In my first eikaiwa job it wasn’t all teaching. The teaching staff also became an integral part of the sales team. I hated this aspect of the job, not least because it forced me to ask my students what they thought of the classes, when we both knew that they were by and large rubbish. Of course they were; nobody had ever taught me how to teach and I was learning by trial and error after error. Nevertheless every month we were given a list of students whose contracts would be ending in the next three or four months and told to talk to them after class, tell them what excellent progress they were making but they really needed to improve more and that by signing a new contract they could do just that! Oh, and if we could persuade them to buy a useless pronunciation video while we were at it all the better.
The contracts were for varying lengths of time, from three months to two years, and did not come cheap. They could be for several hundred thousand yen, and I believe the company even offered some sort of financing of loans for students who said they just couldn’t afford it. If I’d been in my early classes, rather than signing up for another year’s worth of lessons I’d be demanding a refund.
I dreaded approaching students. The idea was that we would butter them up a bit and then send them to the manager to close the deal. The first student I ever had to approach had only originally signed a three-month contract. After two lessons I was told to approach him and try and get him to sign up for more. ‘Hi, well now that you know my name and I’ve successfully taught you how to say, “It is a pencil” I’m sure you’d like to invest a few hundred thousand yen in a longer contract. You’re making such huge strides in the way you can name the things in your pencil case.’
Another time I spent a good fifteen minutes telling a woman who did little more than tilt her head to the side and grin in my lessons how well she was doing. I had to use quite a lot of mime. I brought my hand to my mouth and formed it into a bird’s beak opening and closing. ‘Your spoken English,’ I said slowly, ‘your SPEAKING, is getting much better!’ I raised both thumbs aloft and smiled widely hoping that she would catch my drift. I don’t think she did, but, you know, when you have to use gestures to tell someone how good their English is, there’s a good chance they won’t believe you.
Getting students to renew was an important part of our job, and of course, the management wanted therefore to ensure that the classes were FUN! If a student was absent for more than two lessons in a row they would wonder what was going on and phone to make sure things were okay. Sometimes they thought it would look better if the teacher called instead. I think they thought it would show concern on the teacher’s part and the student would want to come back to class and enjoy more FUN instruction under the kind teacher who had cared enough to phone and find out how they were.
But there were two major flaws in this plan. One was that there was a very good chance that the student wasn’t coming to class because they didn’t like the teacher and getting called at home might just seem creepy. The other was that it was hard enough to try and talk in English face to face; on the telephone it could only be a disaster. And so it was, on the first, and indeed only time I was told to call a student at home.
The girl in question was a 16 year-old high school student. The creepy stakes would be through the roof. The manager phoned, got past the mother and while mum was getting her daughter the manager passed the phone to me. Now, if we pretend that my name is Norman (it’s not, but it’s not Goodandbadjapan either, and Norman reads better) this is how it went:
‘Moshi moshi,’ said the girl.
‘This is Norman!’
And then I didn’t know what to say. It would be extremely weird to try and just chat as if I phoned all the time, so I just said, ‘You haven’t been to class for a few weeks.’
The manager, who was standing next to me started scowling and flapping her hands around, and explained in hushed exasperation that I hadn’t asked how she was.
‘I just wondered if you were okay?’
‘Are you okay?’
‘THIS…IS… NORMAN. ARE…YOU…OKAY?
‘Okay, bye,’ I said and the manager grabbed the phone and started talking in a rapid-fire high-pitched squeal to try and make up for whatever dreadful problems I had caused. When the girl did come back to the school she changed classes.