Working in ESL without teaching?
August 13, 2017 12:14 PM   Subscribe

I'm a former ESL instructor who had to give up a career in college-level teaching. I still want to work in the ESL field somehow, or have a hand in materials development or something else that helps students learn, without actually teaching. How can I go about doing this?

I have an M.A. in TESL and taught college students for three years. It was supposed to be a long-term career, but I ended up not being able to hack it because of social anxiety and a lack of confidence that led to panic attacks. Now, about a year after leaving the ESL field to do something unrelated, I’m realizing that I still really care about helping students learn English and am very sad that I can’t do it anymore. I’m wondering if there’s a way I can work in ESL without teaching.

I’ve read in a couple of threads like this, and elsewhere on the internet, that people who have left ESL teaching but still wanted to work in the field have gotten into textbook writing, editing, or other ESL-adjacent paths. Those sound like exciting possibilities. But there's not much guidance on how people chart their path to get into those professions. I also can’t find much information on how to transition from teaching to other ESL-related professions when you've worked in something different in between.

Background about me: I’m a solitary-work kind of person who likes to take on big projects and work away at them from conception to completion while maintaining autonomy (if I could get paid to write books for ESL readers, that might be my dream job). I enjoyed grad school because I liked being in charge of my own projects. I currently work in a publishing/editing-related position with no connection to ESL, and I tend to dislike it because I just chip away at small projects as assigned, with no sense of ownership. I enjoy writing and being creative in my work.

Can anyone with knowledge or experience in this area recommend any kind of “road map” or give examples of how to re-enter the ESL world after leaving the classroom? I could really use specifics on not only what to do, but how to start doing it. Thanks so much for any ideas.
posted by honey wheat to Work & Money (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The world is full of business people who need to use their non-native English in Skype meetings with all sorts of other speakers, native and non-native.

Could you deal with remote teaching long enough to research and develop a textbook? Where you would be in control and you would be just a voice on the line or a small talking head?

Write a curriculum of pretend meetings you could hold with groups of various sizes and abilities. Develop a series of likely subjects to practice and come up with vocabulary and grammar suitable for different levels. Have a short canned email message to send out for students to prepare for the upcoming lesson. Work out the bugs with real students over Skype, polish the text, and then shop the book around to major text publishers.

Focus on the bullshit that fills in around the business as much as on the business talk itself. How to talk about the weather, about what you did last weekend, what you did on your vacation, about the big game coming up, about holidays, etc. "Morning... Morning... Hi, Jill. Morning... Anyone else on the line? Morning... Hi, Scott..."

For one-on-one lessons, you could repeat variations on certain lessons over and over as needed. Beginners might need basic listening practice and simple pronunciation. Advanced students might want to learn how to chat about certain subjects like Thanksgiving or the World Series.
posted by pracowity at 1:10 PM on August 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

How do you feel about one-on-one tutoring? My institution hires professional ESL tutors to work with some of our students. The tutors tend to keep evening hours, and have an assigned office, but otherwise seem to have very little to do with any faculty/staff matters. As far as I can tell they just roll in, meet with their appointments, and then leave again. Look around at local institutions and see if that's something they offer/might like to offer?
posted by TwoStride at 1:25 PM on August 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

saying this as a welsh learner: boy is there a shortage of actually fun to read books with realistic learner's vocab. It doesn't have to be a great novel, just a fun midlength story...

english is a bit crowded compared with other language fields, do you know enough of another language to write books specifically for speakers of that language?

what foreigners often struggle with is stuff like expressing feelings or accent, is there room in this area for one-to-one work or new books or a youtube channel? sorry, random ideas...

material for ESL teachers? Some find it very hard work to come up with lessons and classroom activities, is there anybody who would pay you for this? The guardian international used to have a weekly columnist doing this job
posted by maiamaia at 2:03 PM on August 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you'd be interested in writing graded readers. Here's a thorough description [pdf] of what's required to write one, by an author who creates graded readers for McMillan Publishers.

The big four publishers are Oxford University Press (Bookworms series), MacMillan (Readers), Longman/Pearson/Penguin (Readers), and Cambridge University Press (English Readers).
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:47 PM on August 13, 2017

Would you be interested in working with other ESL teachers as the "back office" partner? I'm thinking you could find/choose assessments, evaluate assessments, set curricula, basically program the class. Another more extroverted ESL teacher could not only deliver the customized program, but would be in charge of finding/negotiating jobs, finding students, etc.

I think there are a lot of "performer" type teachers out there who would love to partner with someone to help do the more intense pedagogical stuff, who could really use someone to bounce ideas off of and to find and tune classroom materials. Don't settle for someone with no or bad training, either - you could be a great partner.
posted by amtho at 3:28 PM on August 13, 2017

I'm an ESL teacher who has worked in the field of in capacities other than teaching. I'm actually kind of doing your career path in reverse- shortly after getting my MA in TESOL, I got a job with Pearson developing online educational content for ESL learners. I'm currently trying get back into teaching, and also working part time in publishing .
You might want to take a look at the career development section of the TESOL International Association's website ( Most of the jobs they post are for teaching, but sometimes they post ESL publishing jobs as well.

Also, search the usual suspects: Indeed, Monster, Simply Hired, etc. often post publishing jobs. I actually found both of my jobs in ESL publishing through Craigslist : ).
"Publishing" is a broad term that encompasses a few different job titles. Here are a few:

Content Developer/Content Writer or just Writer: Someone who writes educational content that will later be edited and published.

Developmental Editor (DE): The person who edits the writer's content (this is not a copywriter. A DE's main responsibility is to make sure all content is pedagogically sound and appropriate for the language level of the consumer.)

Pedagogical Consultant (Consultant): This is a broad, catch-all term that could mean anything from writing new content, editing content, or determining the level of already created content)

Also, Edtech (educational technology) is a growing space right now. I would recommend looking for Edtech conferences in your area. Companies like Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, and other online learning companies are often looking for pedagogical experts.

If you would like more information or to hear about my experience working in the non-teaching ESL world, feel free to private message me.
posted by firemonkey at 9:54 PM on August 13, 2017

Check out reading and coursework in the field of instructional design - that field is very much what you're looking for in terms of being on the back-end of bringing your expertise to designing instructional materials.
posted by augustimagination at 11:20 PM on August 13, 2017

If you're in the SF Bay Area, drop me a MeMail.
posted by tapir-whorf at 1:56 AM on August 14, 2017

Check your memail.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 3:50 AM on August 14, 2017

Yes, getting into materials development and editing would be a good direction to go. Like so many things, it is hard to get in without experience, and you can't get experience unless you get in. Break that chicken and egg with a self-published graded reader. It is really easy to do these days. There are some good micropublishers, will memail you one.

Not sure of your location, but make sure you keep in contact with an ESL teaching organization such as a local TESOL or IATEFL affiliate. That is your network and where you will find people who have already done what you want to do.
posted by Gotanda at 8:48 AM on August 14, 2017

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