After a much deserved Christmas break, and some time to get back up to speed with the English Coaching business, Smith School of English Franchise owners gathered together on February 25th for our first seminar of 2007 held at Smith’s Kyobashi, Osaka head offices. Feedback and requests from the floor showed us that everyone was switched on and ready for the new year. As a result, the responses to new company policy and other issues were met with well thought out, insightful responses.
School owners hailed from as far as the Yokohama area to attend this event. That’s a 400 kilometer journey. One could definitely feel the weight of the personas in the room. Many in attendance have owned their schools here in Japan for over 4 years some others 7 or 8 years. This is a really strong team that likes to work together. Of course newer entries to the Smith’s team were also in attendance and as is common here at Smith’s these newer members are ripe with entrepreneurial spirit and new ideas.
The seminar started off with new products for the franchisees. Smith’s extensive support product list now includes sharp Smith’s embroidered polo design shirts and a set of supplementary cards to enhance the Smith’s curriculum routines already in use through out the school system. These polo’s are sharp and the teaching staff at Kyobashi happened to get the first crack at them. We always tend to wear our stripes with pride but these polo shirts are nice enough that you wouldn’t have to be a school owner to want to put one on.
Attending members were equally excited about the card sets designed to enhance the popular Smith’s Routines in both a visual and tactile fashion.
“I’ve been using a similar type of presentation tool for a long time, only hand written. These professional ones are great!” remarked on franchisee. As owners, we decide how we want to improve our system and our schools: collectively. When we want to improve a presentation method, we do it as a team. One of the reasons to buy a franchise is so that you can just step into the system and get going, no hassles trying to find and design everything from the ground up. It’s all done. No need to seek out suppliers. It’s all done. That’s franchising.
The focus of the seminar shifted from products to curriculum. What were are doing in the classroom. Our latest techniques. To an outsider it might sound strange to hear that standardization is a means to creative freedom. Even some of the seminar attendees were thrown of by the wording. But the concept is simple and at the core of Smith’s success. We have a set curriculum here at Smith’s. It is used at all the schools extensively and we are proud of it. This measure of standardization gives us the freedom to do something that was impossible only six years ago: sell our schools and student bodies to an incoming purchaser as an asset, for a profit. But with standardization, aren’t the need of the student compromised?
Actually the exact opposite is true. One of the most dangerous assumptions you can make in the Eikaiwa business is that any prewritten text anywhere can single handedly service the needs of all individual students. It’s not a great curriculum in the hands of just anyone that helps a student learn to speak. It’s any decent curriculum in the hands of an experienced professional coach. A coach who can identify the needs of the student and tailor any preconceived lesson to that person. That’s why the Smith’s system is so ingenious. From the very start we designed a curriculum that would cover all forms of grammar vocabulary and speaking skills, but at the same time be so flexible, it could really, literally be adapted to any student of any level. It is the simplicity of the lesson plans themselves that allow us to ride over and tailor lessons to the individual needs of students. After all, as a professional isn’t that what you’re doing in your classroom?
The system is designed to be easy to use. It is not designed to dictate exactly what will happen in each minute of the class more it is a course of study designed to be a skeletal structure providing commonality between coaches and an achievable and measurable direction of study for the students. This curriculum provides and ample opportunity for all students in Japan to build their communicative confidence. At the same time, it provides flexibility for teachers in lesson selection, preparation time, and in meeting students’ needs.
By knowing the system well we simply focus on the student and not the course. We say Keep It Simple (KIS). Standardization means we don’t have to think about the lesson, just the student.
We all know that the first time a lesson is taught there are going to be some “oops” moments. At Smith’s our head office training recommends us to familiarize ourselves with the lessons. It just happens naturally over time, but once you reach that point you feel the difference. I don’t need to reference to book. I don’t need to check my page number. I don’t need to read a direction during the class period. Because of that I can focus totally and completely on the very important person sitting in front of me: my student. Every answer, every reaction, every deviation from what I expected a student of that level to say is at the front of my mind and I promise I will use all of these cues to give that student the most effective, most personalized lesson that is possible.
After speaking on this and a few other curriculum/coaching-related subjects we moved over to business, the other side of the Smith’s coin. In reaction to some recent television news reports some have said that the English conversation industry in Japan may be at risk. To some extent we feel this is true. Many schools are at risk. For the most part these are the big schools using ticket or contract systems and the small, nonaffiliated, one-man schools. While we do agree that these types of schools are at risk, that risk does not apply to Smith’s. In the recent months we’ve enjoyed a boost in student intake because of an insurgence of interest in our long standing month by month payment system. This is a time where, unfortunate as it may be; students are simply looking for an integrous school with a straight forward pricing system that they can trust. This complaint has existed since before we opened our doors and set our payment system in 1996.
Some have asked: if students only pay one month in advance what’s to stop them from quitting? Bad form to answer a question with a question but: why would any student of English quit a Smith’s school after experiencing our caring service for anything other than an unavoidable life circumstance? We feel using a payment system that makes it difficult to quit a school is not where we want to focus. We strive instead to keep students in our schools with caring service and lesson quality. This quality comes primarily from our common goal and our common curriculum. This mindset can only be good for schools and students alike.
In regards to selling schools, Mark Smith broke down the step by step process of how to calculate the value of your asset. Selling an existing English school isn’t exactly like selling a car that has a set book value. Selling a developed school franchise entails more of a concern for safety and return on investment. A certain amount of emotion will always accompany a safety and return on investment calculation and it’s understandable that franchisees who have built their school up from nothing into a valuable asset are very emotional about that asset. However, at the end of the day to the incoming buyer it’s a question of numerical safety and return on investment. While statements like this are a bit of a downer in the middle of the franchise seminar, Mark’s comments were met with sober understanding.
In closing, Mark wanted to remind us of our social responsibility. We are the largest group of foreign English schools owners in Japan. We have come further than any other group of like minded foreign school owners in the history of the country. It hasn’t always been easy and we’ve learned a great deal along the way. Naturally we can’t share everything we’ve learned with non-franchise members. However, Mark wanted us to remember there is a lot we can share. Becoming a Smith’s franchisee is not the correct solution for every English teacher in Japan. We understand that some teachers may well be better of as independents. Smith’s wants to improve the reputation if all English teaching in Japan. Therefore, it doesn’t hurt us to share information in hopes of improving all independent schools as well as Smith’s. To this effect, we hope you enjoy this soapbox and, as agreed in the seminar, we will put a few lesson plans up here as well.