Part 1 — Intro — The first 5 things that I learned.
40 Different Schools? Yes
Ten years ago, I was working in my third Japanese private school, and my boss at the agency that had placed me there asked if I would write a curriculum for all of the teachers at our agency to follow. This was an agency that supervised the work of about 100 teachers in about 50 different schools.
My immediate thought was, as a teacher, how would I feel if a representative of the agency, who had perhaps met me only once in person, and so far as I was aware, had never observed classes at my school, let alone MY classes, sent me an email message with a PDF attachment that essentially said, “this is now your curriculum, teach it please”?
But I was very interested in my boss’s request. I inquired along these lines, expressing the above concern, and his position softened a bit. He said that whatever we composed would be mostly advisory. In situations where a teacher is having trouble satisfying the needs of the school, we might then make the move of requiring the curriculum.
I had not yet worked in 40 different Japanese private schools (as I have at this point; actually, I have lost count, but it’s at least that much), but I had by that point worked in just about every possible context. I had taught in University (hated it), worked in corporate settings (which I loved, but did not like that I was told not to call myself a “teacher” but rather a “trainer”), freelanced in people’s homes, at their workplaces, even at a nursing home.
And I knew exactly what was going on here, with my boss at this agency. When a teacher starts to have trouble with a client, the agency is in a difficult spot. The safe move is to get rid of the teacher, but a reason is required. If we are lucky, the teacher misbehaves (molests somebody or yells at somebody or comes back late from a vacation), but failing that, the common move is to require the use of a textbook and to be vague about what that requirement entails.
This way, when the client expresses dissatisfaction with the teacher, the client can say that the teacher over-uses or mis-uses or under-uses the textbook.
So I told my boss, “well … I have a Master’s Degree in this stuff, and I have been doing it for a while, and so probably I could put together a curriculum that would not make too many teachers too angry, but I don’t think it would solve the underlying problem that probably, you are trying to solve.”
I asked my boss how many of our client schools he had visited that year.
Less than a quarter.
So that became my job. Get out there, get in there, figure out how each school works. Figure out what’s working so that it might be applied elsewhere. Figure out what is not working and why. Get our teachers’ supervisors at the schools to articulate what they want from a foreign teacher in terms that make it easier for us to hire the right teacher and then give that teacher more meaningful directives than up to now the agency had been able to do. Give the foreign teacher the opportunity to articulate the rationale for what s/he is doing.
In this job, I can’t say that I accomplished everything that I had hoped to accomplish. When I took the job, the agency had been hemorrhaging clients at a rate of two or three schools lost per year. And apparently, after implementing this new regime of visiting schools and building relationships, we were holding our own. We occasionally lost a client, occasionally gained a client, and occasionally managed to expand our contracts with certain schools.
However what is absolutely certain is that this job gave me an education that few educators in Japan, and almost no foreign teachers, are privileged with. I was able to get deeply acquainted with how things work in all sorts of schools — and every one of these schools is different — schools in the center of Tokyo, schools as far away as Fukuoka; girls schools, boys schools; elite schools, and schools that struggle to fill their homerooms with enough kids to keep the lights on. — they all struggle mightily to differentiate themselves from each other, to present something unique and beautiful to the parents.