4 Things I Learned Teaching ESL Abroad as a Non-Native English Speaker

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People seemed to keep telling me I had a knack for teaching. It started as a child when I helped the neighbors’ children with their homework. Then, as a teenager, my English teacher asked  struggling students to sit next to me. When I moved to England, I instinctively helped other non-native English speakers whenever they needed. And even in 2010, when I finally summoned the courage to walk in a room full of native speakers who were also training to teach english as a second language, the trainer asked me at the end of the class, “Have you taught before? You’re a natural!”

4 Things I Learned Teaching ESL Abroad as a Non-Native English Speaker

Of course not, I wasn’t good enough— at least, so I thought. I decided to keep my TEFL certificate in a drawer. I had learned how to teach ESL, but I was still a non-native English speaker. I was eager, but too afraid to give it a try. My I-can’t-do-this attitude haunted me for the next 18 months.

It was only in Mexico, after having accidentally bought a flight from Honduras for the wrong day, lost $400 in a house robbery, and cracked the headlight of a rented car while leaving a car park in Merida that I reconsidered. It felt like I had been playing a game of chess in quicksand, and it was time to try something new. Maybe it was time to face my fears and finally start teaching ESL abroad, and so I did. This is what my journey as an ESL teacher AND a non-native English speaker taught me:

1. Accents are not a problem.

I used to ask myself, “What if I had ‘an accent?’” I mean I certainly had one, but what if my future students could not understand me? In the end, the time I spent worrying about it was a waste of time. I could speak faster or slower depending on the students’ levels and they always understood me, even those who also had classes with American and British teachers. Actually, after a few months of teaching ESL abroad, a new native teacher came in from the Midlands in England, and she was the one who had to deal with what I used to fear. Having lived in the UK before, I didn’t have a problem understanding her, but the same could not be said for the students.

Classroom of young girls in Afghanistan
Your accent – contrary to what you might think – will not be as big of a barrier between you and your students.

2. Non-native English speakers know what it is like to learn English.

The other question I used to ask myself was, “What if didn’t know the answers to my students’ questions?” It was obvious I didn’t know the answer to all of them, but neither did the other ESL teachers, not even those who had high academic degrees and previous teaching experience. 

Just as every student is unique and has a different perspective on life, so are their doubts. No one knows the answer to all possible questions. Naturally, sometimes natives struggle in explaining something they’ve always just, I don’t know, known. They do not know what it is like to have to learn their own language – an awkward truth I also had to face when I was asked to teach my mother tongue. But, as a non-native English speaker, I had to figure English out too. All those things that didn’t make sense to the students, at some point, were confusing to me too.

chalkboard with words todays lesson: spelling written on it
As a non-native English speaker, you have the advantage of knowing how to learn English.

3. Travelers are great teachers. 

One warm, humid day, the school supervisor and I headed into a hotel to teach English to a few groups of students who were very frustrated with their teacher, and consequently very unhappy with the school. We prepared four classes together to prevent disaster and decided I would teach first. As I started, the students pointed out they had already learned that. It turned out the notes left on the folders for those classes were all wrong. Suddenly, a light went off for a moment, the supervisor’s face looked panicked. I stood up for a moment looking at the right page, I thought of one activity. The light came back on. I presented the new terms and while the students were working on that activity, I quickly worked the next one out.

When the class was over I turned to my supervisor and I said, “It’s your turn.”

“No. You do it,” he said.

“But I haven’t planned,” I replied in panic.

“Are you going to tell me you planned that class?” We laughed.

Maybe my Portuguese heritage had something to do with this, maybe it was the inherent quick creativity of being a non-native English speaker, but I attributed the cause of this achievement to being a traveler.

teacher leading a fun interactive exercise with his students
Travelers make the best teachers, we’re quick on our feet and know how to roll with the punches.
No one in the world is accustomed to improvising like a traveler. We naturally go with the flow and find ways of moving forward, though sometimes slowly, even when things draw us back.

4. Teaching English as a second language is a personality thing.

I know now that many non-native English speakers are put off from their dream because it seems to us that English natives are blessed with the opportunity of quickly and easily teaching English in a foreign country. Nonetheless, good ESL teachers come in all shapes and sizes, and that’s not defined by certification or nationality. A good English teacher cares about their students and has a genuine interest in helping others. Teaching ESL abroad is not about dumping information, it is about helping students think in a new language. It’s about being compassionate when a student struggles. And, in the case of a non-native teacher, it’s to remind them that’s it’s okay. If we can do it, they can do it too. 

students in Laos working on an activity together
Teaching English abroad is all about being able to connect with students and keep them engaged.

So, the cliff notes are: a native english speaker does not an English teacher make. There will always be advantages and disadvantages as a non-native English speaking teacher teaching ESL abroad, but that shouldn’t prevent anyone from realizing their dreams, getting that TEFL or TESOL certification, and starting a meaningful career abroad as an ESL teacher. Take it from this non-native English speaker— it can be done.