What Makes a Great ESL Teacher

We all know those teachers who are absolutely loved by everyone.  As soon as they walk into class, the kids light up. Other teachers regularly turn to them for advice. 

Georgia-0416Their students always seem to be ahead of the curve, and they just seem happy to step into the classroom every day.  What exactly is it that they’re doing that works so well?  Here are a few things that come together to make a great ESL teacher.

Passion for the job

There’s no getting around it:  A passion for what you do and a genuine enjoyment of spending time with your students is key.

No teacher loves every minute of their job; but the best ESL teachers genuinely enjoy interacting with their students, being in front of the classroom, and seeing their students learn and grow over the course of a school year.

The ability to build relationships

Teaching is so much more than just walking into a class and lecturing at the students.  Your class should see you as a human being, and more importantly, you should see each of them as individuals with their own interests, passions, struggles and talents.

Getting students to speak up, follow the rules, and participate in class involves building up trust with them, and this is something that the best ESL teachers devote the time and energy to doing.


It’s a fact that in ESL, you’ll have unpaid grading hours, and times when you’ll have to be there for extracurricular activities.  You can treat it as a chore, gripe about the unpaid time or the way that teaching is cutting into your weekend.

Great ESL teachers, however, have enough of a commitment to students’ progress and long-term development, and to the relationship that they are building with the students, that they don’t mind showing up ten or fifteen minutes early to give the students’ essays a little more detailed grading, or spending a Saturday morning helping the students rehearse a play.


When your teaching assistant steps into the classroom five minutes into a well-planned lesson and tells you they will be doing a school-wide project right in the middle of your class, you’ve got to be able to roll with it.

When an activity that you thought would take half an hour only fills up five minutes, you’ve got to be able to think on your feet and come up with something to fill the time with.

The best ESL teachers can roll with the punches no matter what is going on in class.  Even if it turns out that they can’t teach the lesson they’d planned, they can adapt just about any situation into a chance for the kids to learn.

Cultural Sensitivity

As an ESL teacher, you are teaching in a culture that is very different from your own, and which may have a drastically different approach to learning, discipline, and the student-teacher relationship.

Most good teachers have done some research or taken a class on educational theories and classroom management to have a grounded understanding of what helps students learn and what types of classroom management work best.  But they also understand that all of that has to fit within the cultural constraints of their host country.

Show respect and sensitivity for the culture of your students and co-workers, even if there are things that you don’t agree with, and they will respect you as a teacher.

Learning a Second Language Yourself

Nothing will make you more empathetic to your students than being in their position.  It’s easy to get frustrated at how quickly a student will forget a new vocabulary word, or how much of a struggle it can be to pronounce a certain sound.

But when you’ve been struggling to remember that Chinese character for the hundredth time, or when you see the same expression of frustration on your teacher’s face, it makes you see your students in a completely different light.

Teachers who’ve been studying a second language themselves are more patient with their students, and also have a more in-depth understanding of the nuts and bolts of learning a language. Plus, your students will find it absolutely hilarious to hear you struggle to pronounce words in their language.

Not taking it all too seriously

Your job as a teacher is to help kids learn, and that’s serious business.  But that doesn’t mean you have to be uptight and dull in the classroom. Good ESL teachers have a balance of fun and work in the classroom, and know how to use teaching games, jokes, and fun activities to motivate, teach, and inspire.

Do you have anything you want to add? Let us know in the comments below.

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