Four Day Teaching Week

I’ve been helping my wife to run her school, Cambridge English in Sendai, for almost twenty years now. One of our main goals is to make it the best working environment possible.

A couple of years ago I had an idea: what if we could cut the teaching week to four days? Our school needs three full time teachers to teach all the classes, but that means that if someone is sick or wants to take a day off we have a problem.

And that is not fair to the teachers. They shouldn’t feel pressured to work just because we don’t have any slack in the system. But that is how things are at many small eikaiwas.

If we could just hire a fourth teacher, we would have someone to cover. It would also allow us to cut the regular teaching load from 26-7 classes a week to 20.

Each teacher would teach three weekdays and Saturday, and have one day to prep, work on projects, or cover for someone else if they couldn’t be there that day. Teachers who proved they were able to work independently could work from home on their non-teaching day.

It seems like a win-win. The teachers will be more relaxed and have time to work on our curriculum and materials and the school will become more robust.

We are not planning to reduce salaries due to this change, so our school should become a more attractive place to work, which should allow us to keep teachers for longer and have more applicants to choose from when we do need to hire someone.

Is anyone else doing a four-day teaching week or considering one?

Home Run Lesson

I just finished teaching a home run lesson (strange thing to say, as I am from the UK and don’t even understand how to play baseball) and am now compelled to write about it.

From this semester I have started teaching a class in a computer lab (you can read about the disastrous second lesson here). Today was a very different experience.

We had another tough class last week, where I gave the students too much work to do in too short a time. This week I wanted to give them a break, and put together something a bit lighter.

You can see the full lesson plan on my teaching blog.

This class has been weird for me. Partly it’s because of the physical properties of the computer lab, where students are much further away and more inaccessible than I am used to. Partly it’s the dynamics of the class, where I communicate with the students via blog, notebook comments, and email. And partly it’s because I have never taught this particular course before, so I’m making it up as I go along.

Today we explored a theme that I am very interested in having students think about. Part language identity poll and part wake-up call, the class examines Japanese speakers of English and asks the students to consider where they would fall on a scale ranging from non-English user to native-like speaker.

It seems I got the timing right this week, as the students all finished on time, but what really blew me away were the comments. I’m going to post a few below. The brackets show comments that were in Japanese originally. Translations are mine and may be inaccurate 🙂

Today’s work was good. I think about why we learn English again. I want to train my English skill, especially listening and speaking skill.

(I noticed that my English is really poor. I want to be able to understand spoken English at the very least. I’ll need English once I start working, so I want to get better at it while I am still a student) 

Today,my motivation rised. I want to become well to speak English like them.In the future, I would like to interview without an interpreter.

It is good for me to see Japanese-speaker in the various phases.I think I am in no English, especially listening, so I will study English everyday and improve my English skill.

(I was completely shocked. I think I will study English more. Thank you)

It was nice to know a few Japanese who has different English skills. I noticed be able to speak English fluently is pretty hard.

Most students said similar things, which made me incredibly happy. My goal for this class was to get students thinking about why they might be studying English, and motivate them to push a little harder.

Now, this lesson is by no means perfect, and I’m already thinking about how to update and improve it, but I wanted to share it as it went down so well.

Has anyone done anything similar?

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.

The purpose of a language school

This year has given me a lot to think about with regards to Cambridge English, the language school I help run. We have been forced to make a lot of changes, closing one location, rearranging the schedule to deal with staff shortages, developing the curriculum to move towards where we want the school to be.

I have also had the chance to do a lot of teaching during the last six months, averaging around 60 contact hours a week and coming very close to burning out.

Brainstorming with other staff has given me some broad principles to follow in the future, and interestingly shows where we went wrong in the past. Some of our previous goals were in fact counter-productive and were holding us back. It has also thrown out some dilemmas that I have not completely resolved yet.

Big or small?

This is probably the first question school owners need to answer. Do you want to be a big school with multiple locations and a large staff, or a small school? We used to want to be big, but it is a horrendous amount of work to grow beyond a couple of teachers, and I am not sure that it is possible to do so without taking a considerable hit in terms of character and quality. Multiple locations means doubling up on resources, something that is almost prohibitively expensive for us (we have thousands of readers and a lot of games and toys). Moving things to where they need to be and keeping track of things is a huge headache that doesn’t exist when you are based in one place.

So, I give up. I am never going to be the CEO of a big company. My talents and temperament don’t seem to be a good fit with that. Instead, I will see how far we can take things on a more manageable scale.

Cheap or expensive?

This is another vital question, one that has become a bit of a no-brainer for us. I believe there is no future for small schools attempting to compete on price. I even feel that charging average fees is a losing proposition for us. Instead, we are going to attempt to become a boutique school, a luxury good in economic terms. As long as your market is large enough (we are in Sendai, a medium-sized city), there should be plenty of potential customers for whom quality is more important than price.

Of course, if you want to charge more, you also have to deliver results. Your classes must be purposeful and show students or their parents how they are helping them. Your school should be attractive, clean, and well-presented. You should have an effective curriculum and decent staff. Effective communication with students and/or parents is also essential.

Provided you actually deliver these things, charging more than other schools around you can be an effective marketing technique. For certain potential customers, higher prices are likely to catch their attention. Why is that school more expensive? In a lot of cases, higher prices will give an image of higher quality.

We have found that each time we raise our prices, demand also rises. Take private lessons for adults: we started at the ridiculously low price point of 8,000 a month for four classes, then raised it to 12,000, then doubled it to 24,000. Each time we raised the price, we got a wave of new enquiries.

Inclusive or exclusive?

This is something I have real trouble with. Our school has always tried to accommodate all students, regardless of their ability or temperament. We have several students with mental or emotional disabilities, and most of them have private classes at group rates because that is the most effective way to meet their needs and the needs of other students.

However, in line with the drive for quality above, I am tempted to screen students entering our school. Often when students come for trial lessons, it is very easy to tell if they are actually interested in English or not. It is also fairly easy to predict how involved their parents are likely to be, or how interested they are in the school.

Motivated students with supportive parents are easy to teach and learn quickly. This leads to a virtuous circle of achievement, where the students learn more, get more satisfaction, and are driven to learn even more.

If you eliminate the disinterested, the disruptive, the disturbed, and the less able, classes will go more smoothly and both students and teachers will enjoy them more. Students are more likely to succeed in this case, and success leads to very effective word of mouth marketing. If you also get a reputation for being selective, then that can increase interest in your school, as people always want things they can’t have.

However, is this fair? As a teacher, I feel a duty to society. If we only take students that can afford to pay elevated fees, we are depriving poorer, possibly equally motivated and able students, of the chance to study with us. If we turn away students with behavioural, emotional, or educational problems, we are discriminating against them as well. Don’t all students have the right to have access to what we can offer them?

Of course, we are a business, not a public school. We can set any policy we like, take or turn away any customer, and set fees at any level.

One way to square this circle is to provide options to accommodate different students. We currently have half a dozen students who are studying for free, because their family circumstances due to divorce, unemployment, or the after effects of the earthquake means that they would not have been able to remain with us as paying students. We also have students who receive private lessons for the price of group ones because they are autistic and do not work well with others: we didn’t feel it was fair to charge them more because of their disability. Perhaps we can extend this model into the future, providing academic scholarships for promising students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford the fees and continuing to cater to non-standard students.

 So, what is the purpose of a private language school?

Is it solely a profit-making enterprise or is there some obligation to serve the community? How do you address these three issues? I would be very interested to hear from other owners and teachers in the comments below.

Power Seminar in Nagoya

I went to the latest Power Seminar in Nagoya last Sunday. It was a really long day (10-19:30) and studying for so long with short breaks really took its toll, but I really enjoyed the day and got a lot out of it. There were four presenters, each presenting for 90-120 minutes on their area of expertise.

Kim Horne, on Creating a Culture of Character in the Classroom;
Kaj Schwermer, on Teaching Children with Games and Activities;
Jeffrey Scott, on Dramaturgy and the Art of Classroom Management;
and Peter Warner, on The Four Stages of the English Alphabetic Code.

Overall, it was a great and well-organised event, and well worth the time and money.

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