirement for grade-school students, but that doesn’t automatically mean that they don’t want to study it. Age is a factor too, along with previous experience. For instance, if the students have been studying English since elementary school and they still haven’t learned the basics, it probably means that they’ve been stuck in tedious classes and are now soured to the subject. So it’s your job to alter their attitudes with realistic lessons, listening exercises — anything that shows how useful and relevant English can be.
If the students come by choice, then why? Do they need English for their jobs, are they planning to travel, or do they want to understand movies and video games better? Understanding your students’ goals will help you plan better lessons. Again, it’s called satisfying the customer. Although most schools will give you a syllabus to follow, there’s always flexibility.
So, how do you find out what your students want? Ask them. In my experience, no matter what their motivation is, nearly all of them want one thing: speaking practice. Which leads me to…
6. Speak as little as possible
Some classes, especially one-on-one classes or small groups with three or four students, can feel like a conversation. In fact, many small schools offer what they call “conversational” English lessons, and students who ask for private lessons often want to practice conversation.
So, naturally, when you sit around a table talking, it can feel like a real conversation. But as the teacher, you must remember that it’s not.
What happens in a real conversation? You wait to speak, you interrupt each other, you finish each other's sentences. Teachers should never do these things in a conversational lesson. Their job to encourage the students to speak, wait with patience while they form their sentences, and then correct their mistakes. And that’s it.
When the topic is “your best vacation,” it can be tempting to tell your students all about your best vacation. Don’t do it. They don’t care about your best vacation. If they do, they will ask you (which may happen sometimes).
Instead, let them speak without interruption — no matter how long it takes — and keep them speaking. Language teachers must make “Why?” the most common word in their vocabulary. Keep asking why, where, with who? Anything to keep them talking.
Despite different goals, this was essentially the way Socrates taught philosophy, which is why today the technique of teaching through only asking questions is called the Socratic Method. It’s different in language teaching, of course — you aren’t leading them towards some philosophical insight, but giving them every possible opportunity to practice.
In a larger class, don’t answer questions. Look around the room to see if another student can answer. If you have a topic that involves a lot of vocabulary, such as animals, don’t give the students a list, but ask them to tell you some animals and write them on the board. (In language teaching this is called “eliciting.”)
This is part of the Communicative Method. A lot has been written about it, but it basically comes down to two things. Since language often has a communicative purpose, language lessons should 1) give students many opportunities to practice, and 2) language lessons should be realistic.
So, instead of putting your students to sleep with odd examples of passive voice (“The hamburger was eaten by John”), why don’t you print some real menus and practice ordering food in a restaurant? Instead of conjugating verbs, why not practice making and receiving telephone calls?
Remember, all this practice makes no sense if you don’t correct their mistakes. In private lessons or very small groups, I keep notes of corrected versions of their mistakes to give them at the end of class. In larger groups, I correct them right away and make them repeat it — not every single mistake, but the ones that are relevant to the topic.
7. Keep discipline
On the other hand, if you end up teaching large groups of young kids or teenagers, giving them opportunities to speak won’t be your priority. Unless you get lucky with the rare calm group, the most important thing you’ll have to deal with is student behavior.
Every teacher is different, and every school has different policies regarding discipline. The first step is to find out what you can and can’t do.
At my first job in South Korea, for example, when I was having problems with a student, they told me, just hit him. Hit him? I was shocked. Like a spanking? No, a good smack across the face. (This was more than 15 years ago — I hope times have changed.)
There was no way I would do that, and I’ve since learned that any type of punishment in which the teacher shows anger is ineffective. Kids often act up because they want a big reaction. So to keep things under control, you can’t get angry at them — no yelling, and of course no hitting.
I found that the best method for discipline was to take problem students into the hall, sit them down, and then calmly explain what I needed from them. Even if they didn’t understand the words, they understood the tone. Also, part of showing no anger means no grudges, no punishment lasting more than one day. Every day is a new day and a new chance to behave properly.
But as I mentioned, some schools won’t allow that kind of punishment. You’ll need to get some advice and find your own style for serving up sanctions.
Whatever you choose and however you want your students to behave, you need to establish clear rules on the first day of class and stick to them. Insist on perfect control, especially on that first day (or week).
On the first day of class, you’ll want the students to like you. Resist that desire. Be firm — everyone sitting still in their chairs, asking permission before getting up, raising their hands to speak. Work hard and be as tough as possible, and once you have control, then you can loosen up and have some fun. The students will love you for it, and when the fun’s over, they’ll get back to work.
It’s impossible to start loose and get strict later. It must be established on the first day. And never forget that discipline is a two-way street. Plan your classes every day, keep your promises, and never arrive late.
8. Teach private lessons
As a native speaker, expect to be asked for private lessons. The previous tips apply — understand the teaching situation (kids vs. adults, etc.) and why the person wants lessons, speak as little as possible, write down corrected mistakes to give to the student at the end of the lesson — but now you’re on your own. You’re the teacher and the administrator.
So you’ll have to make some additional decisions — how much to charge, where to have the lessons, how to deal with cancellations. I suggest speaking to other foreign teachers who give private lessons to find out how much to charge, among other things, as every country is different.
If someone wants you to teach a group of kids, a good idea is to set the rate per child and offer the class for free for the parent who organizes it. This way she has incentive to keep the class going. As the students add up, you might earn a lot of money. And, between you and me, teaching four kids is actually easier than teaching only one.
With adults, you have two choices — charging by the class or by the month. The main difference is that if you charge by the class and they cancel, you don’t get paid, but if you charge by the month (a certain amount of classes per month that they pay in advance) and they cancel, it doesn’t matter because you’ve already been paid.
I typically charge by the class, and if they cancel, I tell them I won’t teach them anymore. It sounds harsh, but you have to be firm with cancellations or you’ll waste a lot of time waiting for students who don’t show up because they know there’s nothing you’ll do about it.
9. Design and save your own materials
I think most ESL/EFL books are terrible, and I have a theory about them. Several theories, actually.
First of all, because of the shift from traditional, authoritative teaching to the Communicative Method, many books have almost no grammar explanations or exercises. Instead, they are full of activities, photos, surveys, games, and other nonsense. (A related theory of mine is that every book features a mini-biography of either Nelson Mandela, J.K. Rowling, or the Japanese hot dog eating champion. Check them — you’ll see.)
I disagree with this style of book. First of all, in effective communicative teaching, you don’t need a book. The focus is speaking in real-life situations, so at most you might need something like a menu or a travel brochure.
Furthermore, despite the importance of speaking, students need to do regular grammar exercises. They shouldn’t spend large amounts of class time doing them, but aspects of language like verb tenses need to be worked out.
So, you’ll probably find yourself adapting lessons from books, downloading lessons from the internet, or writing them yourself. Collect them, change them, and copy them, including your lesson plans. Every lesson you teach today you’ll also teach next month, next year, or 20 years from now.
10. Keep a calendar
Here’s a short one, but I’ve found it indispensable. Buy one of those little pocket calendars with big empty boxes and write down everything you do.
Did you teach a substitute class? Write it down. Go to a meeting? Write is down. Were you sick, did you take a month off, did you teach a special workshop-type class? Write them all down.
Review your paychecks carefully to make sure you’ve been paid for everything you’re owed. When there’s a mistake, don’t be afraid to speak to the person in charge of payroll. Keeping track of all the teachers’ hours can be complicated, and in my experience mistakes are common. However, also in my experience, when you point out the mistake, it always gets fixed. But you need that calendar so you can be sure.
This is also true for your private lessons, particularly when you teach a lot of them. You’ll never keep them sorted out otherwise — all the schedules, who has paid and who hasn’t.
Bonus tip: Expect to enjoy teaching
You will likely enjoy teaching and have many new cultural experiences while living abroad.
Once you get some experience, it shouldn’t be long before you find that teaching can be a lot of fun too. You’ll interact with all kinds of different people you wouldn’t meet otherwise. It’s a great way to learn about culture, see things in a different way, and even make friends.
Teaching can be hard, especially in the beginning, but if you study, plan every day, and see your students as people with real goals, you’ll improve quickly. As you improve, you’re bound to begin enjoying it.
As a freelance writer and translator, I spend a lot of time indoors hammering on my laptop. But as a teacher I’m out in the world, meeting people and teaching interesting subjects like literature and linguistics.
Basically, it comes down to this — if you like people and enjoy listening to them, you’ll like teaching. If you like teaching, you’ll be good at it, and more so as your experience grows. Despite all the studying and all the hard work, it’s that simple.
Ted Campbell is a freelance writer, Spanish-English translator, and university teacher living in Mexico.
He has written two guidebooks (ebooks) about Mexico, one for Cancun and the Mayan Riviera and another for San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque in Chiapas, both also available at Amazon.com or on his website.
For stories of adventure, culture, music, food, and mountain biking, check out his blog No Hay Bronca.
To read his many articles written for TransitionsAbroad.com, see Ted Campbell's bio page.