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Schooled In The Trade

In this series of articles, Simon Moran looks at the issues involved in starting and running independent ESL schools.

August 23, 2013

Sign them up!

Finally, when you are open, and you have a stream of new enquiries, you need to be sure you can sign them up. How will you do that? Up to now you may have been a great teacher. You now also need to be a great salesperson. You need to be able to show prospective students, but often more importantly, their parents, that you know what they need, demonstrate the ability to deliver, and show how this will be monitored and reported. You need to do this quickly and then you need to get them to sign up, so you need a clear, legally sound service agreement.

It’s really important you are clear in your mind why you are doing this. Are you trying to build a school system you can scale up and make profitable? Is your primary concern that students receive the best education possible and your own financial rewards are secondary to that? Or do you want to strike a balance between the two?

You broke away to be independent, but unless you give all teachers and all students total freedom, you are going to need some rules.

I have no doubt that some of the best teachers (educators, facilitators, coaches – call them what you will) are those that strike up close relationships with their students, know each of them intimately (though perhaps not too intimately) and use their skills, experience and creativity to cater exactly to their students’ needs. Any teacher that intends to do this at their new school should be commended. Any new teacher-owner who also thinks they can get others to do this exactly the way they want is probably mistaken. The fact that many independent school owners have, frustrated at the rigidity of employment and an established system, set up stall to do things their way highlights a contradiction: You broke away to be independent, but unless you give all teachers and all students total freedom, you are going to need some rules. That’s right, you need rules. Perhaps the same sort of rules you ran away from in the first place.

You need to be able to tell prospective students what you will teach them and how they will progress. A solid curriculum is a good idea, and it’s probably a good idea not to write it yourself from scratch, no matter how much you want to. There are not many people who can run a business, teach, write a full curriculum all at the same time and find enough time to sleep. At Modern English we have more than 20 years’ of original material, and it has been an enormous undertaking. Off the shelf curricula of all types are legion and can be easily adapted. In a competitive, often unregulated, fragmented market, your local publisher’s agent can be very helpful with free materials, training and advice. Sign up to all the publishers’ newsletters, attend all expos you can, get to know as many materials as possible. There is always help.

Once the curriculum is decided, you will most likely need to give demo or free trial classes. These should give students and parents a taste of your school, teachers and approach. Its also a good idea to have both parents and teachers walk out of the school with something concrete to take away – a giveaway with your contact details on it – and also some new English. We do killer free trials at Modern English, and sign up over 80% of our prospective new students. Some of those have stayed with us since we started and represent a large financial commitment, so the free trial is key. Plan it all the way through and rehearse so you do it the same each time, and can handle anything that comes up unexpectedly.

Business practices here in Japan gave the ELT industry a very bad name for a long time, and this has educated the students – the consumer – in what they can and can’t expect and how they are protected under the law. Long-term, binding contracts and the finance to buy them with are out, and monthly pay as you go is in. As great as this is, it means schools can be hit hard at certain times of year when students leave or take a break, such as summer, year end, and school year end. You need a watertight service agreement that your students - if they are adults, their parents or guardian if not - read through carefully with you or a member of staff and sign. Have a lawyer check your paperwork before you start using it to avoid nasty surprises. The lawyer’s bill will probably be your first nasty surprise, but is essential to keep on the right side of the law. Here in Japan things are straightforward and complaints few, but word will get around quickly if you don’t treat people well.

Your student service agreement should explain exactly what you provide, for what price, at what conditions, and what is expected from the customer to terminate that relationship.

Your employment agreements should state the same, and you should be well versed in local employment law. Unions can be a great help here, as they mostly advise their members to honour employment agreements, and know the relevant laws. Great resources also exist online and most cities offer legal aid. If not, joining the local Chamber of Commerce will most likely help you find what you need.

Once your new school is full, it would be a mistake to think you have done your job. Each student has a ‘study life’ and each month they study they are closer to leaving, so if you are not constantly recruiting new students, you’re actually contracting.

Next month: Marketing

« Where and How? | Main | Marketing »


And if you are a teacher, you should be aware of the terms of your contract and your rights as an employee. I recently had to lodge a complaint of labor law violation to the Osaka Labor Bureau about a school in Osaka, an unscrupulous operation who were forced to pay me separation pay or be prosecuted. It's a good idea to join the General Union as well. / 06-6352-9619 (Osaka)

(ELT News Editor: name of school removed - please contact Kevin if you want to know more)

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