Last month we started telling our students that we would be closing our school at the end of May. We had a few teary eyes and some expressions of shock, and most surprisingly to me, some (non-sarcastic) rounds of applause. Most of this month has felt pretty normal. I also wrote our final newsletter this week, which reminded me a bit more of just how much we’re giving up.
We started our school back in 2005. By “started” I mean we put some signs up, bought furniture, painted the walls, made a new gmail address, and started answering the phone with something other than “moshi moshi”. It takes very little overhead if you’re set on making your own materials (a habit I continued throughout the life of our school) and are satisfied with letting word of mouth build your student base. Somehow we got ourselves to the point where people consider us a school and trust us with their or their kids’ educations. At our highest point I believe we had more than 80 students – very small potatoes for some of the people I’ve met in the JALT School Owners SIG, but big for one full-time teacher.
So we’re giving up that achievement, as well as the obvious income, and finally the routine that’s defined our Tuesdays to Saturdays (and sometimes Mondays) for the past 12 years.
It comes down to taking a long view on our lives, and realizing that if we spend the back half of our 30s in Japan we’ll probably end up spending all our other decades here too.
Back in 2005 we didn’t plan on creating an institution that would last for decades. To be completely honest I think at least half of our motivation was not wanting another boss like our last one. Come to think of it we know at least 3 other people who worked there and went on to start their own schools, so maybe she should get some kind of award from METI for being horrible in a kind of way that motivates entrepreneurism.
From the beginning though this wasn’t a life plan or even a way to quickly put away a nest egg. We never once thought about branching out or even hiring another teacher. In fact we were downright puritanical about the influence of salesmanship on our class planning – and this strain became worse (or better, if you look at it as a school and not a business) after I got my MA. The MA actually may have fatally damaged my ability to see eikaiwa as an educational enterprise; I realized that some practices were so common and so detrimental to language education that they forced a fatal compromise to effective teaching just to stay in business. One-hour-a-week lessons (shorter for kids) are the biggest of these in my opinion.
Now that I’m in JALT and in touch with a lot more fellow school owners and I realize most people in my position made a compromise that they could live with a long time ago. I’ve heard people that seem to take a long view of the pedagogical problems of the eikaiwa industry and its customers – that it’s still worthwhile and superior to the alternative of having no language education at all, and especially that smaller, individually-owned schools are superior to national chains despite often similar-looking classes. If I had joined JALT earlier I might be in this camp now. I’ve also heard people seem to have done the internal math necessary to convince themselves that sales and retention are sufficient stand-ins for teaching quality, and are more concerned with branding a product than making it better.
(side note: I prefer teaching quality to lesson quality because giving a feeling of completion and accomplishment after each lesson can be a distraction, and in this industry, can lead one to adopt a deleterious grammar McNugget teaching style)
We could have decided to redouble our efforts, relaunch with new price points (unrevised since 2005, which isn’t a problem in a deflationary economy as much as it is no longer commensurate with our experience and education) and find some way of squaring the circle of selling quality education to people who largely just want either a place to stash their kids until junior high or an enjoyable weeknight distraction, but then we’d be putting a lot more eggs into a basket that was never built for long-term use in the first place.
We have a few students who really get what we were trying to do and are sticking around until the very end, and those are the ones that add really stingingly bitter notes to an already bittersweet life event. Some students will be a very sorely missed part of our weekly routine. The bright side is they’ll have someplace to stay if they ever feel like visiting the US.