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What I Wish I Knew Before Earning TESOL Credentials

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Pursuing TESOL certification can be a valuable tool for ESL teachers, but it is not always the right choice. Before deciding to pursue this credential, you'll need to be sure that it properly aligns with your professional goals.

The TESOL Certification

Earning a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) credential is a valuable asset for teachers looking to enter the ESL field. It is a flexible certification that improves a teacher's chances of being hired. TESOL programs also cover a diverse array of topics, preparing graduates for any number of potential careers.

Despite its many benefits, the TESOL is not for everyone. If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would definitely choose the TESOL a second time, but I certainly would have gone about the decision-making process in a more organized and informed manner.

What Exactly is TESOL?

It may seem like a given, but the exact definition of TESOL is often muddled in a group of other similar acronyms. In addition to TESOL, you may have come across TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). These acronyms are often a source of confusion for new students.

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In reality, these three acronyms all refer to the same concept. As of yet, there is no one global standard when it comes to certifying ESL teachers. Unlike the CPA for accounting, aspiring international teachers do not have a single credential to obtain, and TESOL is an umbrella abbreviation that refers to the general concept of teaching English to non-native speakers.

Degree Vs. Certificate

So if there's no one way to prove your knowledge, how do you become an ESL teacher?

Aspiring TESOL students have two choices when it comes to higher education: degrees and certificates (I ended up pursuing an MA in TESOL).

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Most master's TESOL programs consist of about 30-40 credits. The specific content is dependent on your chosen specialization. Students can opt for the general curriculum, which covers a wider range of topics such as teaching methods, linguistics, and cross-cultural communication, or choose a specialization. The K-12 Certification specialization is an especially popular choice, as the requirements to teach in the K-12 public school system in the United States are strict. You will need a state teacher certification and an ELL Endorsement to be allowed to teach ELL.

Depending on your program, you may also need to fulfill other requirements. Some programs, especially those with a specialization, come with an internship or observation period intended to provide candidates with real-world experience.

Certificate programs are generally shorter and contain about 12-15 credits. These programs tend to focus on core subjects including classroom planning and teaching form.

In the end, choosing the MA program worked out for me, but I certainly would have benefited from starting with a certificate program and working my way up to a degree. Certificate programs commonly serve as a stepping stone, as they don't require such a major commitment and credits can easily transfer.

If you're not entirely sure that TESOL certification is right for you, you may want to consider a less intensive certificate program to test the waters. Some institutions with high standards require a master's degree, though, so if you know where you want to work, make sure your resume is sufficient.

Looking out for Fake Programs

In the void created by the lack of an official certification, a number of for-profit companies have sprung up looking to take advantage of innocent students.

In the same way that 'degree mills' lure in students with promises of easy bachelor's degrees, multiple companies now offer short-term non-credit certification programs. These programs have no academic affiliation, and while they can still provide a solid education, some schools may be less likely to consider them legitimate when you're applying for jobs.

In order to prove a prospective employee's training, employers will typically look for a certificate that contains a minimum of 100 hours of instruction. When choosing a program, be sure to research the institution to confirm that it is a valid program that provides sufficient training and doesn't seem to good to be true (low cost, exceedingly positive reviews, a bogus accreditation).

Learn the Language

I should qualify this section by stating that this piece of advice did not actually pertain to me, but a colleague and former classmate of mine. We entered our TESOL programs simultaneously, with the key difference being that I minored in French during my time as an undergraduate, and he only knew English.

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Though my grasp of French was far from the expert level, my fundamental understanding of grammar, sentence structure, and other key concepts was particularly useful in the classroom. Not all languages work the same way, and being exposed to a new way of thinking provided me with new perspectives on teaching.

If you are seeking TESOL certification but only speak English, you'll almost certainly benefit from learning another language. Not only will it introduce you to new perspectives, but the review of basic grammar rules will improve your English as well. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, learning a second language increases your linguistic awareness.

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Fortunately, picking the TESOL worked out for me, but other prospective teachers may not be so lucky. Picking a certification to pursue is a major decision, so be sure to take the time and assess your objectives and choices before you make a commitment.

By Bill Sands
February 2017
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