Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher

This is the final part of a series of posts by one of my university friends, Graham Moore. He is currently teaching English in Japan, and has agreed to write about the experience for my blog. All of the posts are available under the ‘EFL in Osaka‘ category.

Graham

Graham’s magic!

Phase 7: Journey’s End

Eikawa: GABA

And now we come to the grand finale. Sort of. Gaba was actually one of the very first places I applied to upon returning to Japan, literally within a week of landing. Gaba is a nation-wide conversation school that specialises in tutoring (usually) adults one-to-one English with customised lessons, making them uniquely suited to the style of teaching I was looking for…. with a few provisos that I will explain later.

Gaba hires instructors from many walks of life to create a diverse selection of teachers for their clients. You don’t need even to be a native English speaker, just a fluent speaker, but with at least a Bachelor’s degree and like all EFL positions, a history of teaching will play in your favour. With no former teaching experience and no teaching qualification, I emphasised my educational background, my varied interests and my travel experience in my resume. This tactic worked and I was accepted for an interview.

The interview was the most formal I have had so far; strictly dark suit, smart shoes and tie. The applicants were given a company talk and asked to take a short English/teaching quiz* just to prove we could at least think like teachers, even if we had no experience. We were given separate interviews, in which I blagged confidence harder than I have ever done before. My interviewer told me my resume was impressive and that, were I to be hired, I would likely be popular with clients with science-based jobs, wanting to learn English to aid their research/understanding of scientific literature.

*Research helps. I found at least two blogs describing the Gaba interviews in detail. One common question was “Is _____ a gerund?” Though proficient in English, I am not as knowledgable in its terminology. A gerund is a word that is both a noun and a verb, e.g. painting, building. In my interview, the word in question was ‘boring’. I answered no, with the reasoning that I knew ‘boring’ as a verb and an adjective. It turns out that a hole made by boring can also be called a ‘boring’, hence it can be a noun and therefore is a gerund. I would personally call this a bore-hole; I do not know if this was counted against me or not. [Note from Sandy: I didn’t know this either. I feel there may be a flaw in this logic.]

Two days later I was called back for a second interview and trial lesson with a staff member acting as a client, just to see how I performed. I did the best I could and I think I performed admirably. But two days later, I received an email I had been dreading…. I had not been accepted for the April recruitments. They did ask my permission to keep my details in case they wished to contact me in the future. Something I was genuinely not expecting them to do. But after two months of job hunting and working at conversation cafes, I received an unexpected phone call at the end of May, asking me if I was still interested and willing to start training next week for April recruitment. I gleefully accepted.

Before I had even applied to Gaba, I had done extensive background research on the company and doing so revealed many mixed opinions, the bulk of which centre around their scheduling system. Gaba instructors are not employees, but contractors and hence are not entitled to many standards that most workers are, including compensation for training days and travel costs. They also do not provide set working hours, meaning one’s attendance may be required without guarantee of salary. But it is also this system that gives Gaba its greatest perk: flexibility.

Allow me to explain further. Instructors choose their own working hours, divided into 40 minute lessons throughout the day, from 7:00-22:00 on weekdays and 8:45-21:15 on weekends. You can choose to teach anything from one lesson per week to fifty (or more if you have the energy!). Taking holidays are easy; if you want a day, week or even a month off, you simply don’t book any slots for those days. However, these time slots have to be booked by students (or allocated to students by the counsellors) for it to count as a lesson. If you make yourself available for ten slots on a particular day, but only seven get booked, you are only paid for seven lessons.

Depending on your lifestyle, this can be somewhat disorderly. Imagine you have designated slots for three lessons, a break and then another two lessons. Now imagine only the first three are booked. This is not too much of a problem – you can easily ask the staff to cancel the last two and go home early. But imagine that only the first and last lessons are booked. This will mean about two and a half hours of doing (almost) nothing and not getting paid. Likewise, last minute bookings are not uncommon, and you may have prepared for three lessons, only to discover you have a fourth minutes before it starts.

Occasionally, you get No Shows, meaning the lesson is booked, but the student does not turn up. In such cases, the Instructor is still paid but must remain his/her booth in case the student does appear, even if it’s only for the last five minutes. If the student cancels before 6 pm the previous day, the lesson slot becomes unbooked again. If the student cancels after 6 pm the previous day, the lesson slot becomes rebookable, meaning the instructor will be present and get paid, but will either have to teach a late booking or do related activities such as marking homework.

The likelihood of being booked is, on average, is 60% for a new instructor. Gaba encourage you to book early mornings, evenings and weekends where possible as these are peak hours. Should you become promoted (‘belted up’ in their terminology), you will also earn more money per lesson during these hours. Your likelihood of being booked also increases with time spent in the company and for veterans, it is about 90-100%.

Timetable

Timetable of my first week. UME and CHA refer to the teaching locations.

Monday: I was being certified, so no lessons

Tuesday: Allocated five lessons, none were booked. Not surprising given it was only online for 24 hours. Spent the first three slots planning for tomorrow’s lessons, cancelled the last two and went home.

Wednesday: First proper day and all five slots were booked, including two of the desirable client-requested blue bookings!

Thursday: Four allocated slots, only the first and last were booked. Had a very long lunch break.

Friday: Day off!

Saturday: Five allocated slots, four were booked. The 16:00 slot was booked less than an hour before the lesson started, so speedy preparation was required.

Sunday: Five slots, first three were booked. Luckily, I was able to cancel the unbooked slots and meet up with a friend.

I was fully aware of (and okay with) all of this information before I even had my interview. Regardless of what you may think of Gaba’s system, I believe they very open about the pros and pitfalls of it. The booking system is explained in detail during the company talk, on their website and even on Wikipedia. I have a feeling that many of the complaints of Gaba that I had read about were from instructors who had not researched the company – as late as the contract signing, there was an individual in our group who appeared to be unaware of the payment system. To counter, I have spoken to many staff members who are more than happy with working for Gaba, even after many years.

The training was a breakdown of the company and their teaching method. Gaba uses communicative language teaching as their ideology and emphasises learning functions of a language (e.g. describing people, scheduling, complaining) over the more traditional methods like learning grammar and sentence structure. They produce many text books to cover many functions, and some are specialised to business clients, some to travellers, some to those needing it for every day activities. Gaba also prides itself on customisation; altering the text and teaching additional words and phrases relevant to the client’s needs – something harder to do outside of one-to-one teaching.

A typical lesson consists of 5 minutes chatting, 10 minutes reading the target language (a sample conversation) and answering any of the client’s questions about words and phrases they may be unfamiliar with, 10-15 minutes of practising additional words and phrases, and inventing examples that may be useful to the client, 5-10 minutes of role play and 5 minutes of feedback. However, clients may request anything that helps them with their skills, whether it be reading a newspaper, scientific journal, practising a presentation or even just having a conversation. As I am a new instructor, many just want to spend the lesson chatting and get to know me. Even in such cases, we are still expected to take notes and suggest improvements for the client’s English.

The trainees practised trial sessions with one another, and we discovered the importance of planning a lesson in only a few minutes, keeping track of time during the lesson, altering your language to suit the client’s level and coming up with ideas on the fly. After three days of training we were…. almost… ready to start teaching. Experience will be the practice from here on.

At the time of writing, I’ve had about 25 lessons and already I’ve seen great variety in the client base in terms of background, hobbies, jobs and needs. I am still treading unfamiliar ground right now but I hope I will become more confident and enjoy it. And I hope Gaba’s scheduling system stays a blessing rather than a curse – I’ve come a long way and I don’t want it to all be for naught.

But either way, it’s a start.

That’s the last of Graham’s posts about how he made it to Japan and found work. If it’s something that will be interesting to others, I’d like to ask him to write more about his experiences as an unqualified teacher in Japan. I hope you’ll agree that it’s been a fascinating insight into how he made the leap from dream to reality, and that it inspires you to follow your dreams too!

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Comments on: "Japan or bust: journey’s end (guest post)" (3)

  1. Interesting set of blogs. It’s interesting to find out the teaching situation in different countries, how people set themselves up with jobs and their teaching situation. Would be interesting to hear his opinions on his teaching situation, how he likes it and how successful he thinks the method is after 6 months or so. Good luck with it Graham.

  2. annloseva said:

    Thanks for the whole of the series to you both. It is something very interesting for some teachers here!)
    Actually I was job-hunting online earlier this week and GABA attracted my attention for the first time (previously I was too focused on maybe too unrealistic for me at the moment teaching positions at university and college). So this post is extremely timely and useful!! And I have a few practical questions.
    1) while this system sounds very suitable for me, as flexibility is what I’m most comfortable with, here in Moscow, I’m a bit worried if it’s ok for making enough for a living..with cancellations and such, and no other money source. In a foreign country, with rent and such…?..
    2) about students: what are the language levels of students? Do you know them before class? Do you have same clients or are they “random” every slot?

    Thanks, Graham!
    I’m thinking of sending an application more seriously now, as this is some solid review and preview of what the job could be like.

    • To work at Gaba full time, you need to aim to earn Y240,000 per month (which is the official ‘minimum living criteria’ in Japan), which is 160 lessons per month, which is absolutely doable assuming you have a high booking rate, which I don’t at the moment. My own lifestyle only requires about Y80,000 absolute minimum living, Y120,000 for a more realistic number, but I am very lucky with the location of my flat.

      Right now, the problem is that I have not worked there long enough, so my bookings are erratic. Last Saturday I had 6/6 slots booked, all client requested, but today, I only got 5/8 booked, only one of which was client requested. And that’s only for peak times; my day bookings are almost non-existent at the moment. Rumour is that my studio is overstaffed at the moment.

      I know it works for veteran clients; you can view other people’s timetables and most of them have 95-100% bookings, all client requested. Cancellations are not a problem, assuming it happens after 6pm the previous day, as you still get paid, and the slot becomes rebookable. No Shows are actually kind of the best result, as you get paid for doing nothing.

      My booking result for my first 3 weeks was 72% but if you include slots I cancelled, it’s only 56%. I cannot emphasise enough that bookings are erratic for your first few months. Some instructors deliberately oversubmit slots and then cancel slots if their bookings get high enough.

      Bearing in mind that you will need to work evenings and weekends as these are peak times. If you prefer to work during the day and go out every weekday evening and weekends, then Gaba may not be the place for you. But it is flexible otherwise. You pick which hours you work every day of the month; I deliberately leave Saturday nights free and then only book them if I have no plans for the coming weekend.

      As for the students; Gaba covers all range of students, the only criteria for being a Level 1 student is that you can read the English alphabet, but even then, most can usually communicate in basic sentences. The vast majority of Gaba students are Levels 3-6. I’ve only had a few Level 7s and I’ve yet to have anyone from Levels 8-10. Most want complete English immersion, but some low level students may request you use a bit of Japanese. I cannot speak Japanese (and I say as such on my profile), and I am less likely to be booked by absolute beginner students.

      Both instructors and students have profiles. The majority of my knowledge of a student comes from reading their profiles and other instructors’ feedback. Most of the students I meet are new faces each time, but as you become a veteran, you get more repeat bookings. I’ve taught 80 lessons so far and 7 of those have been with repeat students. Most of them are very nice; you chat for a bit and build rapport and you determine their English level from this.

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