After nearly ten years of teaching English, eight of those spent in Japan and over five in the Smiths franchise system, I have reached the profound conclusion that running a small language school for adults is much like operating a successful hairdresser’s, and I’m not simply referring to handing out fliers on the street…
- A Quick Analogy
Some students (customers) have very specific requirements in mind, know exactly what they want and will tell you directly. Others come in expecting the teacher (hairdresser) to advise them what’s best for them, and so put their trust in the teacher’s expertise. Meanwhile there are those who don’t really know what they want, but just have the feeling that it’s time they improved their English (“brushed up”) you could say? – (or to continue the analogy, time for a cut). Finally there are those whose motivation is more social: they just like coming in for a chat (a trim) and to spend a regular amount of time every month in a relaxed, comfortable environment.
A successful salon is able to meet the needs of these various customers and by doing so establish a loyal clientele who are happy to come back time and again, even when cheaper alternatives appear in the same area. The same is true for language learners, so the real challenge that befalls a school owner is how to deal with the different types of students when they are taking the lessons at the same time, and still keep them all happy. In fact I think the answer to this question can also lead to greater satisfaction for the teacher himself/herself, and avoid the weariness of teaching that is all too common among eikaiwa instructors.
First of all let me get out of the way some of the basics that are shared by both hairdressers and teachers. Naturally the classroom should be a comfortable place: warm, bright and clean. A complementary tea/coffee service also goes a long way to promoting the “at home” atmosphere that we are after. Recently I’ve been using aromatic oils too, and they have been especially popular with my students (and it beats the smell of shampoo). Also, it can be taken for granted that as school-owner and teacher I should be welcoming and friendly to my students at all times: even when they’ve turned up too early or late for the class; even if they cancel at the last minute, or no show without warning.
So with a comfortable working environment established, a budding language school / hairdresser’s probably has nearly half the battle won, the remainder rests in the skill of the owner (and/or staff). Now I can’t comment on what it takes to become an expert barber (and sadly my need for their services itself is diminishing year by year), but I did undertake a Master’s degree in TESOL to find out what makes a skilled teacher. Obviously I won’t be able to distill all that I’ve learned on the course here and now, but I would like to touch upon some core principles and outline what they actually mean in practice in the classroom.
The three principles are:
1) learners are exposed to RICH INPUT of the target language.
2) They have many opportunities to INTERACT with the language.
3) they are MOTIVATED to learn.
Although I’d like to claim authorship of these principles, they are in fact based on the findings of the Common European Framework for teaching languages, and the results of any research undertaken to solve the EU’s language problems should be taken very seriously!
Anyway back to the classroom, what do these principles mean in practice?
Rich input refers to the texts, tapes and other materials used in class, usually in order to present or practice language forms. They are deemed rich if they resemble real-life, authentic texts whilst still being within the range of the learners’ comprehension. One of the best and oft overlooked sources of rich input is the teacher himself/herself. Not only do experienced teachers naturally modify their spoken language to fit the learners’ ability, but when they chit-chat with the students they are actually providing very authentic language! A lot of teacher trainers tell new language teachers to be careful to cut down teacher talk time (TTT), and indeed there’s nothing more demotivating for a student than to spend most of the class time listening to their teacher retelling their favourite anecdote that bears no relevance to the student’s needs or interests. However it would be foolish for the teacher to deny exploiting this fertile source of rich input. One way to make it more instructive and interactive is to get your students to anticipate what you’re going to say. For example, let’s say you’re practising simple past tenses: get the students to collaborate and make some questions about what you did last weekend. Then get them to guess your answers and write them on the board whilst you leave the room, or hide in a corner. When they have finished, come back into the room and without looking at their guesses, answer the questions as fully as you think they will comprehend. Finally you can check their comprehension by getting them to correct their own guesses.
Activities like these are interesting for any number of student types: from those with a mainly social interest in coming to class to those who have specific requirements in mind (like improving their listening). The key to their success is readily promoting the second core principle, that of interaction – not only between you and the student, but between the students themselves. One of the best ways to foster this interaction is by setting up a 5 minute period at the start of each class for the students to answer the question “What’s new?” This has a number of benefits: it can act as a buffer for students who arrive at different times, so that you don’t need to restart the lesson “proper” when someone arrives late; through repeated exposure to this question, even the lowest levels begin to speak up, and I’ve found that the really motivated end up writing pages of notes in preparation just for this part. Also it’s a good opportunity for the teacher to encourage the other class members to show interest and ask questions themselves.
- Common Courtesy
Showing interest in the student is one of the best ways to motivate them as well. If they know that they are going to be able to tell you one of the their favourite anecdotes at the start of the class, and you’re going to laugh or sympathise as appropriate, it can provide real encouragement for the student to come back and stick with you as their teacher. A student once told me that it was one of his aims to make me laugh in every class – fortunately he’s a naturally funny guy, so it wasn’t hard. One point that’s worth mentioning is how to handle correction of errors. In academic circles there’s great debate on when – or indeed if at all – to correct a student’s mistake. Obviously those student types who come expecting the teacher to point out their errors may appreciate corrections more than the “I’m here just to chat” crowd. I think that in terms of creating an interactive, motivating classroom where authentic language flows, it’s much better to correct a student some time after the error has been made, in fact after the turns you’d expect to see in a normal conversation outside the classroom.
Student A: I seen Beat Ta-
Teacher B: I’ve seen
A: I’ve seen Beat Takeshi today at the –
B: ah, you mean I saw Beat Takeshi today
A: I, I saw Beat Takeshi today at Kyoto station
B: Good, that’s right. Really?
A: I seen Beat Takeshi today at Kyoto station!
B: Really? You saw Beat Takeshi? Wow, what was he doing?
A: I don’t know, but many people around him.
B: Taking his picture?
B: Did you?
A: No, too far. He was too far.
B: I see… etc etc…
B: By the way, your first sentence… I seen Beat Takeshi today. I seen Beat Takeshi?
The second exchange values the information the student is communicating (and thereby the student themselves) much more than the first, and so is much more motivating for the student to encounter. Incidentally it’s well worth recording lessons from time to time (with the whole class’s permission of course!) just to hear for yourself how your lessons progress, and to hear your own teaching style – I’ve certainly been shocked by some of my mannerisms that had escaped unnoticed before!
These are just some ideas on how to implement the core principles of successful language teaching, and thereby accommodate the needs of different student types. I said before that with them I’ve also found a great deal of job satisfaction: not just from people who’s aim it is to make me laugh in class, but actually witnessing the gradual improvement of my students. I used to think that teaching eikaiwa was like playing golf without keeping any scores: it may be fun for a while, but without any tangible measure of progress, it can feel a little pointless. Now by attracting and keeping hold of students for a long period of time, I’ve seen complete beginners progress to a level where they can comfortably talk about almost anything, and I feel great pride in their achievements.
Hope my ramblings help in some way to answer the perennial question on how to keep students once they’ve joined your school. How to get the students in the first place is another matter. Thought about handing out fliers? It seems to work for hairdresser’s…