What Challenges do ESL Teachers Face in the Classroom?

by Jennifer Bangoura

Challenge. Adventure. Mental stimulation. An opportunity to grow personally and professionally. The thrill of living in a different country. If any of those things sounds like something you want in your life, then it’s time to pack up and teach English abroad. While you may want to incorporate all of those exciting aspects to help you step out of your comfort zone and into a new reality, you are probably also asking yourself if teaching abroad is for you. You may wonder if teaching abroad is too hard, or if your background has prepared you for the rigors of living and working in a foreign country.

Empty classroom with desks and a chalkboard in Cameroon
Every school and every classroom will be different, you might not have access to the same resources teaching abroad.

Luckily, you’re not the first person to seek adventure while working internationally, or to have the same hesitations and questions about your suitability for teaching abroad. There are literally thousands of programs and companies out there designed to guide your experience and take some of the guesswork out of this big decision. Are you curious to learn more about China or to integrate into Ecuador’s culture? Teaching English abroad will not only satisfy your need to have meaningful employment, it will also expand your worldview, and that of your students.

Once you’ve decided to teach abroad, read every review and alumni interview available, and narrowed down your choices to a program that works for you, you will still have some challenges ahead. Fortunately, knowledge is power and the more you know, the more you can grow! We’ve pulled together some of the main challenges ESL teachers face in the classroom so that the only thing you’ll need to worry about is what to bring for lunch!

1. Lack of Resources

So, there you are in your classroom in South Korea (or maybe you’re in South Africa) looking out at a sea of eager students. You want to really wow them with your lesson plans and pedagogical prowess but there’s just one little thing holding you back: a lack of resources. If you’ve taught before, this challenge will come as no surprise and you know that you’re only as good a teacher as you are at adapting to your surroundings. So use those recyclable materials rather than store-bought craft supplies or rely on chalkboard drawings rather than fancy computer programs to implement your lessons.

Close up of an old alarm clock
You’ll be in a race against the clock every day.

One way to mitigate this challenge is to spend time before you head out really researching the program or company you’re teaching abroad through. Reach out to past and current teachers to better understand what kind of support (both emotional and in terms of classroom resources) you can expect them to provide. Surprises are great when it comes to birthday parties and bonuses, but not so much when it’s your teaching abroad experience. Avoid the unexpected by asking questions before you head out!

2. Limited Class Time

You can see it now. Your students are engaged in interactive dialogues and making breakthroughs in their pronunciation and comprehension. The shy student who refused to participate in group work is now animatedly leading a discussion on your lesson’s topic of the day. And then the bell (literal or figurative) rings out. Class is over and your students are either on to their next lesson or heading home for the day. As a teacher, you will find that you’re constantly working against the clock.

Language acquisition does not happen overnight and every minute of your class time will be precious as you open up your students’ minds to not only the English language, but also a broader, global perspective.

In order to avoid anxiety at the end of your classes because you’re out of time, carefully prepare your lessons beforehand to fit within the allotted schedule. If you know you won’t be able to fit everything in, design engaging homework assignments that your students won’t be able to resist so the learning continues when they leave the classroom. The challenge of time presents another opportunity to lean on your ESL peers. Ask around for techniques they use to fit everything in, so you can, too!

Classroom full of children sitting at their desks working
A different culture means different teaching pedagogies.

3. Difference in Pedagogy

You may think that since you’re teaching English, your teaching methods will be precluded from the model of the system you find yourself in. After all, you’re teaching these students a language for them to use in a global context, not a history lesson that is specific to their culture or environment. If you find yourself nodding at the statement above, we want to forewarn you - your pedagogy will likely be subject to the same scrutiny as those of your fellow, local teachers.

Not to scare you, but since navigating your native educational system can be challenging enough, imagine for a moment what it will be like as a foreigner advocating for your teaching methods in a language you’re only beginning to understand yourself (here are some tips for learning a language abroad while you’re teaching one!). However, you are not alone. List out the reasons you need to teach in the style you are (maybe this means more group work or interactive lessons) and the benefits they provide. If you are presented with resistance, reach out to the program coordinators who placed you to get their help in communicating the pros of your style. Remember: the one quality all ESL teachers have in common is patience!

Two young girls focusing intently on their lesson
Your students won’t be fluent overnight (Hello, learning a new language is tough!).

4. Lack of Guidance and Support

Hello? It’s me. Well, actually it’s you when you find yourself wondering what the heck you’re supposed to be doing in your classroom to get your [insert your challenging student issue here] resolved. Unfortunately, Adele (likely) won’t be there to back you up. A lack of guidance and support, from whatever source you can imagine (your principal, your program, your family, and friends), can not only hurt your feelings, it can also seriously hurt your productivity and efficacy as an ESL teacher in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East.

Before you throw in the proverbial towel, take a moment to reflect on what kind of guidance and support you need to be a successful ESL teacher. List out what you need to do your job better and who could help you achieve those goals. Do you wish you had more feedback from your principal or head of your division? Don’t only ask them to provide it, give them a concrete reason why it will make you a better teacher. Are you frustrated that your friends and family seem to have forgotten about you and are reaching out less and less with emails and Facebook messages? Make it a habit to be consistent with your own communication so they know contact with you is important and integral to your success abroad. Once you develop concrete ways to address this challenge, you can focus on a better word ending in -ack - a snack!

A tutor working one-on-one with a student
Teaching is a lot of hard work.

ESL teachers face numerous challenges in the classroom and teaching abroad is just plain hard. You may have a hard enough time avoiding these professional mistakes ESL teachers make without knowing it, so you can’t even begin to focus on the difficulties in front of you in your classroom. While some challenges you will face may be out of your hands, like the amount of money you have to spend on classroom materials or the amount of time allocated to your lessons, there are a number of ways you can mitigate them with a proactive mindset.

Remember that it’s hard to experience growth without challenge or conflict. Look at the challenges you’re facing in your ESL classroom as opportunities to grow as both an educator and a person. When you look back at your experience teaching English abroad, the harder aspects of the job will fade but the satisfaction of impacting your students’ lives will stay with you! Consider this challenge: accepted.