The 3 Niches of ESL Teachers


So you're a TEFL teacher huh? Awesome. You've got one of the best jobs on the planet if you ask me.


You might work in an LTC (Language Training Center),  have a good handful of relatively small classes and the materials and resources are probably quite snazzy.  

Your Teacher's Room is more than likely filled with flashcards, puppets, fly-swats, and stickers and there's always an energetic buzz around the center.

On the other hand, if you're in the public school system, class sizes are notably bigger, but your holidays are the bomb.  

You're mostly left to do your thing your way and you don't have to deal with the whole "sales-pitch-marketing-class" expectations of an LTC. 

It's true - the ESL industry has a lot of perks:  good salaries, decent bonuses, colorful cultures and exotic locations.  It's adventurous, attractive, dynamic and diverse - and as challenging as you want it to be. 

In my time working in the ESL industry, I've seen people come and go.  It is, for the most part, an industry of transient folks.  Travelers and adventurers - stopping here for a while before heading off to their next exciting destination.  Some for a year, others for more.

It's one of the things I love about this industry - the diversity of people you get to meet and the constant stream of new faces and accents appearing every other month or so.

The life of an ESL teacher is a lot of things - but it definitely isn't boring.  One exciting, adventure-filled year turns into two...or three...or if you're anything like me...eight.

Thing is, not everyone starts out there in the ESL industry intending to turn it into a career. 

The way I see it - there are 3 main niches of teachers (say that 10 times fast) that populate the ESL industry.

Niche 1:  The "Gap-Yah" Teacher

These guys are my favorite.  Really, I mean that.  

They're energetic, adventurous, game for anything and best suited to LTC's.  They're the ones embracing the local culture, trying all the weird snacks, and generally very charming and good for business.   

Yeah, ok, so sometimes being "On a gap yah" means they don't take work too seriously – but then again, they probably clicked a link that says "WORK & TRAVEL IN {insert dream destination of your choice here}" so that's what they're doing.  Can't really hold that against them.  

These are the guys and girls who are here to build life-experience before moving onto "what they are actually going to do."  

Some of the best people I've met fall into this category.  I'll be the first to admit that the other 2 categories will often feed off the life-force of these energetic young teachers.   They bring fresh ideas, a new perspective and a contagious enthusiasm for the work - they really carpe every diem.

Sure, you might not stay in touch with 99% of them, but there's always that 1 who still haunts your FB posts with a LIKE every now and then.   


Niche 2: The Career Teacher - aka The Lifer

Ah yes, The Lifer:  lived everywhere, done everything, seen it all, taught it all, every ESL topic under the sun.  

Many of The Lifer's make the transition to a position that has some kind of nifty, official, resume building title like, "Director of Studies" or "English Department Coordinator" - but there are still many who legitimately are the professional, career ESL teachers.

They're usually a bit older than the average whippersnapper in the teacher's room (seriously, at the ripe old age of 36 I've been the oldest person in the room a few times and I’m not ready for that kind of responsibility). 

These are the people who are settled and adjusted to the expat lifestyle.   There's nothing they haven't dealt with.

Uber experienced, they approach the industry with an effortless professionalism and never get flustered about anything.  

Ask them for an activity for your next class and in 3 sentences they will blow your mind away with a suggestion so damn simple, so damn obvious, and so damn effective, that you wish you hadn't even bothered getting a TEFL certificate. Because really, that's all you're going to ever need from now on.

Something about them oozes calm and control in the classroom; their students openly respond to their teaching methods and work without any interruptions or disruptions (I swear these teachers develop some kind of hypnotic skill that just makes kids chill AF).  

Not only can they deliver complex activity instructions with 2 gestures and a 3 word sentence but they make teaching something like Past Perfect Progressive look as easy as....let's face it, there's nothing easy about teaching that grammar point - unless you're a "Lifer".

Don't mistake their sometimes cynical attitude for anything other than years of experience talking.  Ask them to mentor you and watch their teacher-reflexes kick in.   

You will be taken under their expat-wing, nurtured, guided and, if you're lucky, given special access their secret vault of grammar-worksheets (seriously, these guys have a worksheet for everything – grammar rules you’ve never even heard of).  

Take it from me - if you're new to the ESL industry, you want to make friends with these people as soon as possible.  They'll be the ones who save you with resources and ready-to-go lesson plan packs when you're asked to cover a class unexpectedly.

Niche 3:  The Accidental Teacher – aka "Oops, I'm a teacher"

Welcome to my world, friend.  

Please, grab a cushion, find a place in the circle and let's tell it like it really is.  This is my domain, and after 8 years, it's become quite familiar.

This niche of teachers are something like The Lifer, peppered with nuances of Gap Yah-esque behavior.  And there are more of us than you think.

Whether you climbed the career ladder like The Lifer or honed your mass-hypnosis skills in the classroom (I'm on to you guys)  - you've never quite been able to think of yourself as a "real teacher", despite the half-a-decade you've spent in the classroom.    

No matter which of those you might identify with, we all have 1 thing in common:  we accidentally became career ESL teachers.

There is something bittersweet about being an accidental career teacher.  

We are the ones who feel slight pangs of guilt knowing how much experience we have gained and worrying that we've spent too many years doing something we never really intended on doing.   

If you had asked me 11 years ago if I would be working with kids as young as 2 or 3 years old, I would've laughed at you with such dismissal it would be almost rude.  Yet, almost a decade later, I would choose to teach small people over big people any day.   

I never intended to become a teacher.  I was going to be writer and performer and open a Cabaret type arty restaurant (hey, it still might happen) – but here I am, scouring Pinterest with search criteria like "Elephant Mask Paper-plate Craft Kindergarten".  

The thing is, we secretly do love what we do and there's a reason we haven't quite been able to give it up.  

We have the comfort of approaching our work with ease, drawing on our experience and our secret vault of activities and resources - yet fail to admit to ourselves, that we are, and have been, educators for many years now.

I believe the word for it is:  denial.

I've often thought of it as something similar to denying "your calling". 

Is it possible that we just don't want to admit to ourselves that we were destined to be teachers, that we were "born to make a difference"? 

(To paraphrase the inspirational TED Talk by Rita Pierson - Every Child Needs a Champion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFnMTHhKdkw)

There are those "Accidental Teachers" who do make it out – transitioning into other positions - yet somehow we remain intrinsically linked to the ESL industry – Product Development, recruitment, sales, TEFL trainers and so on.

Whatever the case may be, one thing is for sure: we remain happily, but still quite accidentally, in the ESL industry.


Xander is the very tattooed owner of tattooedteflteacher.com

In between sips of Starbucks he is an ed manager, ESL teacher  & trainer, and a freelance writer & voiceover artist.    


If you are interested in contributing articles or blogs to TattooedTeflTeacher please get in touch via the contact page on the website.  

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