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Constructivist ‘Pied Piper’ of English education rebuilds after hitting rock bottom

by Richard Solomon

David Paul lost almost everything when his Hiroshima-based company, David English House, tumbled like a house of cards in 2010. Then, the well-known English-language educator had hit rock bottom after 28 years in business. The bankruptcy cost Paul his home, his life savings and almost his marriage. But instead of packing his bags and quietly returning to his native England, he chalked up the bankruptcy as a learning experience. Today the “Pied Piper” of language education is back in business doing what he loves most — training English-language teachers in Japan.

Five years after graduating in the early 1980s with a master’s degree from Cambridge University, Paul moved to Hiroshima to teach English. As a student he had specialized in social psychology and child development. He had been steeped in behavioral psychology, the dominant school of thought at the time.

However Paul wasn’t interested in mainstream psychology. Instead, he was secretly indoctrinating himself with the anti-behaviorist ideas of a deceased American psychologist, George Kelly. In the early 1950s, Kelly had developed the theory of personal construct psychology, a branch of constructivism. Constructivism’s underlying principle is that we are all naive scientists trying to make sense of the world. We theorize, test and remodel our notion of reality by trial and error.

Paul thought Japanese students would be better off learning English through constructivist methods that lend personal meaning, rather than through memorization. For example, he believed puzzles were an ideal educational tool. Students are naturally drawn to puzzles that are fun, positive and engaging. Because students struggle with puzzles before they succeed, Paul argues, students have a greater sense of accomplishment and ownership over what they learn.

When he lost his teaching job after confronting his boss a few too many times, Paul sat at home with only a few months left on his visa wondering what to do next. He didn’t have to wait long. Lo and behold, former students who had heard about his predicament began rallying around.

“The telephone never stopped ringing,” Paul recounts. Students asked, “Can you teach us?” Of course he didn’t have permission to start a business. That was difficult to get in those days. His application was refused.

To his surprise, one by one the students marched to the immigration office. They asked, “Why not give the Englishman a chance?” Eventually the authorities capitulated and Paul launched his language-education firm, David English House.

Soon the determined educator wanted to extend his teaching into the Japanese educational system. Then, however, language-school teachers were considered “outsiders.” High schools typically employed foreign teachers as assistants only.

To get a foot in the door, Paul offered the schools what they wanted: teaching assistants. After gaining their trust and respect, the assistant teachers were ultimately given the freedom to run classes. David English House became more widely known for supplying professional teachers, not assistants, to both high schools and universities in the Hiroshima area.

Quietly Paul spent the next 10 years creating teaching materials for use in his classrooms, drawing upon the obscure branch of educational psychology. His first textbook, published by Heinemann in 1991, became a best-seller shortly before constructivism went mainstream. “I was at the right place, at the right time,” says Paul. The new respect for constructivism gave validity to his textbooks and made it easier for him to train teachers in the methodology.

It opened other doors, too. His firm soon came to represent various British universities offering distance-learning master’s degrees. At any one time, about 200 students in Japan were enrolled in the MA courses. David English House provided the British universities with local support.

At its peak, Paul directly employed about 50 full-time staff. He ran a large school at a prime location in Hiroshima, with further franchised schools in Korea and Thailand. He also expanded into teaching non-Japanese to teach English. He started a bookstore for English-language teachers, too. And if that was not enough, in 1999 he started a volunteer organization called English Teachers in Japan (ETJ), which now has about 10,000 members.

ETJ is a community that supports professional development of busy classroom teachers. It is organized by and for the teachers themselves, with Paul its administrator. Through various online groups organized by ETJ, English teachers exchange ideas, experiences and best practices. They also meet annually at ETJ expositions held in five cities across Japan, the largest of which is the Tokyo Expo and typically attracts 500 teachers each November. Local ETJ groups hold regional workshops, too. In addition, ETJ members receive discount offers on training course and learning materials.

The first setback came when Japan’s bubble economy burst around 1997. Then, there was an enormous shift away from the number of students taking private lessons to those taking group lessons.

A second setback coincided with the first. Paul had failed to protect the distance-learning business from swings in foreign currency rates. Students paid David English House in yen, which in turn paid British universities in pounds sterling. A marked weakening of the yen caused the business to lose ¥8 million on one transaction alone.

Perhaps he should have cut staffing levels earlier, but instead Paul took on close to ¥100 million in debt at a time when other schools were closing.

He got rid of some large flashy schools and replaced them with many smaller neighborhood ones to lessen risk. Further, he switched from paying fixed monthly rent to giving local landlords a slice of the tuition fees, which varied with enrollments. The changes allowed Paul to clear a majority of the debt.

Unfortunately, a third setback would cause his world to tumble. On short notice, a British university ended their agency contracts worldwide. David English House was not excluded. Paul was caught out in a reshuffle he never imagined could occur. Although he had paid back much of the loan, the business did not have the cash flow to continue as a going concern. Referring to the bankruptcy that was to follow, Paul said, “It only hit me that we had no hope of getting through about one month before it happened.”

Against legal advice, Paul approached staff one by one beforehand to discuss their options. Those who wanted, and were able, could set up their own schools by assuming existing contracts. “It was like a jigsaw puzzle deciding who did what,” says Paul. He regrets that little could be done to help the office staff, some of whom had worked for him for close to 20 years.

As for the bankruptcy, “It was terrible,” recounts Paul. He lost his home, his life savings, copyrights and royalties on his textbooks. He was told he could never get another mortgage. Still, Paul did not give up. Instead he took guidance from constructive alternativism, which teaches that it is not what happens that is important — it is the way we construe it. Rather than bemoan the terrible consequences to himself and his family, Paul focused on what good could result from the increased time spent on teacher training. “Every cloud has a silver lining,” says Paul, who constantly is on the lookout for the hidden opportunities.

Because of the bankruptcy, Paul, his wife and three dogs moved into one small rented apartment. To pay the rent, he began teaching elementary school children part time. He borrowed from friends and family so that his wife wouldn’t go bankrupt, too. After paying back his wife’s debts, he had enough left over to buy back his textbook copyrights.

Today Paul is back in the teacher-training business, following his passion. His new company, Language Teaching Professionals, brings together specialist independent teaching-trainers to raise the bar of those teaching English in Japan. Among the seminars and courses offered is a popular “Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages” (TESOL) certification course. TESOL provides international accreditation for those seeking recognized certification to teach English. Between 200 and 300 participants in Japan take the TESOL certificate program each year. Language Teaching Professionals has also recently launched an online bookstore for teachers.

Only going to prove that it pays to think positively, a kindly bank manager extended a 100 percent mortgage to his wife for a lovely house for the Pauls to live in.

“We are lucky,” said Paul, adding, “We’ve got a garden. The dogs love it. We’re happy.”

Richard Solomon publishes regular Beacon Reports at www.beaconreports.net. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    Yes, he is lucky and happy. Great. What about the people he borrowed money off and never paid back after the bankruptcy because of his irresponsible business “techniques”? Will we be getting another fluff piece next week from them or from the employees he sacked after 20 years telling us how “lucky and happy” they feel too?

  • David Paul

    Jamie – When I went bankrupt, I said to those who had invested in David English House that they could either be part of Language Teaching Professionals or I would take on the moral debt of paying them back the money they had invested. Most wanted to be part of LTP, and I have now paid back those who didn’t. I arranged for all the teachers who lost their jobs at David English House and wanted to stay in Hiroshima (almost everybody) to take over our contracts with high schools, universities, etc… or start their own schools just down the road from where our schools had been. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do the same for the Japanese office staff, and this is my biggest regret. At least they were in their own country with local family to support and had full social insurance, but that doesn’t really make things a lot better.