The perils of self-employment, part 3: Schadenfreude

There are other English schools in town.  We’ve gone through stages of ignoring them, competing with them, and looking down on them; and now we have no choice but to entrust them with the students we’re leaving behind.

Some of our remaining students have come to us asking for recommendations of where to go after we close.  A few of these have already taken trial lessons at the other places in town and reported to us their experiences.  There is surely an element of flattery to their descriptions, and as much as I want to feel irreplaceable, I also want to encourage them to continue learning English under whatever circumstances they find themselves in, so I hesitate to take the same dismissive attitude that I’ve taken before.

We’ve believed for most of our tenure here that the other schools in town are more focused on making a living than pedagogy, for some observable reasons and some we just assumed.  Therefore, hearing that a trial lesson with one of them is full of

  • Disembodied grammar and vocabulary
  • Almost no interaction that could be called authentic even with the teacher, let alone with classmates, and
  • Rushing from activity to activity with little downtime or back-and-forth

is gratifying – until I remember that we put our students in a position where they’re going to have to rely on one of those schools for English education from June onward.  Suddenly there’s no joy in being better than them.

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What kept us going through our early lean years was the belief that even if we weren’t as big as the local NOVA and Aeon branches, or even the local place run by a guy who’s lived here for half his life, we were still better than them because we knew more, we cared more, and our relationship with students mattered more.  We also worried much more about being the best teachers than the best salesmen, as evidenced by my multi-year commitment to flannel shirts and neon ties, and I think that mattered to people who were looking for a long-term commitment.

(Really, people not looking for a long-term commitment should invest in something besides language learning)

It was a rush when we got an inquiry from a student who’d “been at X school for 3 years and hasn’t learned anything”, had his/her trial lesson, and succeeded in getting both a smile and an original thought or two expressed in English.  In most cases the one thing they knew was pronunciation – eikaiwa student rolls are full of 7-year-olds with great Rs but absolutely no ability to negotiate a misunderstanding or hedge on an opinion.  Taking a kid for whom English was a list of programmed responses given to a cartoonishly gesticulating caucasian and turning it into a vehicle for the expression of that kid’s unique personality and life was always a beautiful experience.  It also helped our image of ourselves of the saviors of English education in our little town.

I’m very proud of what we accomplished at our school, but in the end trying to be the best teachers at the expense of the business side of things and regardless of common practice in our industry probably hurt our students in the end.  While we succeeded in earning the trust of a set of students who have been with us since 2008 or before, we are quitting, so now those students are more or less on their own.  You could argue that by acclimating our students to an unusual class style we’ve made it even harder for them to adapt to our absence.  If we had stuck a little more to the established eikaiwa program it might be easier for them to find a way to succeed at their new schools and keep themselves motivated.  The nightmare scenario is that their new schools totally undervalue the skills that our students have and value a different set of skills that they don’t have – leading them to lose their motivation and quit for good.

So now when a student’s mom comes in and says they took a trial at a local place that clearly spends more on advertising than training, I can’t look quite so indignant that they call themselves a school.  Instead, I say something encouraging like “They’ve been around a long time – I’m sure you’ll have fun there” and hope the things I’ve been basing my teacherly self-esteem on all these years turn out not to be true.

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