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Certified to Teach ESL in Northern Virginia

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Written by NVDE Website Manager, Catherine Hammond

Since 2004, Catherine has been teaching and tutoring, basic to advanced level classes, both stateside and abroad. Catherine earned a B.A. in Communications and a TESOL certificate. She is a lover of language studies and proud Mother of four.


TESOL, TESOL, TESOL… So Many “Certificates” Out There

Frequently I am asked, “What certificate do I need in order to teach ESL Virginia?” and I am always surprised to find out the answer isn't obvious. Truthfully, the answer depends on where you are in your career, what level you want to teach, what benefits you want, and in some cases, where you want to teach. I’ve listed some practical and experienced-based advice below and I hope it assists you in your quest to find the perfect teaching experience.

Online Certificates

Online certificates will not qualify you to teach ESL in Northern Virginia. You need to be Virginia State certified to be able to teach in Virginia (Please see Virginia Department of Education Licensure requirements). Generally speaking, my best advice is to stay away from online certificates that offer quick courses online (for example, organizations like Oxford Seminars, TEFL Online, or ESL Certified). While these organizations do give training and allow students access to being hired in foreign countries, they would not be worth the money if you are looking to be taken seriously by an established organization. You should have some sort of practicum where you are teaching and/or observing a classroom. The point is to be certified to teach. How will you be prepared without having the opportunity to practice your teaching skills?

With an online certificate without teaching/classroom observation, you will be able to get a job in China, Korea or other popular Indonesian/Asian countries which want to hire native speakers. In some cases, these types of TESOL certificate organizations connect you with a teaching job in another country. Although a TESOL certificate increases your chances of getting hired in these locations, most likely you could be hired without the online certificate. Again, getting an online certificate will not qualify you to teach in the U.S. You may be considered at volunteer centers or private institutions, which have different requirements than government funded public schools.

Online Certificates from Brick and Mortar Schools

There are some established “brick and mortar” Virginia schools that are expanding and now creating online certificate programs, such as Shenandoah University. Shenandoah University, located in Winchester, VA, offers three graduate-level programs in TESOL: Professional Certificate (introduction to the field), Advanced Professional Certificate, and Master of Science in Education. Students in Shenandoah University's TESOL programs value their flexibility and high quality, as well as the convenience of being able to take an entire program online.

For a list of additional Virginia schools that offer education related certificates and master's degrees, please visit www.educationdegree.com.


The prestigious University of Cambridge, founded in 1209 in Cambridge, England, offers a certificate called the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA). The CELTA is internationally regarded as one of the most respected TESOL certifications. This certificate is helpful to those who are looking to teach EFL in Europe or abroad, and have some prior knowledge of teaching ESL/EFL. Although prestigious, it may not be prudent to obtain this certificate for teaching in the U.S., as each state and institution will have different requirements for teaching English.

Public School ESL

In order to teach in Virginia, you must be certified to teach by the Virginia Department of Education. Northern Virginia is a very competitive area and has some of the best public schools in the nation. To obtain a job at highly competitive schools in Northern Virginia, your best course of action is to major in Education, English (or ESL related field) at undergraduate school, to include all Virginia State teaching certifications, and then continue on to get your master's degree in Education, linguistics, or TESOL. I know this sounds lengthy, but some Northern Virginia schools will hand your resume back to you if you do not have a master's degree. There are many colleges/universities that run five year programs that combine your undergraduate and masters degree, along with your state certification. To name a few, Longwood University (special education) and James Madison University provide this type of program. 

With that said, I know of several teachers who were hired at private schools while taking their master's degree courses. So never say never when it comes to getting hired without an advanced degree!

Keep in mind that Northern Virginia is expanding and growing in immigrant population. Some schools may not have the teachers or funds to create specific classes for ESL students. If you want to teach ESL, it would be wise to research schools in the Northern Virginia area with higher immigrant population. This could give you the opportunity to get certified in a different area of instruction (history, science, art, etc.) and still have the opportunity to work with students where English is not their first language.

Career Switchers

Did you realize you wanted to start teaching after undergraduate school? No problem, you can do the career switchers program. This program is sponsored by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and is for individuals who are currently working in a different field other than teaching, have five years professional work experience, and would like to switch to teaching in Virginia State public schools. This program includes all state certifications. You can get your concentration in TESOL and you will be able to teach ESL at Virginia public schools. According to the VDOE, the following schools are program providers for the career switchers program:

* These program providers are no longer accepting new candidates into the program.

Again, because this is a competitive field, I suggest doing this program in conjunction with a Masters in Education, Linguistics, or TESOL.

Private or Religious Schools

Don’t feel like getting X, Y, Z certifications in order to teach at public school? Then maybe a private or religious school with an ESL program might be for you. These institutions are not state run and therefore are not subject to state certification. Therefore your hiring will be based on your work experience and education. You may or may not need a master's degree depending on the individual requirements of the school. However, it is possible to be subject to a different type of bureaucracy, such as lower pay, less benefits, etc.

Teaching English for Corporate

You do not necessarily need a TESOL certificate to teach at the corporate level in Northern Virginia. Generally speaking, these positions are highly coveted and usually require a master's degree and several years of experience. In a recent search on indeed.com (July 2011), I searched for local ESL jobs (Manassas VA, with a 50 mile radius). The results are rather grim:

Indeed ESL Job Search

The most relevant jobs (at a staggering 221) are English Foreign Language jobs, which mostly included government jobs that require English and another foreign language (sometimes multiple languages). In some ESL job searches, I’ve only discovered about 25 applicable jobs for an entry-level candidate with no master's degree.

Teaching College/ University Level ESL

Some colleges and universities require a TESOL certificate and some don't. I've discovered on many job searches that to teach at the community college level usually requires at least 18 credits of graduate school, preferably in Linguistics, TESOL, English or Education. Most Virginia state sponsored colleges and universities will want you to have your master's completed and/or a PhD., plus several years experience teaching English/ESL/EFL.

Teaching English at a Vocational School

If state certification and college requirements are too stringent for you, you might want to consider teaching for a vocational school that offers ESL. Generally these are well paid part-time jobs that look for candidates with TESOL certificates and teaching experience. In my experience these positions tend to have high turnover, but can be great for teaching experience and supplemental income. Due to high turnover, you can usually do a search for “ESL” in the Washington D.C. or Northern Virginia job section of craigslist.org (or any other job site), and find an abundance of entry level ESL teaching jobs.

Volunteer ESL

Generally the organization will provide ESL training and no TESOL certification will be required to teach. Students usually pay a small ESL class fee, or in some cases, receive free ESL classes. Most of these students are dedicated and interested in learning English. In my experience, they are usually there to learn, as opposed to another hidden agenda such as a visa status, English certificate or grade.Unfortunately, it is rare to be paid for these positions, but your volunteer experience may lead you to a paid position. If you are looking for opportunities to volunteer in the area, please contact the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia (LCNV) or English as a Second Language Immigrant Ministries (ESLIM).

Teaching Public School in Asia or Europe

Usually no TESOL certificate is required. Typically most schools will require that you have a Bachelor's degree. There are some TESOL schools that will award you a "certificate" and then place you in a school, but personally I'd stay away from these online or quick TESOL certification organizations.

Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute. I know this site is for Northern Virginia, but if you teach in Korea (for experience) and return to Northern Virginia, you will have a lot more to offer employers. Plus, the experience will look interesting on your resume! In Korea, you can teach less hours and get paid just as much, or more, as an entry level public school teacher in America, according to Good Education, University of Phoenix. Additionally, the cost of living is lower in Korea, which means a majority of your income will be take home. English Program in Korea (EPIK) contracted teachers have phenomenal benefits such as paid flights, paid living area, paid utilities, vacation time, health care and bonus pay upon completion of the contract. I personally know a couple who taught in Gawnju, Korea and stated that they easily put away 2,000 USD a month with their combine income. Something to think about, no?

EPIK is sponsored by the Korean Government and highly recommended by Korean students. Be careful of working at private schools, as they are not required to enforce the same standards as the EPIK government-run programs. I have heard many reported problems with teaching English at Korean private schools (called hagweon or hakwon).

If you would like to teach in Europe for experience, I usually find there are plenty of open opportunities in Eastern or European countries that require minimal experience and possibly a TESOL certificate. Just check out Dave’s ESL café International Job Board. (As with all foreign job postings, be careful! If it is too good to be true, then it probably is!)

Remember - Teach Where You Feel Comfortable!

Whether it's Northern Virginia or Korea, private school or public school, vocational school or university level, each institution will have different requirements and all will have their pros and cons. Remember, always strive to work in a place where you feel you can contribute the most to your career and to your students. They are depending on you!

Updated March 2013

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