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Small schools offer hope amid eikaiwa slump

Innovation is the key to resuscitating the ailing English teaching sector, say instructors

by Richard Smart

The collapse of the Geos eikaiwa (English conversation school) chain earlier this year came as a cruel blow to an industry still struggling to restore its credibility years after Nova’s high-profile implosion.

Since the Nova bankruptcy of 2007, the financial situation at the major schools has continued to worsen, with both student numbers and sales dropping, and many teachers are now looking for ways to make money outside the big eikaiwa model.

“The model depends on a constant intake of students and their cash, and with the moribund economy and shrinking population, the luster has worn off of forking over hundreds of thousands of yen to spend an hour or two a week studying English with a foreigner,” says Shawn Thir, who blogs on LetsJapan.org, a website that documents the fortunes of Japan’s eikaiwa industry.

“The interest in learning English is still there, but people are cutting back on their discretionary spending, and when they want to study, they are looking to alternatives such as game software and Internet-based lessons. In this kind of environment, large schools will have to drastically downscale — or at least re-think their business model — or disappear.”

Throughout Kanto, however, there are teachers who have managed to make the market work for them through a little innovation.

In a dance hall in Abiko, Chiba Prefecture, on a recent Wednesday, Patrick and Yoshie Sherriff, the owners of Tower English School, prepared for a playgroup drop-in. The concept is simple: Mothers pay ¥500 each week to play a series of English games with their toddlers.

As the lesson started, it became clear that the mothers were enjoying themselves as much, if not more, than their children. They were certainly noisier.

“Our children really enjoy the class. It’s the highlight of their week. My older child is 4 years old and has continued on to kindergarten classes with Tower,” said Miho Nishihiro, a mother of two.

“It’s a good chance for mothers to communicate with each other too; we have little chance to socialize on normal days,” added Manami Kikuchi, who has two children attending Tower. “A lot of English schools demand you reserve lessons in advance, but this is a drop-in, which is really convenient for us. If we miss lessons, we don’t have to pay.” The two mothers also attend lessons at the school.

Tower English is a school that looks to remain relatively small, and to give back as much as it takes.

“We are a community school. The T-shirts we are wearing are from a student that runs a printing company. This place is run by another student,” says Englishman Patrick, 39. “The big eikaiwa schools simply cannot build up these relationships.”

“We also have a primary school near our house. Eighty percent of the kids we teach come from there,” adds his wife, Yoshie.

For marketing, Tower relies on word of mouth.

“The key to our success is basically that we know a lot of people. We have some leaflets and some business cards, a website and a blog, but if you want to talk about marketing, look at this playgroup: It’s ¥500 and happens twice a week, it also gives back to the community, and the aim is to get as many people through the door as possible,” Patrick says.

Deeper connections with the local community, however, are not the only advantage small schools can gain over the major players, as Michael Lopez, who runs Primrose English School in Ibaraki Prefecture, has discovered. His school, built on the side of his house, has plush carpets, is decorated in warm colors, and has photos of younger students and their artwork on the walls. Entering the classroom, Primrose seems a far cry from the dour, colorless classrooms that eikaiwa-chain students often have to endure.

“I noticed that most of the schools were gray,” says Lopez, 41, originally from London. “Sure, there were things on the walls, but most of the schools were not comfortable for me. I’m sure that by having a warm and comfortable atmosphere you encourage learning and speaking. My aim was to create an image that says ‘this is different,’ and I wanted the parents to feel comfortable bringing their children to the school.”

At Primrose, kids arrive early for lessons, there is no bureaucracy to deal with before they can enter the classroom, and once inside they act like they own the place. Lessons follow a pattern similar to that at any other eikaiwa school, but there’s one crucial difference: Lopez is committed to working at his school for years to come.

“When I came to Japan I did a few years’ teaching to get an understanding of it and then start my own school. Knowing the way the eikaiwa system worked, I knew I had reached a ceiling and had to open my own school,” Lopez says.

“Most of the time people studying at chain eikaiwa schools don’t see the same student each week. That is key to getting people to recommend studying with you — and a lot of big companies cannot do that because they have so many branches and such a high staff turnover. But if you can build up a relationship with them, students are with you 100 percent. For big chains, it’s difficult to see a bright future because they have gone too far,” he adds.

Yoshiko Yamamoto, an adult studying at the school, echoes that sentiment.

“I don’t like the way that the major chain schools charge their fees. It’s very complicated and has left the schools with a bad reputation,” she says. “The teachers also tend to be badly trained on many occasions and you aren’t guaranteed to be taught by somebody you get on with.”

At Primrose, Lopez has created a lesson plan specific to Yamamoto and charges for textbooks at cost, with the only other payment for students being lesson fees. With no other instructors at the school, students also know who will be teaching their lessons week to week and for the foreseeable future.

In central Tokyo, high land prices, more competition and the huge number of chain schools make it more difficult for freelancers to challenge the status quo. Even in the capital, however, a number of teachers are showing that it’s possible to carve out a career without the help of the big players.

Dominic Berry, 41, from England, has been teaching in Japan since May 2008 but has never worked for one of the major eikaiwa chains. His clients include private students and small eikaiwa schools, and he teaches some of his students via Skype. He also gives a number of lessons in English on philosophy and art.

His advice to others considering going freelance is simple: Have selling points and utilize them if you want to survive as a teacher in Tokyo.

“Teachers are better making a distinct product that sets them apart and allows them to charge more than the average fee in order to survive,” says Berry.

“I have a portfolio of lessons that I can teach and that I offer to students. I don’t say ‘I’ll teach you English for ¥2,000 a week’; instead I will design a course that caters to a student’s needs and can be completed in nine or 10 lessons. Normally, the students will stay on and create more targets for lessons,” he adds.

“If you want to make real money and give real value, then find out what your student needs. If you can match your strengths to their needs, then you will survive in Tokyo.”

Berry has put his faith in both his own skills and the ability of smaller companies to provide him with enough students on a monthly basis for him to make a living. So far, the gamble seems to have paid off. He says he gets a lot of job satisfaction and has less to worry about than some of his friends who work at the major eikaiwa schools.

“Big chain companies very often are run by people who do not speak English and have no interest in learning English. For these people, eikaiwa is just another product that they buy and sell. You often find that the CEOs are not interested,” he says. “But with the people that run small schools, you often find they like things like Shakespeare, chatting in English and relationships with English-speaking people — and the owners are not in it just for money; they are also in it to provide a quality product.

“Working for companies like this you don’t have to deal with the anal manager asking you to toe a line or have a fear of losing your job. You know with the small managers that if you provide the service, they will keep you on and appreciate your work.”

Let’s Japan’s Thir believes the lessons of the collapse of Nova and Geos have fallen on deaf ears among management at the remaining large eikaiwa chains.

“Despite all of the negative press (in the aftermath of the bankruptcies),” he says, “the schools appear to have done nothing to change things for the better.”

As well as highlighting the dangers of clinging to the eikaiwa system that boomed until the demise of Nova, the media coverage of the Geos collapse also hinted at a silver lining for the industry: Most of the former Geos students that appeared on television after the bankruptcy expressed a desire to continue studying English — though not necessarily at another large eikaiwa chain.

“It’s no wonder people are fleeing large schools and looking for something else,” Thir says of students of English, pointing to the growth of lessons conducted via Skype as one alternative. While he says he is “hesitant to put (small schools) on a pedestal,” he acknowledges that the nonchain-school sector of the eikaiwa industry has grown as English learners seek out new learning methods, venues and teachers in the wake of the Nova and Geos collapses.

More and more teachers are recognizing that this group of disaffected students exists, and the signs are that an industry more concerned with quality than quantity may grow from the shadows of the bankruptcies that have shaken the eikaiwa sector in the past few years.

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