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What it Takes to Be an ESL Teacher in Public Schools

English is the world’s most spoken language across borders, and it also ranks as the most common language in the U.S. — although not technically the country’s official language. In public schools, English language learning (ELL) programs have become increasingly common, as young students from non-English-speaking cultures join the ranks of the U.S. public education system. As these students are learning both the language and adjusting to public school settings, ELL teachers play a major role in helping them on all fronts.

ELL teachers take on a variety of important functions in their schools beyond their classroom instruction, and they must also tailor their lesson plans to suit the unique needs of students who are learning a new language. Even among fellow educators, ELL teachers often advocate for ELL students and help co-teachers learn to better accommodate their ELL students.

Graduate programs like the online Master of Science in Education in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) program from the University of Southern Maine (USM) offer graduates the kind of skills and knowledge that are necessary to become effective ELL educators. From understanding language as a system to developing effective, inclusive curriculums and more, graduates will be prepared to better serve their ELL students and the entire school community.

For educators in the state of Maine, USM’s Master of Science in Education in TESOL is the only online teaching degree of its kind in the state. Additionally, graduates of the program have demonstrated a 100% pass rate on the Maine Praxis ESOL Exam.

Along with a deep knowledge base and practiced skill set, ELL educators should possess certain qualities in order to foster a successful classroom environment. The following are some qualities that USM’s master’s program will instill in its graduates that will prepare them for roles in the TESOL field:


Patience is one of the most essential attributes for an ELL teacher. Learning another language is an extremely difficult process — particularly for adult learners — meaning teachers should be prepared to offer extra assistance and avoid becoming frustrated.


ELL teachers will often find themselves teaching to a diverse group of students, and sometimes even in a variety of different cities or schools, given the demands of being an ELL educator. In order to be effective classroom instructors, teachers need to adjust their teaching methods to best suit the needs of their students. According to a list of qualities for exceptional ELL teachers, the online education publication Chron notes the best ELL teachers can effectively utilize various teaching methods and integrate concepts that are relatable to students into their lesson plans.


One of the best ways ELL educators can deepen their cultural understanding and sharpen their teaching tools is by becoming continuous learners. Chron suggests that ELL educators should “incorporate what their students already know into their lessons, and an exceptional teacher has a variety of teaching methods for doing this at her fingertips.” Additionally, they should take time to learn about their students’ cultural backgrounds to better understand and connect with them.


Chron notes that building a rapport with ELL students is one of the keys to their development. As mentioned, educators should take time to learn about the cultures and lived experiences of their students in order to deepen their connection. Teachers should also show an interest in the students as people. Building empathetic, strong interpersonal relationships creates a foundation for effective learning in the classroom.


This might seem obvious, but ELL teachers must also be skilled communicators. This includes pronunciation and enunciation, as learners who speak different languages won’t “hear” English words like native speakers do. Words need to be spoken clearly. Educators also need to be concise, efficient communicators who can express ideas in many different ways to ensure that lessons resonate with all demographics of ELL students.

An advanced education degree in teaching English to non-English speakers can equip professionals with the necessary aptitudes to help learners master language skills.

Learn more about the University of Southern Maine’s online Master of Science in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages program.

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