Running a school in a time of crisis

In my time in Japan as a school owner, we have seen several crises. The SARS epidemic, a massive drop in the market, the NOVA collapse, the Lehman shock, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, Fukushima and the fallout and, of course, many localised earthquakes, tsunami and floods.

Early this year, news of a potential new pandemic began to break.

This is how the Corona crisis affected us and some of my thoughts on what I saw around us.

Justifiably concerned, panicked even, many people posted, questioned and pontificated online.

The talk ranged from: What should I do? How can I make money out of this? How can you conscionably do/not do this/that? I’m staying open. I’m closing. Oh my God, what on earth am I going to do? We’re all going to die.

After much hem and haw, and volte-face aplenty, some would later claim this as leadership.

We had all seen it coming, but nobody knew how it would play out.

We had all been preparing, but nobody can ever be fully prepared for an unprecedented situation.

We had done our calculations. We could have survived on our cash for 12 months with no income. We wouldn’t have done this. With no income, we would have closed after three. I would have driven a truck.

I had been using a pro Zoom account since July, 2019 for business meetings and to demonstrate software and products.

As it became inevitable we would have to close our schools, I contacted the nice people at Zoom and they gave us free pro accounts for all of our teachers at all of our schools, which expired two days after we went back into our classrooms. (Shy bairns get nowt.)

We integrated Zoom into our scheduling app, so teachers and students could join lessons at the click of a button, with no need to generate meeting IDs, passwords or QR codes. We added file exchange and content upload and download. All this within the security of a password-protected app.

We engaged more experienced Zoom users than us to train us, then trained all of our teachers and franchisees and invited students and parents to ‘How to Zoom’ sessions.

These were very successful, calmed a few nerves, and kept us in touch with people.

We closed our office and the staff teleworked. That our financial figures for this year (we close our books at the end of July) predict a small percentage increase from student fees, is testament to the good work they did communicating with our students and parents, all without the phone in the office and free-dial number we have used for twenty years.

We own and run schools, franchises, affiliates and have clients in 10 separate cities and prefectures in Japan. The respective governing bodies all had a different approach and different rules.

Pre-lockdown, we closed on the Saturdays and Sundays the cities and prefectures advised, and we all knew a lockdown was coming.

When it did, we brought our two-week Golden Week holiday forward to give us some extra time to prepare and then went fully online via our app and Zoom.

We didn’t change any conditions to leave, take a break, cancel lessons or take make-ups, with the exception that, not knowing when we would be back in the classrooms, we extended the validity period of make-ups.

In the two-week holiday and the rest of April, to keep in touch with people, improve my skills, and help people get accustomed to an online environment, I taught between three to five free Zoom lessons every day, open to all students from all schools. I estimate I taught more lessons in the ‘Corona Holiday’ than I’ve taught in the last ten years.

Students from our different schools met each other, and I put faces to student names I’ve known for 17 years.

We went as low-tech as we could and focused on learners, and to support parents and teachers. The environment changed the delivery, but our focus remained to make learning happen.

Some students preferred Zoom, some couldn’t wait to get back to school.

We collaborated with a school outside of our group, in another part of the country. We offered lessons they couldn’t provide to their students, and our students were invited to join theirs.

Oddly, some of my kindergarten lessons were so popular I was encouraged to continue until June.

We saw different approaches and different types of lessons. This was a valuable learning experience for everybody.

I attended dozens of Zoom sessions with teachers and school owners, most of them Japanese. These are the people I feel I can most learn from. I live here, after all.

In the past 18 months or so I’ve been researching how Japanese-owned schools are run. From what I’ve seen, compared to foreign-owned schools, many are way ahead in ICT. There are big changes already implemented in school curricular with more technology changes to come. I truly believe many foreign-owned schools are way behind the curve on ICT and curriculum and are in for a big shock.

Technology itself, and using buzzy apps, is not the point. It doesn’t matter if you look funny with a virtual cat on your head if you’re not delivering to learners’ and parents’ needs.

Word, Excel and Powerpoint will likely still be with us in twenty years. I wonder if Loilo, Padlet and Flipgrid will?

As I’ve mentioned previously in this blog and as this article and paper show, for future career prospects, at the moment, Japanese people do not really need English.

In the search for an answer to the problems brought about by Corona, as school owners, how did we all approach the situation?

Were we focused on our own economic problems? Teachers’ problems (financial and work style-related), parents’ problems or students’ problems?

I sent some bamboo from our garden to some Demon Slayer fans and had an emotional, thankful reply from one parent saying this had made her children’s day, cooped up as they were.

These are the connections that make things real. These are the things that make a difference in my working life.

Many of our elderly adult students – we are about 50-50 kids and adults – continued to pay their monthly fees until they can take in-person make-ups. We all fully know, based on past experience, they may not be able to take all of the make-ups they have accrued. They continued to pay us out of loyalty and support and we have very much felt the love.

There are those who always see a crisis as opportunity. And indeed it is. Fortunes and huge estates in Britain were built on the land of those that died during the bubonic plague.

Schools and teachers here in Japan that profited, or attempted to profit from the misfortune or fear of others, either in the guise of helping them by charging for online help sessions, or offering to take over struggling schools or students, should hang their heads in shame.

As Online Teaching Japan, a Facebook group that grew rapidly shows, communities work best when they come together under a shared need or desire.

Our schools reopened on June 1st. Students are back for face-to-face lessons, albeit behind masks and acrylic sheets, with sanitised hands on sanitised surfaces. A very small number continue to attend via Zoom in hybrid lessons.

Who knows when we might have to close again, for a single day or an extended period of time.

Either way, we are prepared.

I gained five kilos working from home, but revelled in the Kyoto countryside, enjoying the sunrises my new sleeping pattern showed me.

The extended bucolic reverie allowed a more detailed drinking in of sights and sounds as wagtails gave way to warblers, swallows and cuckoos; owls were nightly companions and I saw every inch of two full phases of the moon as it shifted slightly from east to west.

In the garden and surrounding hills, we met badgers, foxes, hares, tanuki, itachi, frogs, snakes and lizards and a raccoon had the temerity to land nosily on my roof during a Zoom session.

The grass began to grow, the weeds needed attending, the air turned humid and things seemed to be getting back to normal.

Things will never be normal ever again.

The rush online has shown everybody it’s possible and can be beneficial.

We also integrated Stripe into our app and opened a ‘borderless’ Zoom school. Students from anywhere can now buy points to learn what they want, when they want, from whom they want, how they want. Who knows, some teachers may even provide their services free of charge.

For bricks and mortar schools that to date have only needed to be better than the nearest competition, they now have to compete with the rest of the world.

More than ever, we need to find a way to differentiate on relevance and quality of service, and absolutely not on price.

Like many, I had mixed feelings about returning to regular work. In truth, I didn’t really want to.

Now, I feel we are better placed than ever to organise others together to achieve our greater mission: to destroy institutional education as we know it.