“Build it and they will come” is what I remember thinking when I first opened my English school franchise. It feels like just yesterday when I said goodbye to being an employee and made my decision to open my own business. I was young and enthusiastic but really didn’t have much idea of what it would take to run a school. I just knew that it was what I wanted to do. I didn’t always think that way, in fact until the age of 16 I’d never even thought about becoming a teacher.
In school I found myself more inclined towards math and economics so I just assumed that I would become a business man, much like my father. However in the summer of 1991 I decided that rather than spend my vacation just relaxing and hanging out with my friends that I’d opt for a part-time job. Living in Thailand at the time there were few options when it came to summer work but the school I attended had an opening for an English teaching assistant. Little did I know that it was just the beginning and it would end up becoming my profession. And now, at the young age of 32, I find myself having taught English for half of it.
Arrival in Japan
I remember stepping off the plane into what was Osaka airport back in 1994, not sure what to expect. Despite living in the Philippines and Thailand while I was growing up I had no idea of what was laying ahead for me here. I came on a study abroad program for 6 months and although I found the first month tough to get acclimated to, once I made some friends I began to see how wonderful Japan really was and how much it had to offer.
I consider myself lucky to have lived here in Japan for 12 years now. I’m often asked by my students and people I meet “Why do you like Japan?” to which I always reply the same thing; the people. They’ve gone out of their way to make me feel welcome in their country and have shown me the true warmth of the Japanese heart.
Teaching in Japan means different things to different people. For some it’s about making money, plain and simple, while for others it’s about making a difference. I would have to say that most of the teachers I’ve met here during my time would have to be somewhere in the middle. They enjoy teaching and want to help people but at the same time want to have a comfortable life and be able to make a decent living.
I started off like nearly every teacher here in Japan, working for a big company. I was fortunate enough to find work near my apartment and not have to work late at night as my school focused on kids. However no matter how much I enjoyed teaching my students I always felt something was missing. It wasn’t until I joined Smith’s a few years later that I figured out what it was. If you asked me to sum it up in a word I’d have to say “care”.
Teaching at a big school has its good points and bad but no matter where you teach there are many rules in place to discourage student teacher interaction outside of class. My students aren’t just students to me but my friends. I care about them. English becomes a medium for us to discuss numerous topics and gives them an insight into my culture. After all learning a language isn’t just about knowing words and grammar it’s a whole way of thinking. You need to open up your mind and accept new ideas and concepts. When I first started studying Japanese I often wondered why people did things a certain way or why some expressions couldn’t be translated into English. Now, having been here for the amount of time that I have I can see that both languages have their benefits and drawbacks and those shape the way we react to things. I feel that I’m in the unique position in which to be an ambassador of my country, helping people understand more about the world and bringing us all closer together.
I know what it’s like to study a foreign language. I studied Spanish for 8 years and found it frustrating. I was forced to study it and never really could see the need for it as I didn’t intend to ever live in a Spanish speaking country. But learning English is different, it’s basically the only language that has no borders. Whether you live in Brazil, Japan or Italy English can be used. It is the business language of the world and at the same time allows you to make friends with people from all over the world. It truly is the lingua-franca.
Taking the Plunge
So what really pushed me into leaving my stable job and try my hand at running my own business? I got tired of getting taken for granted at my ex-company. I could see that no matter how hard I worked there were limits set in place for all the teachers. The company kept getting bigger and richer yet our salaries remained basically the same.
Taking the leap into having your own school isn’t for everyone but I saw it as an opportunity to take control of my own destiny. Rather than earning a set salary regardless of how many hours I taught or how many students I had I wanted to be rewarded for my effort. The more time and energy I put into my school and students the more chance I have to succeed. Success for me is having a school that puts the students’ needs first and at the same time allowing me time to do what I want. Smith’s support throughout my school’s growth has given me the chance to focus on making materials for teaching kids, learn magic, study computers and truly enjoy my time in Japan.
Many people have asked me why I didn’t just choose to open my own school and do everything myself. Some might think building a school is easy. I’ve heard people say “All you need is a room to teach from, some text books and then advertise in a local magazine.” I knew that it takes much more than that to be successful. Especially as a school grows the more business experience you’ll need to handle it – laws, taxes, scheduling, advertising, customer relations are just some of the things you’ll need to deal with sooner or later. That’s why I’m glad I chose to join Smith’s, they allowed me forego the learning period of how to establish a business. The staff takes care of dealing with the students regarding scheduling and when it comes to business issues I always have someone to talk to. At present there are over 40 schools and talking to the owners of them gives me ideas as to how I can improve my own. And then there’s Mark Smith who started out teaching but now focuses on running the business which gives me access to someone who’s succeeded in Japan and can help me do the same. It’s nice to know that I have that support behind me when I need it.
I once asked my friend in the US if he’d be interested in coming to Japan to teach English at Smith’s but he told me that he had no absolutely no interest in teaching and he wanted to focus on business. I honestly felt he was missing the big picture. Some of the franchise owners I’ve met just want to teach but others intend to use their school as a stepping stone to achieve bigger goals. Using the money they make from their school to do things such as build another school, invest in real estate or focus on various hobbies ranging from scuba diving to photography. I’m no different, I hope to one day make an education center in the area I live. I hope to give back to the community that has so kindly welcomed me into its arms.
Even when my school was small and I didn’t have that much money I invested as much as I could back into my school. I still do, constantly upgrading to help make the students’ experience more enjoyable. As I love DVDs I have a sizeable collection which I add to regularly and allow my students to borrow them in the hopes that it’ll encourage them to study more. I buy souvenirs from my travels overseas and give them copies of the photos they like. The more they like English the more they’ll study which in the end means they’ll stay longer.
One friend here in Japan is stuck in the “poor dad” syndrome (from Robert Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” – a fantastic book), he loves the money he makes from the 3 jobs he has here in Japan. He wakes up at 6am and starts working at an elementary school from 8am, at 1 he heads to his regular job which ends at 8 or 9pm and then teaches privately after that on some days. His “day off” is devoted to teaching privately meaning he’s making somewhere around double the average teacher’s salary (and paying the government a handsome fee in tax each month). Now although he’s not “poor” by any means he is somewhat trapped. He loves what that money allows him to do but what happens when he has a kid and wants to spend time with his family, he’ll have to turn down some of those jobs meaning a loss in income. He’ll have to make a choice, work hard and keep the money coming in for my family or find ways to not spend money possibly giving up some hobbies. The big problem I see for him is that now he’s in his 30’s and he’s able to work from 8 to 10 everyday but what happens when he’s 50, will he be able to maintain such a tiring schedule? Owning a school will have its ups and downs as one learns how to succeed but in the end it’ll give you the power to set up the kind of life that you want.
One thing the people who are teaching here should never forget is that we are foreigners. The Japanese do business differently than we might. And as such we need Japanese support to help guide us not to make mistakes. Smith’s has been in business for 10 years now so they’ve been around and know how to run a business in Japan which is something I’m still learning about thanks to their help.
One big thing to consider is if you do want to stay in Japan but not work for the big schools is the visa issue. If you’re married to a Japanese citizen then this isn’t an issue but when I first started out I was single and needed a visa to enable me to stay here.
I know some people who have chosen to leave their company jobs and start their own school but when their visa runs out most are forced to pack up their bags and head home. Some abandoning their students while others try to sell their classes to other teachers looking to make some money on the side. For me I see making money as a bonus, the true enjoyment is seeing my students enjoy English and seeing it change their lives; some going on to travel overseas, while others decide to go on study-abroad programs.
All of us have moments in our lives that change us forever, whether it’s meeting the woman of your dreams or deciding to study English. I am no different except that one of those moments came on Dec 26th, 2004 when I was in Khao Lak, Thailand. There, my wife and I came face to face with death itself in the form of a tsunami. Despite our bungalow collapsing around us we managed to escape with only minor injuries. We witnessed so much pain and suffering all around us. But it showed me what’s truly important – life itself. I knew what it meant to truly help others and that’s why I continue to teach English because I believe I was given this chance for a reason.
Could I have done it by myself? Maybe I could, but how many mistakes would I have made along the way? Being alone means that each step you take is your first and just have to hope that you’re making the right one. I’m thankful that I decided to go with Smith’s and am excited about what life has in store for me next.