Stand Out and Stay Ahead in the TESL Market

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Even during prosperous times ESL professionals in Canada encounter precarious employment: contract work, limited hours, and no/minimal benefits (Breshears, 2019). TESL graduates often struggle as they enter the field with limited knowledge of how to navigate the diverse segments of Canada’s TESL market (Wu, 2019).

The COVID-19 pandemic has made finding work even more challenging. Earlier this year, it was reported that Canadian language schools are expecting 2021 student enrolments to be 31% of 2019 levels (Nott, 2021). Numbers are expected to improve in 2022, but enrolments will likely only be at 55% of Pre-COVID figures (Nott, 2021).

Projections suggest that there will be more competition for fewer teaching jobs.

The question many TESL professionals are likely asking is “How can I stand out and stay ahead?”

This post seeks to address that question.

What skills are employers seeking?

As I prepared for my TESL Ontario webinar “How to Jumpstart a Successful ESL Teaching Career”, I contacted people in hiring roles and asked them two questions: What skills are you looking for in potential ESL/EAP instructors? Why are these skills important?

I received responses from four individuals and allocated their responses into two categories: hard skills and soft skills. Four is a small number of responses; nevertheless, the answers seem to hold weight across all TESL segments (Wu, 2019).

Hard Skills

The hard skill most noted was the ability to teach across all levels of the language learning spectrum, including multi-level classes. Being able to teach lower-level learners is desirable for an EAP candidate, as instructors often prefer to teach advanced learners requiring less scaffolding.

Soft Skills

Many soft skills were noted, one category that emerged was communication. Included were: listening (knowing when not to speak), professionalism (building rapport with stakeholders), public speaking (clear expression), and tact (handling challenging situations with sensitivity). A second category that emerged was adaptability. Here there was an emphasis on being forward thinking (not change-averse) and creative (showing innovation in solving problems).

What skills will sustain career development for TESL professionals?

England (2020) writes that there are three skills that will allow TESL professionals to continue to evolve professionally:

  1. Technology

An understanding of best practices and troubleshooting are key. Many TESL professionals are taking courses or completing post-secondary programs in instructional design.

  1. Networking

Effective networking involves making authentic connections. This can be achieved by connecting regularly, finding commonalities, and being useful to contacts (Grant, 2019). When asking for a contact’s assistance, it is vital to make that person feel important by saying how their expertise can help you and others (Grant, 2019).

  1. Self-advocacy

Self-advocacy is pivotal in career advancement. It is necessary to advance strong ideas through being an expert on a proposed topic, and entering negotiations with an employer with the mindset that you are equal and conveying that equality through your language choices (Rezvani, 2019). Further, great self-advocates anticipate resistance and come prepared with back-up options and ask follow-up questions to get to the root of a “no” (Rezvani, 2019).

Final Thoughts

In my career, I’ve found that engagement in active professional development like presenting at conferences has helped me stand out from other applicants. In studying individuals who graduated from a Canadian TESL program between 2005 and 2017, Wu (2019) found that less than one quarter were engaged in active PD tasks despite recognizing the career benefits.

There is no magic formula for success in the TESL field and the road to sustainable employment will likely be non-linear. Honing and highlighting the right skills can improve your chances of landing the job(s) you want.


Breshears, S. (2019). The precarious work of English language teaching in Canada. TESL Canada Journal, 36(2), 26-47.

England, L. (2020). TESOL career path development: Creating professional success. London: Taylor & Francis Group.

Grant, A. (Host). (2019, March 19). Networking for people who hate networking [Audio podcast episode]. In Work life with Adam Grant. TED.

Nott, W. (2021, May 21). Canada: Language programs “well positioned” for growth. The PIE News. 

Rezvani, S. (2019, October 6). Being your own fierce self-advocate [online course]. LinkedIn Learning.        

Wu, Z. V. (2019). Factors contributing to TESOL employment: A graduate perspective. BC TEAL, 4(1), 13-32. 

Heather Donnelly has been a faculty member at Fanshawe College since 2015 and holds appointments with the School of Language and Liberal Studies and the English Language Institute. She has also taught EAP/ESL courses for a number of colleges and universities in Ontario.  She is very interested in the professional identity development of novice ESL
instructors, and this topic was the focus of her 2015 MEd thesis “Becoming an ESL Teacher: An Autoethnography.”

Heather Donnelly has worked for multiple EAP programs since becoming an instructor in 2010. She currently works as the Supplemental Instruction Coordinator at Lambton College and as a PT faculty member at Fanshawe College.


7 thoughts on “Stand Out and Stay Ahead in the TESL Market”

  1. Great article and very relevant. I have heard of several colleagues developing skills in areas of instructional design and it seems like a natural path after teaching for a while and noticing things one would want to improve on.

    1. Hi Rhonda! Yes, instructional design is seen by many as a natural progression. If you are interested, LinkedIN Learning offers several great courses. You may have access to LL through your employer or local public library.

  2. Thank you for this. I am a retired high school French language teacher and am about to start a LINC practicum, so this was helpful. I am interested in learning more about Instructional Design. Any tips for where to look for non-degree courses that would be helpful in preparing for teaching in a LINC context?

    1. Hello Gail! LinkedIN Learning is a great place to look for ID courses. You might have free access through your local public library. Websites that offer MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) could also be a good place to look. For example, Tutela – as you may already know – is also a great place to find LINC related content.

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