Thursday, 21 August 2014

Finding work in Tokyo - Part 4: Becoming an English teacher 2/3


3 months at GA

After being accepted into this newly founded school, I was in high spirits and super motivated. Being really nervous about interacting with kids at first, I quickly became confident in my work and tasks at hand. I learned at lot from my co-worker Grace and Ayumi, who not only loved kids above everything they were also skilled and educated in what they did. In addition to that, working with them was incredibly fun and always with a cheeky, not too serious touch. If it wasn't for them, I would have quit the job way earlier than I eventually did.

I usually came to work after my language school had ended, did my homework while having a coffee and enjoying a chat. I even got some help with my Japanese, something of extreme value for me (it was free, haha). Around 2pm my shift started. After doing some preparation work (yeah, even cleaning toilets), we had until around 5 or 6pm with 2 or more kids. They first thing was always playing in the ball pool which was usually my job. I had to keep them entertained and watch them not to kill each other (more difficult than you might think). Because the never seem to get tired of playing there, we sometimes ended the day with the pool too, watching Lazy Town, Disney shorts or AKB48/Psy music videos (they loved to dance and sign to it, so hillarious sometimes).

The actual lessons were a mix of Grace's infamous science experiments, playing games, eating snacks and basically doing fun stuff while speaking English to them and challenging them to interact with us in English. It was more than the usual colors, numbers and feelings stuff that you see these days, GA had some pretty high goals on diversity of lesson content and encouraging positiveness in the kids. Writing about this now reminds me how much fun this lessons actually were, how super unique and fun it sometimes can be to talk to 4 year olds in a foreign language. It's hard to describe but all in all, these moments were the best memories of my job. Early childhood education is definitely not an easy job but it's so rewarding and a crucial foundation to becoming a good person in your life. The teachers and staff at GA truly did a good job and I tried my best to follow their example.

But as you already guessed, not all was gold in the land of cheap part-time labor there. If I would have to name the major problem of this company during my time there, I would say management. First of all, there was a manager who was more of a cook and had no (visible) management experience with staff and education. Second, on top of him on the hierachy map there were two owners, one being the main owner (社長) and basically the guy with the money and the other the sister of the manager. Both owners were good friends too. Then there was Miho who was an external consultant and quasi manager, again a good friend of both owners. So the friend and family ties in this company were strong. This could have been a good thing, but maybe because this is Japan, it turned out to be extremely difficult, not only for me. This was my first experience and insight in a Japanese company and what I experienced from the point of view of an part-timer (アルバイト) was definitely not pretty.

Having said that, I should mention that I'm definitely not the shut-up-and-smile type of guy. I had a good relationship with my bosses in the past, but not a harmonic one. There were disputes and arguments, but all in a professional manner and always with respect. In Japan, it's important to follow the rules and just do as being told, without questioning and without wondering when you are waaayyy down on the hierarchy. As a part-timer, I was the lowest creature of them all, a fact that I realized too late or tried to not see until it was too obvious.

I loved working at GA because I could interact with the kids and have fun while also being part of something growing, a start-up. From the start I threw in all the professional experience I had, shared ideas and how to improve things. I created a LinkedIn and Facebook page, urging them to make use of the power of social media to boost their business. But all I was met with was reluctancy. No matter how hard I tried to convince them of the positive impact of my ideas (Facebook stuff was just one of them), the general response was a "nah, I don't think we need that" in 8 of 10 cases. In addition to that, the above mentioned triangle relationship left the staff with a manager with all the responsibility but not decision-making power, insufficient multicultural relations skills and a two-headed direction-giving entity (the owners). Oh and everything took soooo long to get done. It's common knowledge that decisions in Japan take their time to be made because people want to be sure to have every aspect and impact fully understood before. While from a strategical and quality management point of view I like that idea, in our case and being a start-up, things took way too long. Painfully too long.

Patience is what you need in Japan, I knew that fully well. And I was willing to go the extra mile, bite my lip and follow the rules. After all this was a great chance they were giving me, with a prospect of a visa sponsorship or even a management position if the business goes as planned. So I held on to it, remembering the simple promises they have made in the beginning like an average 20h work week, a real contract, a part-time friendly payment system. Oh right, did you know that in Japan it's apparently pretty common for some companies to pay you a month later than you the month you actually worked in? For example, you worked in February but get paid at the end of March! And here's the dealbreaker, for some mysterious reason the full-timers get their payment earlier. Sure, part-timers work by the hour but no matter how you put it, this payment system just plain sucks in my opinion.

There were other problems too. Without enough kids in the school, the bosses became a bit nervous and desperately thought of ways to become more profitable. So that was when they had the idea of me teaching adult students. Great stuff and honestly another big chance for me to proof my worth. I did a couple of lessons before we even discussed the payment, which luckily in my and their understanding should be a bit higher than the hourly pay I already received as a part-timer. But what they eventually offered me for teaching was ridiculously low. I challenged them to raise their offer or give me at least more security for my future, being in month no. 2 already with no written contract and more and more unresolved issues stacking up.

On top of that, they even raised their expectations and demanded more of me. All of a sudden I saw myself with the task of developing a student curriculum, lesson plans, special TOEIC lessons, and so on. They expected me to show some effort, which felt like a slap on the face for me sometimes, considering my position and the many unresolved issues. It felt like they expected the work of a full-timer but only paid me like a part-timer. Oh and of course I was also treated like one. But I did as requested and got stuff done. Of course I put less heart into it and only did the minimum, but I got it done in a professional way, only to see that the requested documents or ideas already existed within their folders. Nothing I hate more than doing redundant work. So I asked a couple of questions on the way too.

But here's the catch. In my position, I was not entitled to questions. I remember a long talk with my manager in half English, half Japanese, about where I stand and what people expect me to be like. He kept pointing out situations which were, almost unbeknown to me at that time, showed my reluctant behavior and basically flawed performance. Here's one situation he mentioned:

The entrance area / cafe was full with staff and even one of the bosses was there. We were having relaxed chats, one of the things I really liked about working there. Outside, a couple with a baby stroller walked past and stopped briefly before moving on. They were already past the windows when my boss mentioned in a informal way "You should go out and say hello, give them our flyer and so on". Not feeling too confident about both my Japanese and approaching-people skills in that very moment, I refused and explained in all honesty "Sorry, but I'm way too nervous to do that now. They are already gone anyways, I would have to run after them which would make me feel even weirder. I'll do it next time for sure!"

So for my manager that situation was obviously a good example of my refusal to work. He said that in Japan, when your boss tells you something, you do it and you don't question it or argue with it, no matter what. He had similar examples pulled out of thin air who made perfect sense to him but left me puzzled with how much I DON'T understand Japanese thinking (or his?) sometimes. Maybe he wasn't the best example of that, but the long talks with him were both inspiring and shocking each time. As I mentioned before, his social and multicultural-relations skills were almost invisible to me because he treated me and others in an unprofessional way. But hey, I'm a foreigner in Japan, right? Who am I to complain or question these things?

But I did question them and only received more heat for that. I even made the horrible mistake to openly ask my boss(es) about the unresolved questions and correct false statements they have made regarding my work situation. Of course, in Germany I wouldn't email my CEO right away if I have a problem with something but if said CEO told me to always contact him/her when there is something up, why would I not do it??! I was literally told to shut up via email by my manager, an unprofessional behavior I haven't experienced before in all my life. But I also sucked that up, hoping things will calm down once my contract is all set and the promises were fulfilled.

But that day never came...after 3 months, I had obvious health problems. I couldn't sleep and completely lost track of my Japanese studies. I couldn't focus on anything, all I did was worry about the future at GA and what else would make the atmosphere at work worse. I tried to get external help, a negotiator, but that didn't help either because of the complicated triangle they called management. When they finally hired another part-timer who happened to be the cousin of an important business relative, they gave him MY shift and cut down my hours instead, without any explanation before or after. So I realized that there is no future with people who treat you like that. It was like having a relationship with a person you love and hate at the same time.

Even on the final day, when I had another long talk with my manager about my intention to quit, I still had doubts and hoped for a more positive outcome. If there is one thing he is brilliant in than it is motivating people with colorful, almost lyrical expressions. But he was talking to me, a man of 35 years, 13+ years of that being business experience and with no time to waste, so it always had the condescending ring to it, sometimes even plain ridiculous.  Naturally and maybe luckily, he ended up explaining again what my position in this company is/was and how this is the Japanese way. He basically said what I heard so many times before: work your way up from the shit-filled pits and then one day you eventually get what you deserve and can treat others the same way. We don't need your skills now. You have to learn all the skills first. I nodded and finally understood his (Japanese) way of thinking. But I decided, in my current situation, understanding does not equal accepting and finally decided to leave.

In one of my attempts to resolve my open questions I once wrote to them in a less formal tone:

"I'm still absolutely committed to GA, so if you want to make me happy before my birthday (April 11th), please let us sort this out soon."

They took it wrong and apparently their opinion was that it's not their job to make me happy. There I think they were wrong. I believe they are good people, working for a good cause with the right heart, but as I often noticed in the past, poor management can sabotage the most valiant endeavor. They made the mistake of not seeing what is most important in a company. Namely the people working for them. Unhappy people are not good workers. I was very unhappy in the end...and I was/am not the only one.

Hey, I like lists, so here's what I learned and what I am truly grateful for:
  • How to teach an adult lesson
  • How to interact with kids in a learning environment
  • How not to mistake informal interaction with your higher-ups for professional opinion or behavior
  • How hard but rewarding early childhood education is
  • How important happiness and a peace of mind is to function for someone being away from home
  • How working with emails is totally different in Japan
  • ...or social media
  • ...or conducting business meetings
  • How much I don't fit into a typical Japanese company, at least not until I haven't mastered the language
  • ...

Note: This is already too long so I left out a lot of things, good and bad. There really is a lot more to it but as always, everyone made mistakes and that included me. I tried my best to adapt but I failed. It was a valuable experience and I learned a whole lot of stuff. This post is in no way meant to denounce an individual person or my former employer, it simply reflects my personal experience during these short 3 months. I am not in touch with them anymore so things might be totally different now...or not, I really don't know. Or care.

To be continued...