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Tennessee ESL Teacher Job Description and Certification Requirements

Every year Tennessee ESL teachers provide vital instruction to the more than 30,000 students statewide whose native language is something other than English. The number of English language learners in Tennessee has grown by 200 percent in the decade leading up to 2008, creating an unprecedented demand for ESL teachers statewide that is only now being adequately addressed.

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The state Department of Education is responsible for ensuring quality and professionalism among its ESL teachers, and it does this by ensuring all applicants for a teaching license have completed the proper procedures. To become an ESL teacher in Tennessee you will need to navigate the following steps for licensure:

#1 ButtonEarn a Degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)
#2 ButtonPass the Required Tennessee Teaching Exams
#3 ButtonApply for an ESL Teaching License
#4 ButtonRenew and Upgrade Your ESL License



Step 1. Earn a Degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)

Earning at least a bachelor’s degree is essential to fulfilling the Tennessee TESOL certification requirements. Ideally this would be in a field that will maximize your knowledge in ESL and prepare you for success as you complete other licensure requirements and ultimately begin teaching in an ESL classroom.

A TESOL major or minor will include important classes in subjects like:

  • Linguistics
  • Foreign languages – you will need to earn at least six semester credits of a world language, or its equivalent. In Tennessee the most common native languages among the state’s English language learners are:
    • Spanish
    • French
    • Arabic
    • Vietnamese
    • Korean
  • Cultural studies
  • English language arts, reading, grammar, and writing
  • Psychology of language learning

Whatever degree you earn it should contain at least the equivalent of a minor in ESL. While you complete your degree, you will also need to complete an approved educator preparation program in ESL. There are at least 21 of these programs located at colleges and universities across Tennessee. The ESL educator preparation program will introduce you to the many important pedagogical and social aspects that go into being a successful ESL teacher, with effective ESL education being the primary goal.

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Your educator preparation program will culminate in an enhanced semester of student teaching in both grades pre K-6 and grades 7-12. If you are completing an alternative educator preparation program you will replace this student teaching segment with a year of ESL teaching in close association with an assigned mentor.

If you already have at least a bachelor’s degree that includes the equivalent of a minor in ESL you may consider enrolling in one of Tennessee’s alternative educator preparation programs, which allow you to begin teaching relatively quickly after completing a short and intensive ESL pedagogy program. These types of programs include The New Teacher Project and Teach for America.

To become eligible for a teaching license you also have the option of completing a master’s degree such as an M.A.T., M.Ed. or MATL while majoring or minoring in ESL.

Adding ESL as an Additional Endorsement

Although ESL can be the primary area of endorsement on your teaching license, if you already hold a Tennessee teaching license in a different subject area you also have the option of adding ESL as an additional endorsement. To do this, you will need to complete either a classroom ESL practicum lasting at least 30 hours, or have already completed a supervised semester of teaching ESL. You will also need to complete the required ESL teacher exams.

Out-of-State Candidates

Assuming your home state’s ESL teaching job description is similar to Tennessee’s, if you hold an out-of-state ESL teaching license you can be eligible to teach in Tennessee. To be eligible for reciprocity you need to have at least three years of ESL teaching experience and submit your ESL transcripts and testing scores to the Tennessee Department of Education.



Step 2. Pass the Required Tennessee Teaching Exams

Educational Testing Service (ETS) is the agency responsible for administering the three exams you will need to pass to become eligible for an ESL teaching license:

  • Core Academic Skills for Educators – basic skills test
  • Principles of Learning and Teaching – pedagogy test
  • English to Speakers of Other Languages – ESL test

You will need to pass the Core Academic Skills for Educators exam before you will be permitted entry into your educator preparation program. This exam evaluates you on the basic skills that have been deemed essential for being an effective educator in any field. It is divided into three sub-tests that you can take altogether or separately:

Principles of Learning and Teaching is a pedagogical exam you can take around the time you graduate from your educator preparation program. It is offered for prospective ESL teachers in two versions, and you should choose to take the one that corresponds to the grade levels you plan to teach:

Both tests cover similar material and you will be allotted two hours to complete 74 questions taken from the subject areas of:

  • Students as learners
  • Process of instruction
  • Assessments and testing
  • Professional development, leadership, and community
  • Analysis of scenarios pertaining to these topics

The English to Speakers of Other Languages exam will assess you to ensure you are qualified to be a teacher in the subject of ESL. You are allowed two hours to complete the exam, which includes 20 questions taken from a listening portion and 100 select-response questions. There are four key topics covered on this test:

  • Cultural and professional considerations as an ESL teacher
    • Cultural understanding and professional development
    • ESL teacher role
    • Legal and ethical issues associated with being an ESL teacher
  • ESL assessments
    • Applying and interpreting assessment results
    • Knowledge and use of appropriate testing standards
  • Planning, managing, and implementing ESL instruction
    • Managing students and the ESL classroom
    • ESL materials and teaching techniques
  • Foundational linguistics and language education
    • Literacy and second language learning
    • Culture, language, and linguistic theory



Step 3. Apply for an ESL Teaching License

At this point you will be ready to fill out an application for licensure. Make sure to indicate the following, depending on your background:

  • Mark that you are applying for an Initial License if you completed the requirements for licensure in Tennessee
  • Mark that you are applying for an Out of State License if you are a licensed teacher in a different state
  • If you are adding an endorsement to an existing license, mark Amendment to Add Endorsement Area, with the endorsement area being English as a Second Language Pre K-12, code #490

Return the completed application along with proof of your ETS test scores and official college transcripts to:

Tennessee Department of Education
Office of Educator Licensing
710 James Robertson Parkway
12th Floor Andrew Johnson Tower
Nashville, TN 37243

The first license you receive is known as an Apprentice License, and once you have obtained this you can start looking at all the possibilities for ESL jobs in Tennessee.



Step 4. Renew and Upgrade Your ESL License

Your Apprentice License with an endorsement in ESL is valid for five years, and to renew this you will need to earn a certain amount of renewal points, depending on your level of education and professional development:

  • You will need to earn 45 renewal points if you have a bachelor’s or master’s degree
  • You do not need to earn any renewal points if you have a master’s degree and have completed a local performance evaluation

Renewal points can be earned by completing professional development activities or college credit that contribute to your improvement as an ESL teacher. Professional development activities can include:

  • Mentoring new ESL teachers or working with ESL student teachers
  • Attending workshops, seminars, or conferences dealing with the subject of ESL
  • Any other activity that contributes to your ESL development that has been approved by your local evaluator

The local evaluation is completed by a school official who will evaluate you on the quality of your classroom instruction, lesson planning, and the educational environment which you create for your ESL students. You will be issued a cumulative score based on an evaluation of these areas, and this will be the result of your local performance evaluation.

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Once you have been teaching for three years and received a satisfactory score on your local evaluation, you can upgrade your Apprentice License to a Professional License. This type of license is valid for 10 years and has similar renewal requirements as the Apprentice License. If you have had a positive local evaluation and you hold a master’s degree you do not need to earn any professional development points when renewing your Professional License.

Having a master’s degree can offer other advantages besides qualifying you to renew your ESL teaching license. This credential can also open up additional career possibilities as well as increase your job security and make you a more competitive candidate for promotion.

As you further explore your ESL teaching possibilities in Tennessee, you may consider checking out professional organizations in the field. You can find information about upcoming ESL events, employment opportunities, and other professional news with organizations such as TNTESOL (Tennessee Teachers to Speakers of Other Languages).

Tennessee ESL Endorsement Salary Bonus Incentives

As of 2010, the limited English proficiency population totaled 173,606, or 2.9 percent of the total population in Tennessee, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Of those, 66.5 percent spoke Spanish, 4 percent spoke Chinese, and 3.7 percent spoke Arabic.

According to an August 2012 research study by the University of Tennessee Center for Business and Economic Research, Hispanic immigrants are having a dramatic effect on the landscape of Tennessee, both demographically and economically. Tennessee is reflective of similar trends across the South, as immigrants are heading to southern states like Tennessee seeking jobs in services and manufacturing. The study reported that the growth of the Hispanic population in Tennessee would cause the share of Hispanic children in public schools to rise from 6 to 10 percent in the next three to five years.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the National Education Association recently reported that Tennessee is experiencing teacher shortages in the area of Spanish and ESL. As such, universities and school districts across the state are scrambling to help get qualified ESL teachers in place.

The Applied Linguistics program in the University of Memphis’ English Department, for example, received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help prepare ESL teachers. This $1.3 million grant’s primary objective was to help prepare teachers in the Memphis and Shelby County school systems. Further, the College of Education was called upon to infuse the curriculum with the knowledge and strategies used by all teachers because of the rapid growth of the ESL population in local K-12 schools.

ESL teacher salaries may therefore be reflective of the need for this type of instruction in Tennessee classrooms. The National Center for Education Statistics revealed that the average lowest base salary for Tennessee teachers was $32,100 in the 2007-08 school year, and the highest average base salary was $52,800.

However, recent job postings for ESL teachers in Shelby County revealed competitive salaries starting at $42,000. A Memphis City job posting also revealed competitive salaries for ESL teachers that ranged between $41,000 and $50,000, depending on experience.

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ESL teacher candidates must possess a valid Tennessee teaching license (or a reciprocal license from another state) and English as a Second Language initial or additional endorsement to teach ESL in Tennessee.

The table below, which is provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows salary information for Adult, Basic, and Secondary Education and Literacy Teachers, under which ESL teachers are categorized:

Area name
Annual Median Salary
Kingsport-Bristol-Bristol TN-VA
Estimate Not Released
Morristown TN
Nashville-Davidson--Murfreesboro--Franklin TN
Western Tennessee nonmetropolitan area
South Central Tennessee nonmetropolitan area
North Central Tennessee nonmetropolitan area
Eastern Tennessee nonmetropolitan area

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