There seem to be few options available to English speakers looking for work in Japan. Apart from specialists and those literate in Japanese, most people seem to end up teaching. Short-term contracts are common, and the employment dance has been well documented (McCrostie and Spiri, 2008). Faced with the uncertainties involved, being your own boss seems like a great option, so many teachers think of starting their own schools.
I'd like to draw from my own experience of starting and running a language school, even though it’s probably not typical. I hope you will find it cautionary or at least interesting! I was fortunate in that my wife is also an English teacher, and we run the school together. We’ve been operating for almost five years now, and have grown slowly to our present size of around seventy students (we started with five). I’ve never stopped working elsewhere to supplement our family income. Running a school is extremely rewarding, but can also be incredibly stressful and frustrating. Here are my five points to consider before starting your own school:
1. Anyone thinking about opening their own school should join ETJ (English Teachers in Japan), and specifically the Owners email group. You can sign up for both at: <www.eltnews.com/ETJ>. The archive going back several years is probably the best available collection of information related to running small language schools in Japan, and the group itself is made up of some fantastic people. Don't even think of opening a school without reading the archives and asking questions there.
2. Think hard about whether you can do this by yourself. I believe having a Japanese partner is almost essential, to deal with customers and officialdom.
3. Starting slowly is much safer. If you can start your school while working full or part-time somewhere else, you can slowly build your student base without gambling your rent on it. If you can start by teaching at home or in a community centre, you will save the substantial start-up costs that come with renting commercial property.
4. It’s very hard to get students. Most of ours came by word of mouth, and the more students you have, the easier it is to get more. Conversely, if you don't have many, it's much harder to attract new ones. It took us three years to get to thirty students, and then one to go from thirty to sixty.
5. Having a business is very different to being a teacher. Doing the right thing pedagogically is not always the best thing to do from a commercial point of view. For example, we spend far too much money on materials for the school.
Of course, this is my way of doing things. For other approaches and points of view, come along to the ETJ Owners group. If you have any questions, please drop me an email at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
McCrostie, J. and Spiri, J. (2008, December 30) Foreign faculty face annual round of ‘musical jobs’. The Japan Times. Retrieved from http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20081230zg.html