So you actually want to teach English: building ELT experience

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A student asked me how I came to make teaching my career choice. Many people teach English in Japan, but not all of them necessarily want to, at least for very long. It’s certainly a low barrier to entry into Japan, as the JET Program and many language schools don’t require teaching experience. Participants get to earn income and live in Japan before going on to other careers. For the Japan enthusiast who is unsure of what they want to do and/or wants to get to Japan by any means, this is an option (this is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation).

But what if you are passionate about teaching English and want to make a career out of it? Perhaps, you want to teach at the university level like I currently do. But where to start? I’ll share with you what I’ve done. My field is TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), but I’m sure it can be applied to other fields as well:

Be a conversation partner. In my first semester as an undergraduate, I signed up to be a conversation partner with a Japanese student. We would meet for one week for an hour. Half of the time we would speak in English, and the other half we would speak in Japanese. If either of us had any gaps in understanding, we would provide explanations. While my main motivation was to practice speaking Japanese, this provided me my first opportunity to work with someone whose native language was not English.

Be a teaching assistant. I was an undergraduate teaching assistant for two ESL courses. I helped out the teachers with their lessons and even taught lessons of my own. This was the deciding factor in my becoming a teacher. From this experience, I learned how to give and receive constructive feedback, to always have an answer key prepared, and to give students a chance to arrive at the answers themselves. I also gained experience that I used to get teaching jobs after graduating. ~Side note: A school once told me that this did not count as experience. I refused to buy that and applied elsewhere.

Take a course. My undergraduate school did not have a TESOL major, but the Linguistics department did have a TESOL teaching course. This gave me an opportunity to gain background knowledge on various teaching pedagogies and refine my lesson planning skills.

Volunteer. My graduate school, The New School, has a wonderful outreach program that provides free English lessons to immigrants in NYC. This especially helped me build teaching experience while still having the flexibility to do my full-time job. Also, talk about inspiration: I have not had students more dedicated or determined than the ones I had in this community-based program.

Present at conferences. Attending conferences is a great way to network and gather some ideas from others in the industry. But don’t just go to conferences–try your hand at presenting at them as well. Answer that call for papers/presentations: it is a way to show prospective employers how you are contributing to the field (important for teaching).

Network. Not every opportunity is advertised. This is where having a network comes in handy. Your alumni network is a good place to start–I got a private tutoring gig because a fellow alumnus posted the opportunity in our Facebook group (not a job site).

Get whatever job you can to start. I started out as a teaching assistant for a summer program run by a company I interned for when I was in high school (network, people!). I also taught English at a private language school. These jobs provided income as well as experience that helped me identify the age group I wanted to teach.

Diversify your experience. Having experience that is not only teaching-related can open you up to opportunities to teach specialized courses in business English, tourism English, hospitality English, etc. My business background (I worked in international education for 4 years) helped me get jobs teaching business courses offered by my university.

I’ve been avoiding publications for academic journals/organizations (I’m still research-papered-out from my master’s thesis), but know it is necessary for longevity in the ELT field. Clearly, I’m still working on building experience, but here you can see what has carried me this far.

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