How long does it take to become an ESL teacher? Good question! If you’re considering becoming an ESL teacher, then it helps to know how much time you’ll need to invest.
The thing is, the answer to this question is “it depends”. How long it will take you personally to become an ESL teacher will depend on several factors:
- What qualifications do you have? High school diploma? Degree?
- Do you have an ESL teaching qualification?
- What’s your level of English (if English isn’t your first language)?
- How much money do you want to earn?
- Do you want to teach offline or online?
- Who do you want to teach? Kids? Business professionals? University students?
As you can see, there’s no single answer for every situation. But by the end of this post, you’ll have a better idea of how long it will take you to get started as an ESL teacher.
The quick answer is anything from a few days to a few years. That’s quite a range so let me explain why.
Do You Have A Degree?
Having a bachelor’s degree (in any subject, not necessarily teaching or education) is important for a couple of reasons.
Some teaching companies require you to have a bachelor’s degree. As you can imagine, you’ll have access to slightly better pay and conditions with a degree.
This is especially important if you want to make teaching your full-time gig and not just a side job. More on that later.
A degree is also indispensable if you want to teach ESL in the school system or in higher education. Your degree will be a minimum entry requirement for getting onto master’s programmes that prepare you to get a teaching qualification.
Don’t have a degree? Here’s how to teach online without a degree.
Do You Have A Teaching Qualification?
If you have an ESL teaching qualification, then you’ll have more options for becoming an ESL teacher, especially if you want to work for a company.
In fact, the best combination of qualifications to open the most doors, including teaching ESL abroad, is a bachelor’s degree plus a teaching certificate.
The CELTA is the gold standard of English teaching certifications. It will allow you to teach anywhere in the world as it’s so widely recognized.
And the good news is that you can complete a CELTA in 4 weeks (120 hours) if you do it full time. Part-time and online versions of the CELTA are also available.
What’s Your Level Of English?
If English isn’t your first language, you’ll usually have to show evidence of your level of proficiency to get onto a course such as the CELTA or work for certain companies or platforms.
The requirement is usually C1 level. So if you’re not there yet, then you’ll need to work on your English skills first. And getting to an advanced level can take some time depending on where you’re starting from.
If you’re a native English speaker, then you won’t have to prove your English proficiency. However, you’ll need to show that you’ve already attempted to learn a second language. Otherwise, how can you possibly put yourself in your students’ shoes?
Also, even if you’re a native speaker, don’t get too complacent. I’ve heard of a trainee not passing their CELTA because they were speaking in their local dialect while giving the lessons, which was confusing for the students.
Do You Want To Work For A Company Or Go Freelance?
As a rule, going freelance means fewer constraints in terms of qualifications and experience, whereas companies will have particular requirements.
But unlike freelancing, when you work for a company, they will usually guarantee a certain number of hours and provide materials and lesson plans.
If you freelance on platforms such as Verbling, iTalki or Preply, you can teach without a degree, but you may end up earning less (see below).
Companies or language schools may or may not require you to have a degree. For example, if you teach with Cambly, you just need to be a native speaker. But they don’t guarantee a certain number of hours, unlike companies such as English First.
If you strike out completely on your own and look for students through your contacts, networking, placing ads, social media or content creation, then it’ll take more time to create your client base. So make sure that you have another source of income while you build up your business!
Do You Want ESL Teaching To Be Your Main Gig?
If you want to earn a full-time income teaching ESL online, then you’ll need to go through the process of getting certified so that you can get better pay.
But, if you want to teach English on the side, then you can get started more quickly. I say, on the side because you won’t be earning enough to support yourself full-time (unless you work insane hours or live in a low income country).
For instance, you could become a community tutor on iTalki. To do this, you need to be a native or near native speaker of English. The downside is that you will earn less than professional teachers on the platform, usually 8-10 USD per hour. Don’t forget the 15% commission and your tax and national insurance payments.
But you won’t be expected to plan lessons or help students outside of class. You’re just there to chat with them and support them. So you could get up and running quickly this way.
You could also work for a company like Cambly. The “pay” is at the lower end of the scale at 10.20 USD per hour. But you can apply as long as you’re a native English speaker. You don’t need a degree or teaching experience. But you’re not guaranteed a certain number of hours.
Do You Want To Teach Online Or Offline?
You can get started faster in some respects if you want to teach online. You don't have to move abroad for a start. But it also depends on what you want to offer.
If you want to tutor people in your area face to face, you could also get started quickly by placing ads around your town or through word of mouth.
If you want to move abroad and teach in a school, academy or other institute, then that can take longer. You’ll have to go through an application process. And you can't necessarily start whenever you want – it’ll depend on the school year in that particular country.
For example, if you want to apply for the JET programme, which allows you to teach in a school in Japan for a year, you’ll have to go through a long and intensive process lasting several months. You’ll also need a bachelor’s degree.
And if you want to teach ESL in the school system, then you’ll have to go through whatever process exists in your country. In many places, that will look like a bachelor’s degree plus a teaching qualification on top (count another 1-2 years) and then a year of teacher training.
But of course, in many countries, you’ll then have access to a full-time, stable, well-paid job with a decent pension and holidays. Outside of the school system, these perks tend to be rare in the ESL world.
Who Do You Want To Teach?
Kids? Business professionals? Tourists? There are lots of different types of ESL teaching jobs. Some require more experience and qualifications than others.
I was talking to a friend the other day who had worked for years in Spain at a language school which focused mostly on teaching kids. If you live in Spain or want to relocate there, there’s work available tutoring kids in academies.
Unfortunately, since the collapse of the Chinese online ESL teaching market, teaching kids online is not as easy to do as it once was back when there was an abundance of work.
If you want to teach a more specialized type of English, then you’ll need to have experience and/or qualifications in that field. For example, you can’t teach medical or aviation English without some kind of qualification and preferably experience.
If you’ve got previous experience in fields such as tourism, banking or law, then this can be a great way to do more specialized types of teaching and make a bit more money, especially as a business owner.
Martin Johnston from Rock ‘n’ Roll English started out in banking and then became an ESL teacher when he moved to Italy. At one point, he was also teaching Italian bankers English, using his knowledge from his previous profession.
What’s Your Language Learning Experience?
Teaching English as a second language is a way to monetise your language skills. Why do I say this? Well, you can’t teach a language until you’ve tried learning one yourself.
Plus, if you speak your student’s native language, then you can make the learning process a lot easier for them.
It means that you can offer them a quick explanation in their language when they need it. You can also use translation as a tool to help explain grammar points. This can sometimes make things a lot easier and quicker to explain, especially if the student’s language is similar to English.
Christina Rebuffet is based in France and runs a successful online English teaching business. She works with various business English teachers, including ones who speak French. This makes it easier to market to French speaking business professionals as the teachers understand their language and the French business context.
So if you’ve never tried learning a language before, it’s time to get started. The good news is that if you use the StoryLearning® method, you can reach a conversational level in 6 months.
Your language learning experience helps you to help your students. And it’s why I say that language teachers must be language learners.
So How Long Does It Take To Become An ESL Teacher?
If you don’t have a degree, or experience and don’t want to teach full-time, you could get started fast (in a matter of days) by working for Cambly or becoming an iTalki community tutor. But this is gig work that won’t earn you much.
If you want to become a full-time ESL teacher, you’ll need to get serious about certifications and complete a CELTA, Trinity TESOL or reputable 120 hour training course. And then it'll take you a few years in the classroom to actually get good at teaching!
A bachelor’s degree plus a certification is your best bet if you want to make a career out of ESL teaching, opening doors in both the online and offline teaching worlds.
And if you want to work in the school system (K-12 rather than with language schools or training companies), then you’ll need to count in years rather than weeks or months. The same applies (and more) if you want to work in higher education.
So you could get started in a week or two if ESL teaching is a side gig. But if you want to work full-time, you’re looking at 4 weeks minimum to complete your certification (full-time), not counting the time it takes to apply and get accepted on the course.
And then of course, you’ll need to apply for jobs. If you want to work on an online platform, once you go through the application process, you can get going fast. But it can take a few months to build up your client base.
As for working with online teaching companies or language schools, the application process will vary and will be likely to involve an interview plus a trial session of some kind.
Hopefully by now you’ll have an idea of how long it will take you to become an ESL teacher and the options that are out there for you.