Matthew Reynolds

In this edition of Showcase, Matthew Reynolds introduces the forming School Owners SIG.

Matthew Reynolds
Independent language school owners and operators have been contributing to the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) for decades, but never through their own special interest group (SIG). I proposed the idea of a SIG for school owners to the JALT executive board and the formation of the SIG was voted in 42 to 0 at the October executive board meeting in 2012. There are many school owners in JALT, and I sincerely hope this new SIG will prove useful to them.

How I became a school ownerAbout 12 years ago, I had reached my limit of teaching at language schools, corporations, high schools and universities. I had built up some very loyal private students locally, and naively assumed the transition from teaching them at home to teaching them in a rented office space wouldn’t be such a leap. So, in 2001 I opened the ‘English Please! Language School’.

The joys of owning a language school
Being a school owner, as it turns out, is a lot harder than you think. The language school business in Japan is a highly competitive, saturated market that you need money and expertise to enter. Most local owners, like me, open their doors with little more than teaching experience, blind faith, and a shoestring budget; and, like me, they often struggle. When things go wrong for a local owner, the banks will not lend to you and there is little or no government regulation. It is a very tough business.

Yet after 12 years of weathering the storm I couldn’t recommend owning your own school more. You provide exceptional value for money to your customers and they genuinely appreciate it. There are few bureaucratic or institutional constraints. You are free to teach who, how and what you like. You can innovate, often with amazing results. You can provide quality employment to people who deserve it and, once the school grows, you are often well paid yourself. In short, when local schools take off, everyone wins, and that is why I felt it was paramount that JALT support them.

Creating a modern SIGWhat I wanted to do with the School Owners SIG was create a modern SIG: a SIG where you can access useful resources such as forums, downloads and articles the moment you sign up, a SIG where everyone is immediately welcomed. I also wanted the SIG newsletter to be free and available to non-members through a mailing list so anyone interested in the SIG’s work can stay informed of what we are doing. Pretty much every JALT chapter has an owner who I hope will check out the site <schoolowners.net>; but I am hoping that interest in the SIG will not be limited to school owners.

Owners & business
As a non-profit organization (NPO), JALT can be, understandably, a little guarded where commerce is concerned. Language schools, however, are businesses and businesses need trade to grow. So, far from trying to hogtie commerce, trade to and between owners is not just welcome on our site, it is positively encouraged. The simple proviso for this is that anything said on the site that is a conflict of interest must be declared one. Owners thrive on new ideas so if you have a product or service you think school owners in Japan would benefit from, please join the SIG or add your name to our mailing list.

Owners & academiaAcademia and industry have always had a lot to offer each other in the world of language teaching, and we hope this SIG can contribute here in some way. Most of the papers written about second language learners in Japan focus on undergrads and high school students; however, such students only make up a small portion of the overall language learner population. We’d like to see more published for and about language schools and their learners and if the issue is access, independent owners could help. Academia should of course be accountable to students for its teaching; but it is also accountable to society at large for its research. More papers testing the claims of some of the more fanciful marketing copy that’s out there would also be welcome as it protects consumers and helps level the playing field for local schools.

Looking to the future
There is a lot the School Owners SIG can do in the long term to strengthen the market position of independent schools. However, these are early days and what we offer should be decided through feedback from members. Sponsored talks, research grants, advocacy work, cost sharing projects, and mini-conferences are all possibilities, but it is really up to those who join and how they wish to shape it.

Matthew Reynolds has been living in Japan since 1997. He is the director and owner of English-Please! and EP! Kids language schools and a Centre Examinations Manager for Cambridge English Language Assessment. Learn more about the School Owners (SO) SIG at <schoolowners.net>.

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