Posts Tagged NOVA English school
Today was my last day of work as an English teacher in Japan. It was both exciting and a bit sad.
When I put in my notice, the branch staff had specifically asked me not to tell students that I was leaving until near the end. They explained that I was one of the most popular teachers and were worried that my departure, combined with the teacher shortage, could lead to students not wanting to buy lesson packages.
One way or another the word had gotten out, and a few students gave me some presents during the day. One of my group kids students asked for a picture with me after my lesson. In addition, my coworkers got be a big bag of Toblerone chocolates, one of my favourite mid-shift treats. My departure will have a material effect on chocolate sales at the small store across from the branch.
I finished off the last two lessons of my shift as the only teacher in the building. At the end of my last lesson my students said some really nice farewells (in English no less), leaving me a bit emotional. After 3 years of teaching it felt strange to put away my files for the last time.
I am happy to be changing jobs, but I am really going to miss seeing my coworkers, staff, and students every day.
Today was a rare Sunday shift, working on a shift swap to help another teacher. I had forgotten how busy Sunday was!
In the voice class, I had yet another student asking questions about the state of NOVA and our branch. All of the schools in our area are seriously understaffed, short of both teachers and the Japanese branch staff. Students are finding it harder and harder to book lessons, and the staff are always extra busy.
As a teacher we are not supposed to talk about school business or policies. However, this is a topic that keeps coming up regularly. A few students have told me that I’m one of the few people who will actually have the conversation and they appreciate it. I sympathize with the students – they have all purchased large lesson packages that expire in time, but the shortage of teachers is preventing them from getting what they paid for.
I could be getting myself in trouble talking about the school, but at the same time I’m leaving in two months so I’m not as concerned as I would normally be.
(2017 Note) The financial situation for the company was MUCH worse than anyone knew at the time. The students were right to be concerned.
Due to the continuing shortage of teachers at work, we only had 4 teachers available on Saturday again. Numazu used to have 10-12 teachers in total, and at least 8 of them would be scheduled on Saturday, usually 6 working mornings / afternoons and 2 covering afternoons / evening.
Working at about half of our previous capacity was a challenge for staff and students. Some classes were guaranteed and had to be offered: group kids classes and voice always went on the schedule first. After that, any lesson slots were available on a first come first served basis. To complicate this, students had to be grouped by skill level.
As an example, let’s say that there are 4 teachers available at 5:00pm on a Saturday. There is a group kids class and voice offered at that time, which leaves 2 teachers available to teach lessons. If a level 5 student calls for a lesson, they turn one of the open slots into a level 5 lesson. Other level 5 students can join, and in rare cases a lower level student may challenge the lesson. If a level 3 student books the other open slot then all teachers are booked. Students of other levels who want a lesson at 5:00pm are out of luck.
Students usually buy bulk lesson packages in advance. Lesson tickets can expire, which really makes students upset when they can’t get lessons at their level to use up their tickets. It’s a major frustration that they frequently complain to teachers about.
If you are thinking about buying lessons from an English conversation school, make sure to ask about the numbers of teachers available: you may find yourself unable to get lessons and your tickets will expire.
2017 Update: Attracting teachers to smaller areas and retaining them was always a challenge for NOVA. What made the problem worse is that in 2006 NOVA was facing some serious financial problems. I don’t know the exact details, but this probably explained the cuts in overtime and hiring. It was a bad situation for students who wanted to use up their lessons!
Today was my first official day at Numazu NOVA. I have been here a few times before, usually to repay shift swaps, so it wasn’t completely new to me.
Numazu NOVA is located in a pedestrian only shopping area called Nakamise, which is just southwest of Numazu station. It is less than 10 minutes by bicycle from my apartment. The area is convenient, with lots of restaurants and stores nearby.
The branch itself is much larger than Mishima NOVA. The teacher’s room is a decent size and doesn’t feel like a converted closet. There is an employee washroom in the teacher’s room with a proper toilet, unlike Mishima NOVA which has a terrifying Japanese style squat toilet elsewhere in the building. The main floor has the sales area and teachers room, while all classrooms are upstairs.
There are exactly three inconvenient things about changing branches from Mishima to Numazu.
- I no longer have a commuter train pass since I live in Numazu. My current train pass is not nearly as useful as when I lived in Kawasaki, but it was still nice to have even a little free transportation.
- I am now further from The Penpal’s office, so we can’t meet up after work on my early shifts. My days off are much better for seeing her now, so I can’t complain too much.
- Because my schedule changed from Monday / Tuesday off to Sunday / Monday off, I only get one day off this week.
Even with these minor annoyances, I am excited about the change and the opportunity to work with some different teachers and students.
My second home in Japan was an apartment building called “Ooka City Plaza” in Numazu. Coming from the dormitory style gaijin house known as Hello House East, it was a big change. I will write more about the details of Ooka City Plaza in a future post.
Getting an apartment in Japan can be difficult if you are not Japanese. There are lots of up front fees, language barriers with contracts, and many reports of real estate agents not wanting to rent to foreigners. In order to keep the flow of conversational English teachers coming to the country, NOVA rented apartments all over the country for the use of their employees. NOVA would then place employees in their apartments, and deduct rent from the monthly salary payment. The rental charge was higher than what you would pay for your own apartment, but still reasonable considering the apartment was ready to live in.
Living in a NOVA apartment was a convenient option for new teachers. The apartments were fully furnished and stocked with kitchen supplies. All new residents got their own futon and pad, and a very useful guide for living in a Japanese apartment. The guide was written in English with illustrations, and covered everything from regular maintenance to garbage disposal rules to getting along with your neighbours.
Most of the apartments had 3 bedrooms and and one bathroom. NOVA made money if the apartment was filled to capacity, so they always tried their best to keep all of the rooms full. The apartments themselves were small by most foreign standards, but decent enough for Japan.
Other than finances and convenience, the other main advantage of NOVA apartments was that you would be living with other English teachers. This provided a built in support network of people who knew the area, and also understood the challenges of living far away from home. NOVA would often rent several apartments in the same building, creating small communities of teachers in an area. As long as everyone was getting along it was a good way to counter the effects of homesickness.
I have a lot of good memories from my time in my NOVA apartment. Other than some disagreements with roommates (which could happen anywhere), it was a good place to live while I was teaching in Japan.
I was not at my best after last evening’s festivities. Thankfully, my hangover headache went away just before my group kids class started.
Today was the first day of the new NOVA textbook. The new textbooks are currently only available for low level students, but we did receive a set of good lesson plans to use with the existing outdated textbook for mid and high level students. The new plans are a big improvement over some of the teacher created lessons that are currently being used. This should greatly cut down on lesson prep time and open up a lot of old lessons for students who are stuck in level.
So far there is a mixed reaction to the new textbooks and lesson plans. Students are not used to the new method, and don’t want to pay for new teaching material. Teachers who have created some of their own good lessons are not keen to follow a script in the classroom. Nobody likes change, but I think that when people get used to the new lessons they will like them.
I got training on the new teaching method today. NOVA is switching their system as of Friday. There will be a lot less preparation time with lessons, and also a lot less flexibility. This should ensure an even quality of lessons with different instructors, and a lot less thinking for us teachers. I am not sure how I feel about the change yet, but I am optimistic.
(2014 Update) The NOVA teaching method was long overdue for a change. The old method was based on an English textbook from the 1980’s used to teach English to immigrants in America. The pictures and dialogues were hilariously outdated. One lesson in particular was based around a letter written to a hotel to make a reservation in the future. Who makes hotel reservations by letter?
There were 40 lessons per level. Teachers were supposed to find some target language in the lesson material (usually grammar or vocabulary) and invent a situation where the student would use that language. The lesson often had little to do with the textbook material. Coming up with a situation and building a lesson around it was not always easy to do. Lesson quality and difficulty could vary wildly depending on the experience and creativity of the teacher.
The newer system was based on teaching a variety of language for a particular situation. The situations are usually common like choosing a restaurant, asking a friend for a favour, or hotel complaints. The lesson would introduce some vocabulary and sentences that could be used in the situation, and provided a chance to practice the new language. At the end, students were given different parts in a role play situation and had to use the new language.
The new lesson material was created by a team of experienced teachers, and provides templates and all needed material for better lessons. Since the lessons matched the textbook material, students could review outside of the classroom. It was a huge improvement for both teachers and students.
Today was my first day back to work after my family left. I had 3 kids classes to welcome me back to the office, but they were all pretty good. I also learned that I am the new Voice co-ordinator at Kawasaki NOVA. The Voice room is a general conversation area for students of all levels. Occasionally the school will offer some specialized topics, including Club 7 (for low level students) or special topic Voice. The special topics are usually something related to one of the teacher’s countries, or teaching language for a particular task. My job as Voice co-ordinator will be to schedule the special Voice topics, and ensure that they are evenly distributed among all the teachers. I am pretty excited about it, even though there is no increase in my pay.
After work I went for Kiosk beers with Anzac. Usually we will get a can of Asahi or two and watch people in the station. Our highlight of the evening was a really drunk middle aged businessman in a suit who had peed his pants. When I say “peed his pants”, I don’t mean a few drops; he literally hosed down everything. I don’t envy the people next to him on the train.
I paid back my shift swap by working at Hiyoshi school. Hiyoshi is an older school – the classrooms are 3 students maximum. It was a great relaxing day and a refreshing change of scenery.
2014 Update – It seems that I left out a lot of the detail on my original post. File this one under “don’t talk badly about your employer and coworkers”.
Hiyoshi NOVA was in fact an older school with a 3 student maximum in the classroom. Even if there were 4 students per classroom, the schedule still would have been a lot less busy and chaotic than Kawasaki NOVA. In addition to the lighter schedule, it’s always nice to see some new students in the classroom. Even in a huge school like Kawasaki, you end up teaching the same students regularly.
In my short time at Hiyoshi, I was surprised by a few things related to the teachers and students. The first issue I noticed was that the only female teacher was referred to as “bouncy” by her male coworkers. This nickname was an obvious reference to the ample size of her breasts, and happened to rhyme with her first name. “Bouncy” didn’t seem outwardly bothered by this, but that doesn’t mean that it was in any way appropriate for the workplace.
My other issue was with the way the teachers treated one particular student. This student, let’s call her Rika, was in one of the lowest levels. Before I taught the lesson, I was warned by the other teachers that Rika was not very good, and that she had been stuck in the same level for a long time. I went into the lesson fairly open minded, and found that Rika was easily good enough for the next level. She wasn’t the strongest student, but was far better than any of the teachers had given her credit for.
To move to the next level in NOVA, students require two consecutive level up recommendations from different teachers. At that point they have to pass a test to ensure they have learned all the necessary skills from their current level. If they pass, they are advanced to the next level.
Generally, visiting teachers are discouraged from giving level up recommendations outside of their home school. The reasons that were explained to me were that the visiting teacher is less familiar with the student’s overall performance, and the home teachers may take offense to an “outsider” disagreeing with their judgement. I could understand the opposition if only one recommendation was needed to promote a student, but the requirement for two consecutive teachers to agree provides a good check against prematurely promoting a student.
After the lesson I returned to the teachers room and informed the other teachers that I was giving a level up recommendation. They were surprised, and tried to dissuade me. I gave the recommendation anyway, relying on my judgement as a teacher.
In my 3 years of teaching experience at NOVA, I encountered a number of students who were “stuck in level” for a long period of time. In most cases it was due to the skills not being there. Taking one 40 minute lesson each week does not do a whole lot to improve English ability. However, in some rare cases (as with Rika), the teachers have made up their minds that the student will not advance, and only new supervisors or a new crop of teachers will change the situation.
Months later, I discussed Hiyoshi school with a former Kawasaki teacher who had been sent there as a supervisor to “clean things up”. The problems I described were not surprising to him, and were definitely not the only issues in the branch. As much as I didn’t like working at Kawasaki due to the schedule, I think I would have enjoyed Hiyoshi less.
Busy busy day at Kawasaki NOVA with a pile of new teachers. I did a bunch of paperwork today, submitting vacation requests and a transfer request.
(2014 Update) My original post didn’t really capture the huge decision that I made regarding the transfer request. At this point I had spent 7 months in Japan, and was starting to really enjoy life there. I was about to get full time hours, I had a girlfriend, and was expecting two waves of visitors during the summer. One year in Japan simply was not going to be long enough.
On a NOVA transfer request you can list up to 3 different schools that you would like to transfer to. The Penpal was living in Numazu, so I wanted to find a school in the area. After consulting a NOVA school list and the internet, I found that the closest schools were in Numazu, Mishima and Fuji. All 3 were much smaller than Kawasaki NOVA, and close to Mt. Fuji. I consulted the area manager, and learned that NOVA divided Japan into West and East regions. Kawasaki was in the East, and the 3 schools I requested were in the West. A transfer from one school to a nearby school in the same area could be processed quickly. Transferring from East to West was expected to take a few months, but I was happy to wait.
With the submission of one piece of paper, I had just increased my commitment to both my Japan adventure and to The Penpal. It was a bit scary, but looking back I am VERY happy with my decision.