Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Finding work in Tokyo - Part 4: Becoming an English teacher 1/3

Note: It's been a while. Life is fast in Japan and there is always so much to do, even if it means to do nothing but watching TV or playing Mario Kart on the WiiU (our newest addition to the shared house family). But it's my school's holiday, so I have to catch up on stuff.

In case you forgot, before coming to Japan I always told myself and others one thing; I will never become a recruiter or a teacher in Japan. But here I am now, a teacher. A bloody good one too, I dare say.

It all started back in November 2013 when I decided to send in an application to Berlitz and GABA, both of them big English conversation schools or Eikaiwa / 英会話 here in Japan. It was becoming more and more difficult to obtain a job or internship, so I became kind of desperate. I also met a lovely girl who was an English teacher down in Chiba, who really changed my mind about the stigma to English teachers in Japan. She was a passionate teacher and she loved teaching her kids. We had many eye-opening discussions about teaching in general and it was her, among other people around me, who encouraged me to try a teaching job. Not just because of my English, but also because of my character. Indeed, I have been called "Mr Teacher" on many occasions in the past, but mostly because I just patronized them too much. Kind of a bad habit. But having worked successfully as a Consultant for years, I felt that teaching wasn't that far from what I already did. So with enough practice and support, I could do that I thought.

So surprisingly enough, both my applications were returned with a follow-up message, but I turned down Berlitz rather quickly because I didn't want to settle with them for a full year. So instead I went for the interview at GABA.

The first part of the interview was rather tough. I was in my finest suit and had too many layers in order to relax. So I was sweating, as usual when coming from a mild cold outside into a aircon-blasting heat inside of a building. Damn you Japan and your air-conditioning. Of course I was nervous. I never had a job interview for a teaching job, so I just tried to give my best professional impression. We were given a presentation about GABA first and I was quite impressed on how much they integrated IT in their workflows. The system worked on individual lesson, bookable by the students and accessable by the teacher online with full control and insight. They had computers in every booth and all lesson reports and feedback were accessible via computer.

And the best part was, they were not only employing native English speakers. The presenter itself was not a native but from Singapore. He did a pretty good job in having cast away his Singlish accent. He had a funny habit though. Whenever being asked a question, he always replied with "that's an interesting question" first before actually answering or mostly avoiding a real answer actually. Another fun part, there was a guy from Scotland or New Zealand, I can't remember. I could barely understand his English and I'm definitely not bad with accents. But his was unintelligible.

So the tough part of the interview was actually planning a lesson. We were given a text example as well as a choice of two different tasks and had 30min or so to work on it. One was "teach the student the difference between bored and boring". The other one I forgot, but it was more difficult. I had no experience whatsoever in laying out a lesson plan, so I just followed my instincts and tried my best. The bonus question about idioms was almost too difficult for me, two of 5 idioms I had never heard of before.

The one-on-one review of our task was great. I managed to impress the guy in front of me and he quickly gave me the (tentative) go for a 2nd interview in a week. Needless to say, I felt like a million bucks after.

The second interview was quite great too. My interviewer was a women from Wales with a lovable accent. I totally nailed the task of teaching a 10min lesson to a Japanese low English level mid-thirties business lady who liked to travel. Of course the lady from Wales was pretending to be the Japanese student and she did that eerily well. I think I looked at her cleavage a bit too often and I also think she noticed it. But anyways, the interview went really well and her feedback was really great. It gave me absolute confidence that I could do this, namely teaching one-on-one.

But yeah, maybe because of the cleavage-staring but probably because of some other stupid reasons I didn't get the job in the end. They didn't even care to state why and only gave me standardized crap. So I asked them/her again by email, naturally frustrated with the outcome of this great hope of mine. All I could find out from her was that the competition was strong and the better candidate apparently got the job. Bummer. Total bummer.

This was around the beginning of December 2013. I tried a couple of other things but nothing really worked so I kept on working at the restaurant and the only promising thing was a small job ad on craigslist for a hostel near Asakusa. Normally nothing on craigslist should be considered legit or safe I think, but this guy turned out quite cool. I'll write about it in another post.

Fast forward to the end of January 2014. Via Verena and the Internship Japan LinkedIn group, I was connected to a Japanese guy who was looking for part-time English teachers for his brand new International Preschool named GA. It was in West-Asakusa and therefore not far from my school, the perfect location for a part-time job. So I went there for a first interview and was overwhelmed by the positive and friendly energy at the place. They even had a ballpool! How awesome was that?! So I had my chat with the manager, a Japanese guy who clearly enjoyed eating. He was super friendly and funny, so we shared some good laughs during our talk in a mix of bad English and bad Japanese. He explained to me that they were looking for someone who could play with the kids (age 3-6) while teaching them English and other stuff. Because I had an IT background, they wanted to use that for the lessons as well. The interview was really nice and I was quite interested in the job, yet unsure if I would be good enough with the kids. I mean I love kids and I love to play with them, but the only experience I had so far was with my nieces. Being their uncle was something else than being a teacher, a stranger.

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I expressed these concerns during my second interview with Miho Saijo, who was an external education consultant to the young start-up, fluent bi-lingual, education professional and not to mention an attractive business lady. The interview was extremely enjoyable and challenging, and because there was no language barrier between us, I could express myself in normal English. I was able to speak freely and give my honest thoughts and opinions to her challenging questions. She stressed the point of a good early childhood education and how to listen to the child's needs vs. the wants. She obviously had a lot of experience in this matter. At that time I didn't know a lot about childhood education in general or Japan in particular, other than what I heard and saw my brother and sister-in-law doing with their kids (my nieces). Both were childcare workers and great parents. Apparently they did it just right, so what I learned from, the combination of my total work experience and maybe a bit of my charm (and less cleavage staring this time) did the trick. We shared some good laughs and interesting discussion points during the interview. Luckily, my soon-to-be co-worker Grace (an adorable American-Chinese women with a big heart for kids) gave me a little heads-up on some of the tougher questions and later did a great job in showing me how to engage with the kids in a fun lesson. The lesson after the interview was the final test so to say. The kids were adorable and surprisingly good in English. I was nervous as fuck in the beginning, oh boy.  But eventually and officially, I became part of GA and a part-time English teacher for kids.

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This sounds like the beginning of a happy story and in the beginning, it actually was. It felt great to be part of something growing, a start-up, where I could throw in what I already knew and learn what I don't know yet. Exactly what I imagined my dream job to be. Working with kids was so rewarding, so much fun. Oh yeah, and don't forget the ballpool!! And the free coffee!! And my colleagues Grace, Ayumi and Ivan!! As you can see below, our very first big meeting in an awesome Brazilian restaurant was really a team-building moment.

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But unfortunately, this story had no happy ending for me and was over just after 3 months. It was a tough ending, a bitter ending for me, just like when a relationship ends that just isn't good for you now but you can't, you won't give it up because there is so much good in it too. It was my very first experience on how different Japanese thinking sometimes is when it comes to work and business. I will write more about it in part 2. Stay tuned.