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Is Teaching ESL Hard? A Teaching Abroad Survival Guide.

A great teacher inspires, encourages, and is passionate about educating children and young adults.  ESL teachers often teach in foreign countries or their own countries with the same degree of passion, but is teaching ESL hard or more difficult than teaching native English speakers?

Teaching ESL has the challenges of native English classrooms, with added barriers to motivation, communication and comprehension when working with second language learners. When teaching abroad ESL teachers must adapt to differences in language, culture, and pedagogy. These can combine to make teaching ESL hard.

ESL Teachers have some difficulties teaching non-verbal and second language students and adjusting to differences in systems and cultures, but there are also benefits of teaching remotely or in a foreign country.  We will explore what difficulties teachers can expect to encounter when teaching ESL, how to tackle those difficulties and what makes a good ESL teacher.

What Is ESL Teaching, And Who Do They Teach?

English as a Second Language (ESL) is the teaching of English to speakers of other languages. It is often referred to using a few similar acronyms such as TEFL, TESOL, ESOL, EAL, and more. We will look at the differences between in a larger article that is coming soon.

It can be difficult for these students to communicate with colleagues and peers, do daily tasks, and navigate through social norms. They need specialized ESL teachers to assist and guide them while learning English as a second language.

ESL teachers will teach young children, teenagers, and adults, depending on the requirements of their employees.  Young children will learn English as a school subject; students might need English lessons to apply to colleges and universities in English-speaking countries or for employment opportunities.

Adults will choose Business English lessons to apply for work in other countries, requiring them to speak and write in the English language. They may also choose to learn to help their children. Online ESL teachers have a choice of teaching English to students or adults.

ESL Teachers have many options where and which age range they can teach. They can either teach in their own country or an overseas country where English is not the first language.  Teaching from home via their computers and the internet is an option that many teachers choose especially during the pandemic. 

Remote teaching allows the ESL teacher to teach in any location with an internet connection using a computer, laptop, or Ipad. There are many firms offering employment opportunities to try this.

Is teaching ESL hard

Why Is Teaching ESL Hard?

  • Working in a foreign country has various problems such as cultural differences, different laws, communication difficulties, and exploitation where the ESL employers take advantage of foreign teachers.  Students vary from beginners who cannot speak English to intermediate where they only have limited English language knowledge. 
  • Advanced students and Adults will also be part of the learning group.  Lessons could be in a one-on-one format or within groups of students.  Teaching in person does allow for more interaction with students, but ESL teachers have to prepare lessons and look for materials for the lessons and grade assignments and tests.  All of these tasks take a lot of preparation and are time-consuming.
  • Adult students often require assistance with administrative tasks like sending emails and writing letters for job applications or completing forms for admissions or applications.  These duties usually take place outside of regular class times, and the ESL teacher must be available to help them.
  • As in Native english classrooms there will be differences in abilities in the classroom, with a caveat: Not knowing the intricacies of shakespearean sonnets is a very different problem to a 6 year old now knowing how to ask for the toilet. (a teacher tip for you: look for bobbing up and down on seats!!!!)
  • Visas are often required by countries, and these can be caught up i geopolitics from time to time. Even if smooth it is time consuming and often involves a paper trail that can be quite frustrating for some countries.
  • Schools and Education departments can focus on different elements of language which at the start can be very frustrating to foreign ESL teachers, and make it difficult to fit in. It can cause conflict and tensions if trying to impose change on an unwilling audience.
  • Teaching English as a Second language is a skill, and it requires a knowledge of how language learning was undertaken in the students L1 ( first language). Some are rote learned, have completely different alphabetical systems and sounds. This presents barriers to students, and teachers if not aware can become frustrated or disappointed when their methods don’t work as intended.
  • If working in schools ( i have been employed in centres, tutorials and schools) it can be quite isolating if you are deployed as the sole native English speaker. This may be cultural (national or school culture) but it is something that can make teaching ESL hard for new teachers.

The Duties And Difficulties Facing The ESL Teacher 

English Language Learners (ELLs) learn to embrace their new cultural experience and find similarities to their native cultures in the US. Trained ESL teachers offer essential assistance to their English language learners by using repetition and pictures.

In the US, many states include their ELL students in their regular classes.  ESL teachers may work as additional support to the primary teachers in these classes.  The ESL teacher’s main objective is to ensure that the ELL student becomes fluent in English and meets the same standards as their classmates. Other duties are:


  • Instructing students how to converse, read and write in English
  • Teachers who work in schools often take small groups of children or individuals from their regular class to help them improve their English speaking skills.
  • They are responsible for creating lesson plans, adapting to the needs of their students, assigning homework and tests, and generating progress reports.
  • Long working hours are often part of their duties as they need to meet with parents and may have to accommodate the adult learners who would attend class after their typical working day.
  • Adult learners often require assistance with sending emails for job applications or preparing for interviews, which is usually an out-of-class task.                                                                 
  • They need to update on and be aware of various cultural differences of their students.
  • Assist and help their students with any difficulties they may have with class-related issues.

How to Overcome Difficulties When Teaching ESL.

In the table below we have highlighted the top eight difficulties that our research has shown to be problems for ESL teachers. We asked 140000 Second language learners, ESL and Tefl Teachers, parents and Educational companies what they think the most common difficulties are. (there were loads!!) we have but the top eight here.

We have also offered possible solutions and ideas you can use to address the difficulties and make your ESL teaching easier and more enjoyable for teachers and students.

Lessons are very longSome centres seem to think its a great idea to have lessons over 2 hours for 6 years olds. it isn’t, it will never be. Throw breaks in every 30 mins or so, change activities, do film reviews, online games or anything to make these more engaging for both you and your students. More is not better, better is better
Company isn’t payingThis is a nightmare situation, you are in another country working and money isn’t being paid to you. There are so many variables it is hard to offer concrete advice, but if it is a big company then going up the chain politely at first, might work, if smaller or no joy it can be difficult in foreign systems to litigate this and it sometimes, no matter how bitter it tastes, is better to chalk it up to experience, quit and move on.
I am very isolatedTeaching ESL can be very lonely. If you are in a village school with 10 teachers who have known each other for years it is difficult to fit in. Although we recommend joining in with the local culture sometimes its difficult and you just need a taste of home, or at least some company who understands your situation. Joining expat groups, facebook groups in the area will allow you to meet up with others and we advise doing this.
I don’t know know what to teachif you are in the unenviable positions of turning up at a school or centre and not having a program or lessons to follow and you are new this can be very scary indeed. We have a selection of lessons and resources aimed at this exact situation. Check them out here.
They teach very differently hereI have had this difficulty for years. I have been doing this for a number of years so got away with teaching my way. However if you are new at ESL teaching then you might have to fit in more. However there is always time to slip in your ”foreign” way of teaching and as time goes on you will be able to expand how long that time lasts 🙂
The students are very quietIn some cultures and educational systems the students might be a little different from home. Interaction may be limited in other classes. With time they will warm up to you.
The class size is very bigFight the battles you can win. However, i come form a background of 40 plus class sizes, split them into working groups and learning stations Janet Schweitzer explains learning stations here. Split the time into three or 4 and have them rotate around the stations. it keeps them engaged and means you have small groups you can give attention to.
i dont have the resources i need. Welcome to teaching. Every teacher will say this. Flexibility and innovation are your buzz words here. if you don’t have a computer and a white board use your own, if you don’t have letters for kindergarten then buy your own, if you don’t have the money they make them. if you don’t have the time get the students to make them! If you need free resources we have thousands here on the site, and if you want 373 in one then check out the offer below.

Is Teaching in ESL Centres Difficult

For the majority ESL teachers teaching overseas a learning or tutorial centre is where they will start. These range from backstreet operations to global chains like EF or Wall street english. often you will be with other native speakers so isolation is not so much or an issue, although integration may be if its a small centre.

Often you will be asked to work weekends, as that’s when students will have the time to come, and in many will only get a day off a week. There may be some split shifts expected as well.

Difficulties Teaching ESL in Learning Centres

  • Teachers often complain about late payments, or lack of visas, long hours and disrespectful bosses with smaller centres and i can attest to some of these personally. We would advise if you are going to take employment then do so with a larger employer so you know that you are likely covered legally
  • Lessons may be up to 2 or three hours long even for young learners as the centres are looking to make as much money as possible.
  • Wages in some may be pretty low, enough so you can lie but not so you can travel or save. However this depends very much on the quality of centre and which country you are in.
Is teaching ESL hard

Is Teaching ESL in Schools Hard

If you are working in international or local schools there will be an element of protection. ( if government schools or reputable international schools). The pay should, on average, be better than learning centres or ESL tutorial centres. The hours should also be closer to normal teaching hours, although you may not get all the benefits that local teachers get.

Difficulties Teaching ESL in Schools.

  • Teaching is schools can be more isolating as you may be the only Foreign teacher in the school. Depending how welcoming the school are this could make you quite lonely.
  • There will, usually be higher standards and greater expectations and you may need to see the students more often. this will require greater planning.
  • For the higher value jobs you will have to be fully qualified. you can check out this article on the best paid ESL jobs for more information on this.
  • Some schools may only hire you for the 10 month school year leaving you unpaid for 2 months. ( the good ones wont!)

Is Teaching ESL Online Hard

Online ESL teaching offers teachers flexibility to teach when they are free ( within constraints of the timezone you are teaching of course) and for as many hours, subject to a minimum of five hours usually). Companies that organize online ESL tuition often have a program or package that teachers can just follow which saves preparation and planning time.

Difficulties Teaching ESL Online.

  • Over the last two of so years ( this being written in November 2021) there have been thousands of online teaching sites being set up. Some of these more professional than others.
  • Some of these ask for North American or UK accents, quite how they get aways with this discrimination I am not 100% sure.
  • Payments are hard to chase up when you work remotely.
  • Motivating students 9 especially after 2 years of online lessons) is really, REALLy difficult.
  • You may not see students regularly and will be jumping through content at different levels each lesson.
  • Not great class management options open to you
  • Watched by parents, who struggle to not chip in when not needed!!
challenges faced by Second language students

Is Teaching ESL in University Hard.

These jobs are rare and often ask for full teaching qualifications up to masters level degrees. They offer teachers the chance to work with higher education students and develop their english enough to be able to complete undergraduate degrees in their second langue.

Pay is often more than all but the best paid school jobs, and you will be part of the faculty so socially is a good option.

Difficulties Teaching ESL in University

  • Language instruction is much higher and may require course specific language. Teachers will have to develop lessons to address that.
  • Less jobs at this end of the ESL spectrum
  • Higher level qualification required to teach
  • If teachers want to become members of the full time staff there may be a requirement to write articles for publication.

What Are The Benefits Of Teaching ESL?

Teaching Second language students in a foreign country allows you to learn more about the people, their culture, and their country. Hopefully you will spend time learning their language by listening to the students, the local teachers, and the people in the community. helping you to integrate better.

If you land a job like the Hong Kong Native English Teacher then it also is a lucrative teaching position allowing you to save considerable amounts!

Teaching online offers you the freedom to work from home or travel while teaching remotely and on your schedule anywhere in the world.   ESL teachers have the opportunity to teach in their own country, helping non-English speaking students and adults learn English while they transition into the culture of their new home.

Being an ESL teacher can be very rewarding when your students finally have a breakthrough and can communicate freely, read and write in the English language after many weeks of teaching.  Your lessons will open doors for them and make an impact on their lives.

How to Make Teaching ESL Easier

Whether you are taking a year out or are a full time ESL teacher there are ways to make it a more enjoyable and rewarding experience for both you and your students. You can follow some of the tips in the table above if you are having difficulties , but if you want to avoid them then read the following tips.

  1. Plan Plan Plan: Although there may be issues outside the classroom most issues within it can be addressed by a clear plan. Although time gets in the way we advise having at least 2 weeks of lessons planned in advance and some spares for those ”surprise lessons” that occur from time to time. It can be stressful enough being in the classroom, not knowing what you are going to do is not going to help.
  2. Use multiple methods: Whatever the motivation of your students for being in your classroom, parental decree, job prospects, genuine interest, you should try to use the most varied way of presenting information that you can. this may mean online games, mill drills, classroom games, worksheets, speaking exercises. Students will relate well to teachers who are trying to keep them interested. You can click the links on the words above to get more ideas and free resources.
  3. Allow down time: Learning another language is hard, if you are in lessons that are long, perhaps too long, then allow ”freetime” you can make this in english, but our advice is to make it topical as well. Find out the interests of your students ( a lesson in itself) and give some time each lessons for activities or discussions around them. This is especially useful if you are following a text book based approach for the rest of the lesson.
  4. If you are moving countries to teach ESL: Find out as much as you can about the country and area you are moving to. Ask the school or centre if there are people you can content with before you come to try to make a friend before, or at least have a point of contact. Ask for example lessons, and tips on the area to make your transition easier.
  5. Put yourself out there: ESL is not for the wallflowers amongst us. Try to go on days or nights out with colleagues or others in a similar situation to develop a support group. it will be full of moans, but its better to let them out than let them sit inside you.
  6. Remember there will be good times and bad times: IT is easy to look at the positives (or negatives) of what is happening. Try to balance these out.
  7. Look up the stages of culture shock. This helped me a lot! you can check out a overview of culture shock here. Realising it wasn’t ”just me” was very useful!
  8. Look for reviews, information opinions: On living in the country you are headed to for sure, but also where you are going to work. There are a few bad operators in the ESL world and checking before you go can save you a lot of hassle and money. thee are plenty of ESL jobs out there, you can afford to not leap on the first company or school that offers you a teaching job.

Is teaching ESL hard

What Attributes Makes A Good ESL Teacher?

Conversing with students, giving instructions, and motivating even though they have difficulty understanding at first is an excellent quality that makes a good ESL teacher.

Showing enthusiasm for teaching and the subject, and most of all to having patience with the students, is essential. Often the lessons are repetitive, students make mistakes, and it sometimes seems like a long time before they understand the language.

Teachers need to engage with students and have a pleasant personality and teaching style.  To be organized is required as preparing for lessons and working around time constraints needs planning and structure. 

Flexibility is another good quality as classes change according to the student’s needs, and flexible hours may be required when teaching adults after their work hours.

How To Train As An ESL Teacher In The US?

Studying to become an ESL teacher requires enrolling at a state-approved teacher preparation program at an undergraduate or graduate level.  If you have a current teaching license at the elementary or secondary level public school setting, you can then follow a certification program as an additional endorsement.

The ESL education or certification requirements may differ for private schools, private industry, or businesses. A certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) is often required.

ESL teachers do not need to be bilingual as at most schools, the teacher will only speak English to a student, and the student must respond in English.  However, learning another language can help students understand the communication rules when addressing them in their native language.



ESL teachers have the same pride and fulfillment in their teaching careers as other educators, but they must contend with more difficulties.  The language barrier is a problem when teaching on home soil or abroad.

Working flexible hours and spending time finding material for lessons are often tedious tasks.  Assisting with administrative duties for adults is usually conducted after class hours and is time-consuming.

Dealing with bad actors is an unfortunate risk in ESL teaching positions and doing as much research before you head off anywhere is strongly advised.

The benefits to working remotely, from your own home or in a foreign country, are the travel opportunities and working on your schedule.   Being a part of an ELL student’s journey to accomplish the English language is most gratifying, and the results make it all worthwhile!

If you have more ideas then feel free to put them in the comments and we can add them to the article 🙂





I have been a teacher of English for over 15 years, in that time i made hundreds and thousands of resources and learnt so much i think its worth sharing. Hopefully to help teachers and parents around the world.

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