One thing I haven’t written about recently is what I’ve been doing job-wise. There’s quite a bit to blog about, but I’ve been so busy actually working that I haven’t had the chance. I’ve also wanted to sort out my ideas mentally before putting them to print.
After realizing, this summer, that I wasn’t happy living in Guīshān, I had quite a bit of soul searching to do. I enjoyed my job at First Step, but leaving the area meant leaving the job. The idea of going back to Táibĕi (Taipei) and teaching at a school with an inferior curriculum, greedy bosses and no possibilities for advancement was just depressing.
I thought long and hard. My original reason for coming to Taiwan was to learn Chinese. I’ve certainly learned a lot of Chinese, but I don’t think I’m really at the level I envisioned in my head when I decided to “learn Chinese”. I’d managed to save up enough money to be a full-time student for a year at ICLP. That’s a school I’ve really wanted to go to for quite a while. Everyone I’ve talked to who studied there has had nothing but praise for the place. The problem is, many of the same people also told me their biggest regrets were not saving enough money first and not being able to study there long enough. I applied to the school, and really wanted to go, but in the end, I couldn’t stomach the idea of spending three years of savings on one year of schooling and then being flat broke and almost 30.
Going to the mainland
Next, my thoughts turned seriously to moving to the mainland. I’ve met quite a few foreigners who learned Chinese there, and from my experience, they learn a lot more quickly there. When I visited the mainland this summer, I found the language learning environment in Shànghăi far better than that in any place I’ve lived in Taiwan, and the learning environment in Bĕijīng even better. Living there would also give me exposure to a much broader array of accents, and best of all, it would be very, very affordable. I found one good school in Hā’ěrbīn (Harbin) that only cost 500RMB a month for room and board and about 12000RMB a year for tuition. Living there for four years and taking four hours of class a day would be the same price as going to ICLP for just one year. Hā’ěrbīn is also well known for the standard accent spoken there, amazing winter ice festivals, and a huge diversity of drinking options. The option tempted me quite a bit.
About this time, I received an email from a reader of my blog who had a business opportunity related to an English school in Táibĕi. Like others who had emailed me similar offers, he was a former manager at a large local EFL school and had recently taken on a new business. Unlike the others, though, he mentioned that he was friends with Martin, one of my best friends. With this common link, I decided it was worth the time to take a bus into the city and see what he had to say.
At first glance, the school really wasn’t much to look at. It had three classrooms, each far too small for the sorts of classes I’m accustomed to teaching. The location was near several elementary schools, but not really on a main street. What I saw inside was good, though- my favorite children’s EFL textbook series, various books on pedagogy, and piles of extensive readers. As I looked around, I saw more and more good signs.
As I talked talked with Simon, I suddenly realized that it all made sense. Anybody who contacted me about a business offer because he was a fan of my blog would be self-selected. Of course he was a diligent teacher who was interested in L2 acquisition! Of course we had similar ideas about teaching! Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been reading my blog, or at least wouldn’t have decided to contact me after doing so. The more we talked, the more I liked what I heard. There were a few problems, though…
The school had been run down into almost nothing by the previous owner. There were only twenty-some students left, and they were split into several different classes. It was clear that I wouldn’t make nearly as much money here as I had at First Step or even at Modawei before. Everything would have to be built up from scratch. I’d just spent a year doing that in Guīshān, and it had been tough. Also, Ron had already had over a hundred students when I showed up. Several of them who failed tests dropped down into to my classes. Here, there was no hope for any similar sort of phenomenon. Everything would have to be built from scratch. Once things took off, we’d even have to move to a larger building that could support full classes and still allow parents to sit in the back and watch.
Still, Simon offered me a number of things that made working with him impossible to refuse. Most importantly, I’d have complete control over all academic aspects of my program. I’d have complete freedom in deciding who passed or didn’t pass any given level. I’d be able to use or make any curriculum materials I saw fit. Also importantly, I’d have a sizable stake in the school, all its profits, and any future sale of it to a 3rd party. Finally, any curriculum materials I created would be owned by both myself and the school. In other words, both I and the school would be free to use the materials for any use we saw fit. As someone with an interest in teaching English on-line as well as off, that was an important issue, and also one that bigger companies would have no flexibility with at all.
In the end, what I saw was a great opportunity for everyone involved. I felt I could increase the size of the school by a factor more than large enough to offset the percentage of it that I would earn. That way Simon (and his Taiwanese investor) would earn more than they would if I didn’t help. I would also do much better as an owner than as a teacher in the long run. Both of us have a passion for teaching and for helping our students achieve more. Unlike 99.9% of the schools out there, we’d put education above money. We have fairly complementary backgrounds in teaching as well, which means that we are both able to learn from each other, too. In terms of time invested and money earned, this turn-around project will only be reasonable for us if the school is a resounding success. Even in failure though, I think we would both have valuable experiences.
My choice was easy. China will always be there. This kind of opportunity doesn’t come up often. I decided to go for it. And, that’s what I’m doing now.