Monday, May 26, 2008

Let's Ecology! 4: Ginza English Conversation School

My evening school was located in the prestigious Ginza district and was one of the older schools in the country, having been founded in the 1960s in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. With this background, one might have expected that Ginza English Conversation School would be one of the better run schools. One would have been wrong though. Quite wrong.

This probably had a lot to do with the man who ran the school. He was a shifty-eyed, sweaty, balding, middle-aged man who always seemed to be wearing the same light-blue polyester suit. He went by the name Mr. Hayashi, but that wasn't his real name. Rumor had it that he changed his name either to hide his Korean origins or because his birth name was numerologically unlucky. Or because he was wanted by the police and/or yakuza gangsters under his real name. Nobody knew which story was true.

The teachers were a motley collection, ranging from exchange students like me to ex-sailors, from Japanese-Americans seeking their roots to Chinese-Canadians seeking temporary employment, from former lumberjacks to former DJs, from wannabe Japan hands to the "visa status challenged." Hayashi hired them from among the dozens of applicants who would answer the help-wanted ad he placed in the Monday edition of the Japan Times. Those who struck Mr. Hayashi's fancy were asked to teach one class as a test; if the students liked them, they would be hired, often with a "Can you start tomorrow?"

That's how I got my job there. I called the number in the help-wanted ad and set up an interview for Monday night. I must have done okay at my test lesson, because Mr. Hayashi offered me a job. He seemed to like that I was a student at Waseda, and, he thought, UCLA. During our interview, I tried to explain that I was from Cal State LA, not UCLA, but Mr. Hayashi didn't really care. He wasn't interested in my educational background because he thought it made me a better teacher, but because he thought it would impress prospective students. It would help him sell English lessons if he could tell prospective students that he had a teacher from Waseda working there.

That didn't stop him from trying to lowball me on my salary though. He asked me to start working there that week, and we went through what my hours would be, when I could start, and so on. No mention was made of how much he would pay me, though. This is not unusual in Japan. I've actually known a few Japanese people over the years who took jobs without knowing how much they were making until they got their first paychecks. That was one local custom I wasn't going to follow, though.

The going rate for native-speaker English teachers back then was ¥2,500 per hour. That's how much I was getting at my other school. So when we got to the end of the interview, and Mr. Hayashi asked if I had any other questions, I said, "Well, yes, how much does the job pay?"

"It pays ¥1,500 per hour to start."

At this point, my social awkwardness probably stood me in good stead, because I said, "Oh. I can't work for that," and I got up and started to leave.

"Wait! Wait, how much do you want?"

I sat back down. "Twenty-five hundred yen."

"OK, sure, that'll be fine," he said, the cheapskate. He was ready to pay that all along -- maybe more -- but he'd obviously figured it wouldn't hurt to try something a lot lower. You know, just in case I was fresh off the boat and didn't know the going rate; you never can tell.

I started teaching later that week. Training was non-existent. Teachers could, however, choose from several textbooks. Since many teachers also taught private classes on their own, they often chose to sneak the textbooks home and keep them for their own classes. This was a constant source of aggravation to Mr. Hayashi, who had to replace the books and who seemed to dislike spending money on anything related to teaching English. Students weren't required to buy textbooks; if there weren't enough extra books lying around for the lesson, teachers just made copies for them on the office's portable copier. Until, that is, the copier broke, and Mr. Hayashi decided it was too expensive to replace. After that, students usually had to share textbooks.

But it didn't really matter very much, because no student of Ginza English Conversation School learned anything anyway. The school's only real concern was keeping the students coming back for more. The best way to do that, without spending a lot of time and money on training and/or highly qualified teachers, was to hire entertaining teachers. The definition of a good teacher at Ginza English Conversation was a person with the ability to keep a group of from one to four Japanese people entertained for one hour, in English if possible, but with Japanese mingled in if and as necessary. This could be fun for us teachers, at first, but usually after a couple of months, it turned into a grind trying to think of ways to entertain the same people week after week. For most of us, there was a little guilt involved, a nagging sense that the students were being ripped off because they were paying to learn English, not to be entertained. On the other hand, many of the students did seem to prefer being entertained.

Turnover among teachers was high, with most leaving for greener pastures within three to six months after starting, but there was always a core of two or three veterans who'd been around for a year or more because they couldn't find better jobs. Better English teaching jobs were available, but what these veterans wanted was a Real Job -- in import/export, business, writing, editing, translating -- in other words, in just about anything other than teaching English. Between-class conversations among these teachers tended to be rather depressing. Usually they ran to discussions of what interviews they had lined up, what interviews they'd been to, and what companies they'd been turned down by. Eventually, I turned into a veteran too.

Next week: The "gaijin hierarchy"

More "Let's Ecology!" posts are here.

"Let's Ecology!" is the story of my stint with a Japanese environmental group (or sort of an environmental group -- it's "complicated"). Look for new posts every Monday. The names have been changed to protect me from lawsuits. Everything else really happened.

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