How to Prepare for an ESL Interview

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

So you’ve completed your CELTA, booked your tickets to your destination to find an ESL job abroad, and even have some interviews lined up. But how are you going to ace them? Luckily, there’s plenty you can do to prepare yourself for an ESL interview.

I used to work in IT recruitment when I worked in London. I hated the job, but learnt loads about how to excel in interviews. Fortunately, I’ve been able to apply these skills and obtain over twelve different TEFL jobs. Most interviews involved a similar process, apart from one which was extremely weird, but I’ll tell you about that later.

Here’s some advice on how to ace an ESL interview, followed by a not particularly serious quiz at the end.


Doing enough research on the language academy before an interview is important
Show interest in the employer by staying informed

If you were an owner of a language academy, would you be impressed by interview candidates who knew something about your academy? I know I would. It’s vital to do some research. Check out the company or school website and find out what type of courses they run to give you an idea of the age and level of the students. Read the About page to see how long they have been around and get a general feel for the company.

It’s far better to have some prior knowledge so you can chat to the director in the interview. They might even ask you what you know about them, and it would be a disaster if you knew nothing.

Preparing answers

These are the four main areas employers ask about.

Previous experience

Tell me about your previous ESL experience

Try to keep your experience positive at all times, even if your previous boss was a nutcase and the students were demons in disguise. Talk about examples of how you helped students improve their English, aspects of the job that you enjoyed, and how you developed as a teacher. Show that you’re happy teaching. They’ll be looking for teachers who can give students a positive experience. It’s important to make it clear you are passionate about ESL too.

What previous work experience can help you in this teaching position?

If you have no TEFL experience, then try to relate previous work experience to the job. Giving examples of team playing skills, being able to work under pressure, and dealing with awkward customers can all help get you the job.

How do you think your CELTA will aid you in the classroom?

Again for new teachers. Try to show how you gained confidence being in front of a class and say you are keen to put everything into practise. Give specific examples of students you enjoyed teaching (but maybe leave out the annoying ones).

In the classroom

How would you deal with difficult students?

This is always a tricky one. Showing you have patience and empathy with students will impress here. I always deal with difficult students by sending them home, but that normally ends in an argument with a parent and my boss, so I wouldn’t recommend that (I’m only joking; don’t try to send them home). The best way is to get on the student’s level and find out why they are difficult. Chatting with them outside the class and delving deeper, and even speaking to their parents can help you find the best way to deal with the issues.

What is your view on using only English in the class?

As a general rule, most employers don’t want you to use the student’s native language in the class. But there are exceptions, like for giving instructions, doing useful translating exercises, or checking understanding. This depends on the employer though, so it’s best to ask their policy.

Being prepared for an interview can help you land that teaching job
Make sure to keep your strengths relevant and be able to describe your weaknesses as strengths

What type of teacher are you?

Even if you are a terrible one at the moment, keep that information to yourself. Show that you’re patient, flexible to approaches, keen to learn, and firm but fair. Failing that, evidence that you can juggle and entertain a group could come in handy.

Imaginary lesson

You might be given an imaginary scenario and be asked how you would teach a particular grammar point. This can be tricky if you have little experience. A great general lesson, which can be applied to any tense, is by using dictation. First you dictate some sentences showing examples of the grammar you want to teach, then once students have written the sentences on the board, you elicit the grammar rules (which you’ll have to know). Then you’ll need to check understanding with concept-checking questions. As practise, students can write their own sentences and maybe ask each other some questions using the grammar in order to practise speaking as well. As I said, it’s quite general.


What are you strengths and weaknesses?

Ballet dancing or bench pressing 60 kilos is probably not that relevant to ESL classrooms, so try to show the abilities that also helps students. Being a good listener, having an analytical mind, and paying attention to detail are all useful.

Weaknesses are tricky, so choose something that you can turn around easily, such as being too organised. Being unsociable, not liking people, or hating to correct silly mistakes won’t do you many favours.

What type of person do you think it takes to become an ESL teacher?

Generally, employers are looking for reliable, organised, and efficient teachers. Reliability is high on the list, both with respect to punctuality and sticking out a contract. Have some examples of when you’ve been reliable in the past in order to illustrate these skills.

Organisation is key, especially with planning lessons. Employers want to hear that you are willing to prepare your classes. Make it clear you are a team player. Give examples of previous jobs or experiences at university. Show that you can work with other teachers and understand student’s needs.

Showing your positive personality in interviews can help you land the job
Show your personality!

What are you future plans in the ESL world?

Becoming the next Scott Thornbury might come across as a bit arrogant, but it’s great to show ambition and a willingness to improve. Showing you have aspirations to become a team leader, do a Delta, become a DOS, or get into the publishing world will work in your favour.

Outside the class

How long do you intend to stay?

You will certainly be asked this. In the ESL world there is a huge turnover of staff, and one of the biggest problems for employers is finding committed teachers. Be prepared to provide evidence and motivation that you’ll be staying long-term, or at least until the end of the contract.

I’d try to be as honest as possible. I was a naughty boy while I worked in Brazil and moulded the truth slightly saying I was going to stay until September, but I knew I’d leave May. It was my own fault because I got the term times wrong. I got myself into a pretty sticky situation with the employer and annoyed a few students. It was my fault and I regret that. Try to be honest; it’s not pleasant leaving an employer in the lurch mid-way through term.

Why have you decided to come to x country?

This will probably be one of the easiest to answer. Learning the language, getting to know the culture and local people, or saying that you have been recommended to come are all valid reasons. Even if you have a thing for sexy Italian men or women, or are partial to working in countries with low rates of tax, just keep that to yourself.

Random Questions

Teaching English in Bangkok is a great experience
Bangkok: weird interview, but great experience

My interview for a job in Bangkok was surreal. Firstly, it was done by a nun (think Philippine woman dressed in a habit with a face like Penfold from Danger Mouse). She was pleasant to start with, but then got down to the nitty gritty. She asked me the following questions. In brackets was what I was thinking, and the sentences that follow are my actual answers.

  • How often do you drink? (Are you offering me a beer?) Only on special occasions.
  • Do you smoke? (Maybe if you give me that beer) Not at all.
  • Would you consider taking Thai women back to your room? (Err, I hadn’t actually thought about it, yet) No, of course not.
  • You are a handsome man, what would you do if a Thai teacher tries to chat you up? (Let her) Try to be polite and keep relationships purely professional.
  • Will you send some of your wages back to your parents? (I don’t think they could do much with baht) Of course.
  • Will you consider staying a whole year? (Let’s take this a week at a time) I’m open to all options.
  • Can you get your haircut before you start on Monday? (Jesus, it’s taken me 5 months to get this surfer look) I don’t see why not.

I got the job, which was more like a prison post at times, but at least the students were fun to teach.

Don’t forget

The interview is also for you to work out if you want the job. Don’t be shy to ask questions about hours, planning, pay, and conditions. It’s best to get everything out in the open. There are a few cowboy companies out there, so beware; find out as much as you can before you make that decision.

I hope my tips and advice help you ace your interviews. Just be prepared, spend some time thinking up possible answers to the above questions, get a good night’s rest before the interview, arrive on time, and most importantly, be yourself.

Now you can check out this interview quiz. Any comments just let me know.

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