I’m an English teacher.
I’ve taught English in North America, South America, and Europe. I’ve taught in school classrooms, in summer camps, for English schools, and one-on-one with private clients. I’ve taught kids, teens, adults, and business English to professionals.
So I’ve seen a lot of different people trying to learn English.
I’ve also worked with a lot of English teachers.
You probably know that not every English teacher is the same, but I want to share another little secret with you: not all English teachers are very good.
Some English teachers are really well-educated, bright, thoughtful people, fully engaged in their classes and students. But some are just new graduates with no teaching experience trying to make a living as they party around Europe or Asia.
Some English teachers are experts and have perfected their methods over years of teaching experience. Others have simply found that online English teaching can be a quick way to make some money while they’re stuck at home because of COVID.
It can be hard to know who is a real, legitimate English teacher, and who is just someone who speaks English and thinks they can make some money teaching it.
In this article, I want to give you some of my own tips for choosing a good teacher. I hope these tips will guide you towards teachers that can actually help you reach your English goals and help you avoid choosing a dud teacher, or spending more money than you need to.
1. Decide whether an English teacher is actually for you
I’ve said this before, but it is worth repeating: Not everyone needs formal English lessons. There are lots of people that are successful in learning English completely on their own.
Sure, it takes a bit more effort to be an independent English learner, and it can be hard at first to design your own English immersion course. But once you develop your system for learning it can absolutely be as effective as hiring an English teacher.
So here are some questions to consider when deciding whether to hire an English teacher:
- Do I learn best with more structure?
- Is this the best use of my money? Or should I invest in other English learning resources?
- Am I going to make the best use of it?
- What am I actually trying to improve?
Teachers can be useful if you have specific questions, you learn better with more structure, you’re trying to work on a particular skill, study for an English test like the IELTS, or if you are having a really hard time sitting down and actually studying on your own.
Teachers aren’t as useful if you’re just looking for someone to talk to in English—instead, you can just find a conversation partner online.
They’re not great if you’re going to make it your only way of studying. English tutors can only get you so far…to really learn, you’ll have to practise on your own, too.
They’re not great if you’re at an intermediate and want to develop fluency. Fluency comes with using language. It’s much more efficient (and it’s cheaper!) to focus on listening exercises, speaking exercises, reading in English, and writing in it.
My advice: Be sure that taking English lessons will actually be worth the time and money investment for you.
Related: When and Why to take English lessons
2. Decide on 1:1 tutoring vs. group lessons
Another decision is to think about whether you want a one-on-one lesson or group lessons.
In one-on-one lessons, you get lots of speaking time and the class is focused on you. But they are more expensive.
In group lessons, you share the costs with everyone else. But you also share the talking time and the teacher’s support.
Which one is better for you depends to some extent on what you’re looking for and how you like to learn best. But the research does show pretty clearly that one-on-one tutoring is usually more effective than traditional classroom methods.
My advice: If you’re going to spend the money on an English teacher, go for one-on-one lessons.
3. Minimise costs by looking outside of your local English school
English lessons can be expensive, especially when you buy them through a school.
When I was teaching English in France several years ago, my private rate was about €25 an hour. But business clients would pay my English school about 3 times that for the same 1:1 lessons with me. It was the same quality of lesson and exactly the same teacher… just 3 times more expensive.
If money is no object for you, then choose any lesson you like.
But if you have to think a bit about your budget, some options are less expensive than others.
Generally speaking, private English lessons tend to be significantly cheaper than those you’d find at a local English school. You can find locals giving English lessons on your local classified sites: Craigslist, Le Bon Coin, Gumtree, OLX, or whatever most people in your country use. Often Facebook groups can be a great option here.
Online English teachers are also usually quite a bit cheaper than English schools. They’re usually easier to fit into your schedule, too.
Here are some of the more popular online English tutoring platforms:
Note that the quality on these sites can vary, so don’t be afraid to experiment until you find a teacher that works well for you. Book trial lessons with several teachers, and choose the one you like the best.
My advice: Look for private tutors because they usually cost less and are usually the same teachers that you’d find in an English school.
4. Don’t be misled by a large Instagram following
Teaching English online has turned into a battle of influencers. You’ll now find foreign language teachers all over YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram with massive followings.
While social media can be a useful place to go looking for qualified English teachers, don’t mistake a large following for being a skilled educator. There are a lot of factors that make someone successful on social media that are different from those that make them a successful English teacher.
The converse is true, too: just because someone has a small social media following doesn’t mean they’re a bad teacher. Indeed, some of the best teachers I have ever worked with have a tiny or zero social media presence.
My advice: Don’t mistake popularity on social media for teaching skill.
5. Most people don’t need a native-speaking teacher
In my experience, English learners tend to believe that native speakers make better English teachers.
I understand why that belief exists. If a person speaks English fluently, they must be experts on the English language—right?
It’s true that native speakers are experts at some things. They know a lot of slang and informal uses of English. And they can model their particular accent perfectly, including connected speech.
But there’s a lot more to English than slang and connected speech.
In my experience, native English speakers tend to be worse when it comes to understanding and explaining grammar. When you ask about why we say something like we do, you’re much more likely to hear native speakers respond, “It just sounds better.”
That doesn’t really help students.
Native English speaking ESL teachers can also be more rigid about what counts as “correct” English and grammar. English accents and dialects, including American, British, and Australian, all differ from one another. I’ve seen American teachers make corrections to students when the students were actually correct—they just spoke in a way the teacher wasn’t used to hearing.
My advice: Do not look only for native-English speakers as teachers. Non-native English teachers can be just as effective.
6. Try to find someone with qualifications
Instead of basing your decision about the quality of an English teacher on their social media following or their native language, look for the qualifications that they have.
Good English teachers will be trained in English and in teaching.
There are several qualifications that English teachers can obtain. Some are more thorough than others.
Some teachers actually have a Bachelor's degree in English or Education. These are the most well-qualified teachers.
The next best qualification is the CELTA, which is a certification awarded by Cambridge University.
Then there are other TEFL certificates. Unlike the CELTA, the TEFL isn’t a single accredited certificate. It’s more like an umbrella term that can refer to a number of different certificates awarded by a number of institutions. Still, having some sort of TEFL certificate is a good indicator that a teacher knows what they’re doing.
If a potential English teacher doesn’t have any qualification, you probably want to keep looking.
My advice: Look for an English teacher with an English teaching qualification.
7. The best English teacher is interesting
I truly believe that the secret to language learning is to find an interesting way to learn it.
That’s why I like the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast so much. It aims to teach English in an interesting way.
In my opinion, a good English teacher will do the same thing. They’ll try to bring engaging material to class. They’ll ask interesting questions. They’ll get you talking about things you have strong opinions on.
In my opinion, English teachers are at their best when they get you to use English without you realising it. They’re most effective when you are simply using English because it’s the easiest way to learn something new.
My advice: Choose a teacher that consistently keeps you engaged. If a teacher is interested in you as a person, and asks you interesting questions, then that is an excellent sign.
8. Avoid teachers that overemphasise grammar or pronunciation
And every once in a while, even a great English teacher will spend a large part of a class teaching a new grammar concept or drilling a particular piece of pronunciation.
For example, if your teacher notices that you have trouble pronouncing the “th” sound, it’s completely reasonable to spend the better part of a class practising it and giving your targeted activities to drill it.
But I’m sceptical of teachers that spend most of their class time in most classes explaining grammar concepts or giving fill-in-the-blank grammar activities. I’m also sceptical of those who spend the majority of their class time trying to change small aspects of pronunciation.
For me, a lesson that teaches a grammar point might look like this:
- We might start with a short reading, and then discuss it.
- Then we might look back over it to notice the particular piece of grammar we’re learning.
- Then I might explicitly explain it—but rarely for more than 5 minutes or so.
- Then we might do a few oral exercises and practice sentences.
- Then we might do a writing exercise using them.
What I wouldn’t do is spend 45 minutes explaining grammar. And if that’s what your teacher does, I’d suggest finding another one.
Grammar and pronunciation are important, but they’re not the only thing to learn. You need to actually use English in class. You need English input (listening and reading) and you need the opportunity to produce output (speaking and writing).
My advice: If your teacher focuses too heavily on grammar or pronunciation, find another one.
9. Choose a teacher that assigns homework
Homework gets a bad rap.
The word sometimes provokes anxiety on its own. It makes us think of maths assignments from school. But homework is actually just another opportunity for you to practise what you’re learning.
Good English teachers will guide you to practise on your own because practice is the only way you’ll get better.
Now, I’m not saying that the homework has to be grammar exercises (at this point, I’ve made it clear how I feel about those).
As a teacher, I often ask my students to read an article and come to class prepared to summarise it. Or, I’ll suggest that they write a response to the next episode in the Netflix series that they’re watching. Or, I’ll ask them to bring to class some new words that they learned from their favourite English podcast.
Homework shouldn’t be tedious. It should motivate you to use English on your own.
My advice: Choose an English teacher that gives homework that pushes you to actually use English.
10. Try several people out
Finally, know that you don’t have to stay with the first teacher you find.
It’s completely okay to ask for a trial class and let your potential English teacher know that you’re looking around. Don’t be afraid to do a bit of experimentation.
Think of it like dating. You wouldn’t marry the first person you met for a date unless it was a really great fit. Similarly, you don’t have to commit to the first teacher you find.
Hold out for the right teacher for you.
My advice: Try several teachers out until you find one who is a really great fit.
Whatever you do, don’t only learn English from a teacher
My biggest piece of advice about learning English from a teacher is this: don’t over-rely on them.
Learning a language is an active process, not a passive one. You can have the greatest teacher in the world but if you’re not putting in the effort, you’re not going to learn. That means you need to be doing English activities outside of class, not just in them.
I encourage my students to think of English lessons as a place to ask questions and work on specific skills. But the majority of practice happens outside of class.
How can you practise English on your own?
It’s not hard. Just expose yourself to English.
Listening to English podcasts is one of the most effective ways to learn English. Reading in English works too. Watching Netflix or YouTube can work as long as you’re not relying on subtitles in your own language.
In short, do anything that you enjoy and that gets you using English.
If you combine that with English lessons, you’ll really make progress.