REVIEW: Lifer, How to be a Bald Middle-aged Conversation Teacher in Japan

Lifer

I’m really pleased to kick off 2015 proper with a review of Lifer: How to Be a Bald Middle-Aged English Conversation Teacher in Japan. Based on the blog of the same name, it is written by the teacher behind Good and Bad Japan, a whimsical look at daily life here.

I think Carl must be a bit like me, because I suggested he turn his hilarious blog into an ebook years ago, and it’s only just come out 🙂

Lifer is probably the best book I have read about teaching English in Japan. Most of the time I could imagine that he was writing about my life, as I have lived many of the scenes in the book. A lot of the time it is laugh-out-loud funny, but the best thing about it is the author’s love of Japan and teaching that shows through the cracks in the anecdotes.

Please buy a copy immediately if you teach English in Japan or are considering doing so -not only will you enjoy it immensely and probably learn some things, but if it does well enough Carl may even get around to writing a sequel.

GUEST POST: Do Or Die

Securing your future in EFL

gifukids1

Today I am extremely pleased to feature a guest post from Mark Kulek, a school owner from Gifu. Mark is a great guy, a passionate educator, and, as you’ll see from his post below, a shrewd business owner.

 

First, let me thank Ben for this opportunity to share my experience with his readers.

Ben published a post that concerns me and many others who are teaching English conversation here in Japan.

Ben asked me to share what I am doing to survive in the English conversation business.

 

Background information:

I arrived to Japan in August of 1996 with no experience teaching English or running a business.  I graduated with a degree in literature, but had no plans of teaching at that time. After graduating from my university, I worked as a sales representative. I liked it, but never really felt satisfied.

My sister left for Japan in 1992. I felt a little jealous of her. She was off to a fantastic adventure and I was still doing the same old thing. When she had come back home, she told me that I would love it in Japan. She planted a large seed in my head.

I came to Japan with one main goal, to make money.

In 1996, my group of friends were all hustling to earn money. We all had our full-time job, but that was not enough. We took on private students, part-time work and even performed as priests doing wedding ceremonies. Very early upon my arrival I knew that I could work hard and have a comfortable life. And I knew that I could make it on my own.

In 2001, I opened a conversation school. At first, I was only open a few days a week supplementing my income with part-time work. After a few years, I was  busy five days a week plus I needed a part-time teacher. This situation continued. Then about four years ago things changed.

Demographics started impacting enrollment. My area was graying quite fast. Young families were not moving into my area. The local kindergarten was losing students. Two local elementary schools had to merged. From 2011, basically, I had zero new enrollments at the school. The future was looking bleak.

In the meantime, I was working at a few kindergartens part-time. One particularly valued English learning more than the others. This is the kindergarten that changed everything for me. I worked there once a week doing kanai classes. Once a week turned into twice a week plus I did after school kagai classes.

 

I had to make a change.

The kindergarten’s owner had a building, not being used, right next to the kindergarten. Each week I would look at that building and think, “this would be an ideal location for my English school.”

I took the principle/owner of the kindergarten out for dinner.  We had a few glasses of beer, enough to get us feeling happy. I then suggested that we go into the English conversation business together. He was very positive about the prospect, but needed some time to think about it. He did and we formed a partnership. We fixed up that old building and made it the finest English conversation school in the city.

I am happy to report that our partnership is working out beautifully.

I moved into the new facility in September of 2013. 50 students from the previous location relocated with me. From September 2013 to March 2014, 22 new students have joined. From April 2014 to May13, 2014, 46 new students have joined. There are trial lessons scheduled through June. I predict that we will have new students joining throughout the academic year.

 

In conclusion

It’s win win for both of us. The kindergarten is providing more services, convenience, safety and personalization to their students. As for me, I’m getting job security, business help from people who have been running a kindergarten for over 50 years and financial backing. One of my biggest concerns (before the partnership) was one day being able to step back from day-to-day teaching, after all I am not getting any younger.

This partnership with the kindergarten will allow me to run a successful business. In fact, since September 2013, I have hired two part-time teachers to cover the increase of students. This has allowed me to focus on management, to help my teachers, and to make materials.

I feel I have set myself up for a long and prosperous future in the English conversation field.

 

markkulek

I make my home in Gifu, Japan, where I have an English conversation school for both adults and young learners. I have been teaching EFL for 18 years. I’m interested in professional development and activity-based curriculums. You can find me on Twitter as @gifumark

Kaizen, the art of gradual improvement

An essential part of program development

kaizen

I mentioned kaizen (continuous improvement) at the end of my talk on ER program design.

Kaizen is making things better, continuously. Basically finding and solving problems over and over again. Over time, this results in huge improvements and the evolution of programs.

I’ve been very fortunate to be able to work with my colleague Dan E at Tohoku University, who is a master of kaizen. Thanks to this, our extensive reading program is several orders of magnitude better than it was when we started collaborating.

At Cambridge English as well, thinking back to when we started over ten years ago the school and the classes are unrecognizable. Almost everything we do, we do better now.

But kaizen does not happen automatically. It requires teachers to have the desire and the ability to make changes. It also requires a culture of development, where problems lead to solutions that are implemented across the board. Communication is essential and talking about problems with colleagues leads to better solutions.

Some examples of kaizen at Tohoku University:

  • improving worksheets so that students understand them better
  • developing bilingual explanations
  • sharing effective class activities
  • developing protocols to deal with cheating
  • having students write book reports in class instead of for homework

Examples of kaizen at Cambridge English:

  • developing electronic and paper record keeping
  • writing student names in romaji on everything (books, notebooks, attendance cards)
  • developing lesson plans
  • choosing materials
  • organizing the classroom

As you can see, nothing groundbreaking. The main point is that improvements are continuous, problems are dealt with as they come up, solutions are reached through communicating with colleagues and are implemented by everyone.

Kaizen is barely noticeable in the short term, but over a longer period the improvements are staggering.

Do you have any positive or negative experiences with kaizen?

My ‘almost’ mini-lesson

Unfortunately, many students in Japan are taught that ‘almost’ in English is ‘hotondo’ in Japanese

almost

Sadly this is not true, so over the years I have developed a short mini-lesson to correct this false impression and help students better understand the meaning of almost.

The lesson can start at any time, but it requires a trigger: one of the students must translate almost as hotondo.

Once that happens, I quickly go through the following steps:

  1. I point out that even though many teachers and textbooks teach this, almost is not the same as hotondo
  2. I pretend to trip, and then say “phew, I almost fell over just now”
  3. I ask the students to translate the previous sentence: “hotondo korobimashita” sounds really strange, so clearly hotondo is not a good translation here
  4. I tell the students I planned to go to Tokyo this morning, but ended up not going. “I almost went to Tokyo”
  5. Hotondo Tokyo ni ikimashita” also sounds weird
  6. I offer two alternative translations for almost: mou chotto de ~ and ~wo suru tokoro datta
  7. I explain that hotondo is actually almost all in English: mou chotto de zenbu

Of course, this illustrates vividly the perils of learning and teaching vocabulary out of context, which provides another excellent mini-lesson for the students 🙂

Do you have any favourite mini-lessons?

Eikaiwa School Field Trips: Summer at the Zoo

yagiyama zoo

Every year we organize some kind of optional summer event for our students. Past events have included ice skating (feels weird to put on sweaters and gloves in August!), outdoor games, playing in a river, and trips to the seaside. This year we decided to go to Yagiyama Zoo in Sendai with our preschool- and elementary school-aged students.

Before the trip we visited the zoo to plan out routes and activities, bought small sketchbooks for all the students, divided them into groups and assigned teachers to lead each group.

There was a slight problem with the timing of the announcement coinciding with the school being closed for some classes, so that some parents only got the announcement letter after the trip was full! We did our best to accommodate them which led to us needing a larger bus and the groups getting a bit too big for the number of teachers we had (several were away due to the summer holidays).

Then the day before the excursion the weather reports changed from sunny with cloudy spells to rain (60%). Then that evening rain (70%). The next morning the ground was wet when we woke up at six am, but by seven it was raining. By eight thirty (the deadline for making a decision) it was raining heavily.

Fortunately we had a plan B. We had made arrangements to go to the aquarium at Matsushima in the event of rain. This was not ideal, but preferable to cancelling and being out of pocket for the bus hire and other expenses.

The problem with the aquarium is that we hadn’t had time to visit and make plans. It was also much more expensive than the zoo, and smaller. We weren’t sure if there was enough to do there for the four hours we had planned.

Lessons Learned

We learned a lot from this year’s trip. Here are some of the most important things:

1. Having a plan B is essential if weather could impact on your trip. What were the chances of the only rainy day for weeks and weeks being the day we were going to the zoo? Because we had a plan B and had told the students and parents about it our trip wasn’t ruined. However, we should have put more time into getting ready for plan B.

2. Accurately estimating demand, making sure the sign-up process is fair to everyone, and sticking to deadlines and limits on numbers of students is important. We didn’t have any major problems this time, but the large numbers of students made things more difficult for our teachers (I found myself supervising sixteen young children for much of the day, and it was too many for comfort).

3. The number of seats quoted by bus companies include those fold-down seats in the middle. I don’t like them because they are uncomfortable, seem less safe, and mean that it is not possible for teachers to move around the bus when they are in use. In the future, I would like to make sure all the students have a proper seat, with only teachers in the middle seats if necessary.

Conclusion

In the end the trip turned out well. The aquarium had just enough to keep us busy (looking at the fish, drawing pictures, watching the sealion show, shaking hands with a sealion, meeting baby turtles, wading in a big pool, etc.). It was also great that they had a large seating area that wasn’t at all busy, so we could sit the students down in groups and talk to them, have them draw pictures, and eat lunch in an orderly fashion.

I think we were both unlucky (the weather) and lucky (everything turned out fine and the students enjoyed themselves). We also got a few insights for next year.

Does anyone else do field trips?

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