What’s your Business Background?

Use your Real-Life Skills to Teach English for Specific Purposes

After a long day at work, you might find your class full of sleepy and tired students. You’ll need to energize them.

Once you’ve been around the block a time or two teaching English as a Foreign Language, you’ll probably want to branch out into ESP.

No, I don’t mean you should hire yourself out as a psychic.  In our industry, ESP stands for “English for Specific (or Special) Purposes” and encompasses teaching English for business people, hospitality, airline staff and for other “specific purposes.”

The reason most seasoned EFL teachers lean toward business English or other ESP classes is that these teaching jobs usually pay more than conversation lessons and they’re often more enjoyable.

Past Jobs Might Help You Teach ESP

So, I can imagine you thinking right now, but what do I know about marketing or machinery or whatever else my students will want to talk about in ESL class?

Don’t panic.

All of us have some kind of employment history, and most English teachers have some experience outside the realm of TEFL. Even if you just reference that lonely summer you spent in school as a convenience store clerk, you have a background in business. Or, let’s say you moonlighted as a waiter or barmaid—that’s the hospitality industry.

Every field has a niche vocabulary: specific stresses, tactics for dealing with customers, and unique products.  If you had some work experience in retail, for example, you’d know more about the language of cash registers and refunds than might another English teacher. These things can give you a edge when you’re looking for work giving courses in ESP.

And, if your work history prior to teaching English is extensive, then perhaps you might even apply to a business school.  I have a background in business and as a result I taught, for example,  business courses to English teachers and at business colleges. My foot in the door was my skills as an ESL instructor; my edge was my business experience.

Business English is More Than Just Vocabulary

Now, teachers who don’t have any business experience and teachers who have been English teachers since their first day after university may believe that all you have to do to teach a business class is change up the vocabulary some and then—hey presto!—you have a business English class.

Sorry folks. It’s not as easy as changing the sentence, “I have a phone, a book and a pencil in my bag” to “I have a calculator, a report and a USB drive in my briefcase.” Vocabulary alone does not a business class make.

When you teach ESP, you usually focus on teaching functional things. A functional lesson is one that has a specific target and some clearly defined language. For example:

•             describing the products your students sell

•             asking and answering questions about those products

•             dealing with complaints about your students’ products

A ESP class wouldn’t have a lesson solely devoted to a grammar topic like the past perfect, or to an irrelevant topic like hobbies and families. (Unless, I guess, you’re teaching English to hobby shop owners or kindergarten teachers!)

Your ESP classes will be about the specific product, process, service and business related to your students’ aims and needs.

To teach business English, you need a focused idea. Businesses don’t waste money on English lessons.  They’re careful to hire English teachers who have a specific idea about the kind of language and functions their employees need.

There are many countries and even international companies where workers must pass different levels of English tests to be promoted. This makes for highly motivated students who have very clear ideas of what they need when they are sitting in your class. This student motivation is another way business English classes are different from general English courses. You may also find that your students come to class before or after work—or fit it in on their lunches—and are therefore tired. You may be sleepy too, if you have to teach 6 a.m. classes like I did for a while.

ESP pays better

If the thought of working weird hours seems like a deal-breaker to you, let me assure you that often  teachers often earn 50 to 100 percent more for ESP classes than for general English lessons. Now, doesn’t that sound worthwhile?

Another perk of teaching ESP, besides the pay, is that your students are likely to be better, more motivated learners. You’re almost always going to be teaching adults in this situation too, so if you prefer teaching mature students, then that’s another reason to look at ESP over general English.

Analyze the Students’ Needs

Now, before you teach any kind of ESP to students, it’s important to do a needs analysis.

Go to your client (usually this will be your students’ supervisor or an HR manager) and ask them to tell you very clearly what they want the students to be able to do in English when they finish the course. Examples of this kind of goal might be:

•             Describing products

•             Selling products

•             Helping customers with common complaints

•             Giving presentations about the products

When I was working in Taiwan, I once taught at a bank training telephone customer support staff. They had to help clients who would call the bank when they had trouble with their credit cards. As you can guess, the students had some very specific needs as to what vocabulary and language functions they needed to master for their job and keep their customers happy.

Another time, I taught at a pharmaceutical company where my students needed English skills to help them communicate with their bosses in a different country. The company language was English, so my students needed to polish their email writing and reading skills, master understanding and compiling reports in English, as well as general communication skills.  So, you can see how important it is to get a strong sense of exactly what a business—and, therefore, each student—wants and needs before you step into the classroom.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Do a needs analysis before you start teaching any ESP classes. Your client and your students will thank you later.  Ask for specific details about the language they students use on the job every day and where they seem to be having difficulty or in what areas they wish to improve.   If possible as more than one person.  The person hiring you might even have a different idea about what the students need – than the students.  Then you need to balance both, not always an easy task.

TED’s Tips™ #2: You can pick up an excellent needs analysis form for Business English over at TEFL Boot Camp HERE.

TED’s Tips™ #3: Even if you don’t have a formal background in business, you still might be an effective business English teacher. Look at your prior job history and figure out what niche markets you might be able to successfully teach.  This niches can often be much more fun and interesting than general English.

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When Changing your Career to TEFL: Think ESP

People who have lost their jobs often wonder if a change to TEFL might solve their problems and offer some optimism and opportunity to what is a difficult time.

They ask if teaching English abroad might help meet some lifelong goals of seeing and experiencing the greater world (goals that were seeming quite impossible recently)?

It might well do that.  The demand for EFL teachers has never been greater.

Steps in Transitioning to Working Abroad

1. Get some training

There is increasing competition out there, but still not nearly enough teachers.  Getting a bit of training says you care enough to at least begin to learn the skills for the job you are seeking.

Many people are seeking teaching jobs and the only thing they have to offer is being a “native speaker”.  If you have more than that to offer, you are already in front of 25-30% of your competition.

2.  Don’t forget the value of the skills you already have

This is where English for Specific (or Special) Purposes – or ESP – comes in.   If you have as little as 3-4 years in the workforce,  you probably already have some special skills that will be sought somewhere.  You just have to find out where!

Around the world there are vocation high schools, two-year community and vocational colleges, academic colleges and universities and even specialized private vocational schools that teach the skills of almost every occupation in the world.

In most occupations abroad, at one time or another, workers will need a few English skills.  If that occupational area is where you have been employed, that employer of teachers would usually prefer to hire you before they hire me.

What this means is don’t head across the world after twenty years in finance and take the first kindergarten teacher job you can find.   Ten years as a lawyer (you’d be surprised how many lawyers are teaching English!) should land you nice job a college somewhere, teaching Business English, Contract English and possibly even International Commerce – in English.

A few years as a public school teacher can help you land either the same type of position at an international school abroad (very competitive market) or teaching English to future teachers at colleges and universities.  Three years at Walmart?  Walmart probably offers English classes to their managers in Korea and China.   And the list goes on.

A few more examples?  A friend once taught Airline English to Korean ladies at an airline stewardess training school.  My previous work experience has had me teaching accounting and management (in English) at an international hotel management school in Thailand, Business English to business teachers in Saudi Arabia, Email English to employees at Roche Pharmaceuticals in Taiwan, Business English to international executives in Korea, Telephone English to staff at a MasterCard call center and even more stuff I wouldn’t want to bore you with.  But none if it was boring to me!  🙂

But . . . can you see that I never taught kindergarten?  I started in TEFL at about age 40 – twenty years ago.

3. Get your Foot in the Door

Okay, you are right – sometimes you just have to get your first job and get your foot in the door.  Do whatever is needed to land that first job. (TEFL training will help!).   Always keep your eyes open for opportunities to teach ESP in areas in which you have skills that other teachers probably don’t.  It is the best way to compete, to increase your income and job satisfaction and a great way to meet people with similar interests.

TED’s Tips™ #1:   Try to not start your TEFL journey on the bottom rung of the career ladder.  If you must do that, keep your eyes open for opportunity to jump a few rungs ahead of everyone else.  Those opportunities are there.  You will need to look for them and they often are not heavily advertised as employers believe that it is difficult to find you.  Help them find you!  Colleges, universities and vocational programs are where these jobs are hiding.  Go get them.

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