Who else are you besides an “ESL teacher”?

When I was doing my CELTA, our trainers would teach sample lessons for us. Once, one of them got in front of a fresh group of 10 learners, went into character and did a sort of dancing, air-bongo thing while he drilled the rhythmic patterns of target language. He kept them completely focused and got them to perfectly echo him in sync.

I was totally intimidated. Was that teaching or performing? Was I supposed to do that, too? Could I please just stick with grammar? Ok… I actually didn’t want permission… I just hunkered down.

It took a few years before I started teaching pronunciation, and a few more months before I had the confidence to use sound-emphasizing arm movements like Giles did, but the important thing was that I saw how dynamic teaching needed to be, right from the very beginning.

No one of us should ever be “just” an ESL teacher. Especially if you’re teaching a boring topic (and let’s face it, every single topic about ESL has the power to become mind-numbing under the wrong conditions), I want to actively encourage you to see yourself as having different roles in the classroom.

How I See Myself

Sure, learners think of me as a TOEFL iBT tutor, but after they have a few “lessons” with me, they usually comment on how much I am energizing them and peeling off layers of stress and confusion that have suffocated them for months, if not years.

I call myself “a tutor” or “teacher” because it helps me be identified by the students who are searching for me on Google. The truth is, the way I see myself and my job is much more dynamic.

Role 1: ESL Fount of Knowledge

Students who want advanced scores on exams like TOEFL iBT and IELTS have the most random collections of grammar, vocabulary and accent issues. After all, they have spent years in group classes where they didn’t get the attention they needed.

My basic approach is refining and polishing each student’s existing database of English knowledge. Wherever their errors are, that’s what I zoom in on and untangle.

At this point, I’m ready for any topic. Passives. Defining relative clauses. Collocations of any flavor. Intonation. Rhythm and syllable stress. To really help my students, I have had to consciously develop my expertise in all these areas.

Role 2: Puzzle Solver

Each one of my learners has his or her own hidden challenges to be untangled. I don’t have one method. I have lots of methods and I offer them up for exploration and discovery. Together, we experiment to find the best solution for them.

I spend a lot of time listening to my students so I understand their situation. Then, once I have a sense of who they are, I let my intuition take over. There is an inherent element of risk-taking here (and when you teach for exam prep, you do need a pretty high tolerance for risk and ambiguity). I know that if one approach doesn’t work for a student, we can always try another one.

Role 3: Project Manager

The quantity of English that my students have to absorb and the number of new concepts that are there to master means that each learner is effectively engaged in a long-term project. There’s a lot to do. I know they are stressed out and I don’t expect them to track it all. I do that for them. Through the homework I give, I am effectively their project manager.

I’m kind of like Google Maps. One of the reasons we all love Google Maps and similar satellite navigation programs is because the app parses out information when you need it. The driver gets to let go of the stress of remembering every turn because they are being tracked. Likewise, my students get to drop their mental baggage and focus because I’m actively eliminating the need for them to worry about the next step.

Role 4: Spark Lighter

Of two learners, which one gets further after attending the same number of classes? The one who is forced to be there, or the one who burns to learn? Having “the spark” of motivation always matters.

It is even more essential when it comes to exam prep. Unsurprisingly, most learners find the obscure academic topics boring. So although it certainly is nice when students show up on my digital doorstep, warm, pre-lit and glowing with enthusiasm, the reality is that typically, the students who actually show up are angry, wet and disappointed. These students are so lost and stressed, they have no spark (and that is ultimately why they would fail, despite months of lessons). One of my current pet projects is transforming non-learners into ones who actually have the characteristics that make them successful.


I got so much joy from teaching ESL when I started in 2008. But in 2010, I discovered that I enjoyed teaching exam prep for TOEFL iBT even more. The reason that it still keeps me so interested is because of how dynamic I allow myself to be in my lessons. The exam provides a fixed structure that I have become very familiar with. Within that structure, there is a lot of room for fun.

I actively encourage the teachers who mentor with me to develop these different roles. Students glaze over if their teacher is just sprays them with grammar and vocabulary from the Fount of ESL Knowledge. Likewise, they can’t just have a Spark Lighter who fires them up but fails to channel their energy in the right direction. They also need the Project Manager who is solving their unique puzzle.

Ambitious learners accomplish eyebrow-raising things (like getting their dream job, or developing near native-speaker-like levels of fluency and accuracy that command respect). They can’t do it alone. But to get there, they need ambitious, dynamic teachers.

Do you identify with my roles?

In the wide world of ESL, there is plenty of room for you to express yourself the way that feels the most authentic. My list of roles is by no means the only list of roles. If, however, you are drawn to the four I identified, then…

On May 2, 2017, 10 new teachers are stepping under my mentoring umbrella (and some of the spots are already gone). It starts with the 16-week certification course, How to Teach Exams. It is a teachers-only, online training program that shows you how to teach TOEFL iBT or IELTS and that encourages you to step into and move between all of the roles I talked about above—so that you become a teacher who is massively valued.

For full details, schedule, payment options and start date, click the image below.