Taking Students to Australia (2012)

australia

Late in 2011, we received a cold call from a company offering study trips abroad. Ordinarily we don’t take sales calls, but we’d been considering an overseas trip for a while, and so we sat down with the rep to get more information. He turned out to be a former high school teacher, and was very personable and informed.

Their prices were also surprisingly cheap.

By the time we came to a decision, it was mid-January, leaving us precious little time to recruit students to go. We decided to go to the Gold Coast of Australia for ten days to do a language study and homestay program. The company would organize everything. The cost was around 300,000 yen, we were paid 10,000 yen per participant, and one teacher (me) would be able to go along on the trip for free.

We had a mixed experience.

The problems

1. Some of the homestay families were less than stellar. This was probably the worst problem and one of the most difficult to avoid as a school. Specifically, we had families that refused to let the children do laundry or use the phone, families that only spoke Chinese at home, and families that left our students in a car for three hours. Thankfully we didn’t run into anything more serious. The agency, when pressed on this, passed the buck to the local language school. The school? They said that due to the late booking they had been forced to deal with families they hadn’t worked with before.

2. The local language school providing the lessons was Japanese-owned. All the students there were Japanese. All the companies they dealt with, including the riding school we went to, were Japanese-owned and operated. On the one hand this provided our students with a comfortable environment, but it kind of negated the benefits of going all the way to Australia.

3. The agency took a large profit (I estimate around 100,000 yen per student) and didn’t really provide anything that we couldn’t have done ourselves. They also did things like taking the students to pushy shops where they received commission on sales, something I didn’t find out about until after the fact, when some of our students ended up buying semi-precious stones as gifts.

4. One of our participants did not have the social skills to deal with the new environment and the other members of our group, which made things quite difficult at times.

The benefits

1. The students enjoyed the trip, and came back completely energised and motivated. They had experienced an English-speaking environment and seen that it wasn’t as hard as they had thought but also that their skills were nowhere near good enough. All of them have done much better in their studies since coming back to Japan.

2. Going through the agency meant that we had to do little preparation for the trip.

3. The school is now able to advertise study trips abroad, which enhance its image.

4. I really enjoyed spending that amount of unstructured time with the students and ended up much closer with many of them.

Things we learned

1. The more layers there are between you and the final product, the less control you have. As we had no dealings with the local school that actually arranged everything, we were not able to head off problems or confirm our requests in advance.

2. The agency was not worth the money they received.

3. Doing pre-departure briefings and post-return feedback sessions is very good. We also had the students write essays about the trip, translated them so we had English and Japanese, laid them out and had them printed professionally as a souvenir. It cost about 1000 yen per copy, but was well worth it as the families were very happy and we got a few extra copies to use as publicity for the school.

4. Having time all together at the end of the trip (we ended up staying in a hotel for two nights as there was a problem with the flights) is a great way to end a trip on a high note, and gives the students a kind of ‘reward’.

Overall

Overall, I’m glad we did the trip. It was an interesting experience for the students and me. As a school, it gave us a start in organising our own study abroad trips. With what I know now, I would have done it differently (asked a lot of questions and insisted on talking to everyone involved) but we were lucky: even with the problems detailed above, we didn’t run into anything serious.

Stay tuned for part 2, taking students to Europe and organising everything ourselves!

Taking Students Overseas

ANA plane

I just returned from our second overseas study trip with young learners. It was one of the most exhausting things I have ever done, and involved a large amount of stress for a relatively small return.

Taking students overseas can be a very positive activity for an eikaiwa school:

1. It can be profitable
2. It can raise the school’s profile and image
3. It can be hugely beneficial to student motivation

However, there are also huge potential risks:

1. Worst case scenarios are really bad, and could prove fatal to the school
2. It can involve a huge amount of supplementary work
3. Unexpected expenses can eat up your profit and even push the trip into the red

After two ‘successful’ (I define successful as not having encountered any serious problems) trips, I have learned a huge amount about what doesn’t work. The next two posts will be detailed trip reports and reflections.

Does anyone else organize overseas trips?

Tohoku (Sendai) ETJ Expo -Sunday December 2 at Tohoku Bunka Gakuen University

I’ll be presenting at the ETJ Expo in Sendai this weekend, talking about useful online resources to help students study more effectively.

The schedule for the event is here, and the map/directions are here.

My workshop is at 12:30 -hope to see you there!

Skewed rewards and incentives (why are university teachers at the top of the pile?)

 

I have taught at private language schools, public elementary, junior high, and senior high schools, and universities in Japan. They roughly rank in that order in terms of prestige, financial remuneration, and ease of getting a job.

A job at an eikaiwa school is the easiest to get, the worst paid, and has the least amount of prestige (want proof? See how estate agents treat you). Working in public schools is better paid, more challenging to get, and is perceived as being higher by society (some of the dwindling prestige of public school teachers rubs off). Finally, a university position tends to pay rather well, involves jumping through various hoops (publications, experience teaching at the tertiary level, Japanese ability, postgraduate qualifications), and confers a reasonably high status (varying somewhat according to the institution in question).

Seemingly illogically, the actual amount of skill required to do the job well seems to run in the opposite direction. I would say, based on my experience, teaching at an eikaiwa, where you will probably have students ranging from 3 to 70 years old, and classes that run the gamut from 40 kindergarteners to one sleep-deprived businessman or a group of senior citizens, requires the most skill to perform well.

Teaching in public schools can provide discipline challenges, but the range of teaching situations is less varied and the curriculum provides a framework that reduces the amount of material teachers need to master.

Finally, teachers at the university level probably need the least amount of teaching skill to get by: their students are selected for academic potential (yes, even at the worst universities) and teachers tend to have the freedom to decide on the content of their classes. University teachers are pretty much encouraged to teach to their strengths, and can get away with teaching a narrow range of material if they so choose.

So why are the positions that need the most skilled teachers the worst paid?

You can see something similar even within public schools: kindergarten teachers are the least well paid and regarded, followed by elementary school teachers, then junior high school teachers, and finally high school teachers. However, if we look at the potential impact that teachers can have upon their charges, the early years are far more influential. Children who have excellent teachers during the first years of their schooling, then mediocre ones later, are likely to do much better than children in the opposite situation. Why then does society seem to have its priorities so badly skewed?

Is this fixable? Can you imagine a world where kindergarten teachers are given the pay, training, and status the importance of their job deserves? Will the cushiness of university positions be reflected in salaries?

As always, comments very much appreciated below.

Teach Like a Champion in Japan

Teach Like a Champion is a recent book by Doug Lemov. Despite the cheesy title, I found it interesting, inspiring, and useful, and heartily recommend it to any teacher facing classes (the techniques are probably less useful for teaching one on one).

The book was written from a US K-12 (kindergarten to twelfth grade) perspective, so is a perfect fit for teachers working in elementary or junior high schools. Not all of the techniques are suitable for high school or university students, but a lot of them are, particularly in Japan, so even teachers working at those levels should consider it.

Teach Like a Champion is based on a philosophy of efficiency (what works best for the most students in the least amount of time). It’s a mindset that I admire and have been trying to apply to my classes here for quite some time now. One of my favourite parts of the book is where Lemov talks about the opportunity cost of activities:

“(reading) is a high-quality activity (when done efficiently) that can be carried out in any classroom, at any time, and with limited additional preparation or expense required. You can always invest any stretch of time, short or long, in meaningful reading and reap a strong and predictable retun. Furthermore, if you know you could always be doing meaningful reading -in any class, at any time -you can examine your other investments of time critically: do they exceed the value of meaningful reading? Are they potentially higher return but riskier and therefore should be balanced with something more reliable?  As you ask these questions, you may well find that reading crowds out some of the other ways you invest your time.”

This mindset permeates the book, and makes it very persuasive. The idea of the opportunity cost of classroom activities is a simple one that I had never really thought about specifically. On reflection, my benchmark activity teaching English in Japan is extensive reading. Now, for me to do something else in class requires that it be more profitable than ER. Using this idea makes a huge difference to lesson planning.

I really like how Lemov brings a critical eye to classroom practice, making the overall tone of the book one of experimentation. The bulk of the book, however, is taken up by 49 very specific teaching techniques. Lemov claims that after observing hundreds of masterful teachers, he found that many of them were using the same strategies and activities, which he describes in Teach Like a Champion. There is also an online supplement with videos of the teachers in question using the techniques. In my opinion it is worth buying the book just to get access to this resource.

Teach Like a Champion is not perfect. It can feel a little cultish at times (all the techniques have names, which Lemov explains as being necessary in order to clearly convey what he is talking about, but names like “at bat” or “pepper” sometimes feel a bit silly), and the focus is very much on the US K-12 system. However, most of the techniques are universal, and I have successfully implemented them with both small group eikaiwa kids and university classes. All things considered, Teach Like a Champion is one of the best books on teaching I have read (I’ve actually read it twice, and am about to re-read it again to refresh everything), and a couple of friends who have also read it feel the same way.

Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be available through Amazon.co.jp, so I ended up buying the Kindle version from Amazon.com and reading it on my iPhone, but it’s worth getting a copy sent from the US. For a free postage and packing option, check out The Book Depository.

* Disclaimer: the links in this review are affiliate links. If you click on the links and then buy the product, Amazon or The Book Depository will pay me about 3% of the cover price. This comes out of their profits, it does not make the product more expensive for you than buying it normally. Think of it as a tip to this blog. Of course, if you prefer, you can go straight to their websites and search for the book yourself. I won’t hold it against you 😉

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