Month: January 2013

Memories of 20+ years in Japan

classroomtowaThe past couple weeks have been spent moving all my language school material from my home to an office in the center of the city. At one point in time, O’Leary Language Systems had 150 individual students, a dozen client on-site programs and a total gross income of over 13,000 $USD per month. That was is in the crazy rip-roaring 90s.

Looking back and assessing everything, I could without hesitation classify myself as truly poor in the years 2008 though 2011. I simply could not possibly earn enough in the economic climate to pay my most basic obligations. Downsizing and decline is never a painless process. I can remember back in the day, my computer would go a fritz, and I would say, “Oh dammit, now I have blow my whole afternoon at the computer shop buying a new machine.” Imagine the luxury of only worrying about how much free time you are going lose by shopping and not worrying about the 2500 dollars coming out of your wallet that afternoon for a new computer. Today, I never spend more than 700 dollars on a replacement machine but it is real financial burden compared to back then.

During the course of my move, I am laying my hands on teaching materials, equipment, office supplies and furnishings I haven’t touched in a decade. A box of teacher sized flashcards cost 100 dollars, my fold away conference tables on casters were about 500 dollars a piece. Nearly every one of my well over 200 English textbooks in my library cost about 25 dollars a piece. I never gave it a second thought back then. Even in my school’s heyday, I did not teach a full load of classes. It was not practical for me to do so because I had to keep my full-time teachers on a 20 lesson per week schedule. My pocket-money always came from teaching company classes and culture classes for other companies. The concept is simple, OPM. Other people’s money. I really never owned anything privately because everything I needed in my daily life could be attributed to my business. My mini van was owned by my school, my school was on the first floor of a three floor home. Life was good but it did revolve around my school 24/7.

For more than a decade, I always thought how I would rebuild from the ashes of destruction. I hoarded useless objects and outdated teaching materials in hopes than someday hundreds of students would fill my classrooms with excitement and broken English chatter. In reality, that never happened. I could not part with my “treasures.” But, it was not because of strong sentimental value. It was out of practicality. As a newly minted pauper, I just did not have spare change lying around to purchase a new Disney Song CD, a colorful vocabulary poster or even replace those flashcards that had been repeatedly ripped and sneezed on by 5 year olds.

With life changes, new doors are also opened.  As a successful entrepreneur, my personal education background was not a pressing issue while the cash is flowing in.  I simply hired people who were a whole lot smarter than me, with thick credentials to maintain the sterling reputation of my language school.  Now, it was me who needed to hit the pavement with a pretty thin educational background and make my self appear employable.  Since I still had a sizable enrollment in my school during the downsizing, I reinvested in myself.  I wrapped up the final requirements of my bachelors degree and entered a Masters program through the University of Leicester.  My long time affiliations with teacher training and development and my friends who stood by me helped me a great deal.  As I worked through my graduate school work, I was able to gain part-time lecturing positions at several universities and even taught at two high schools part-time as well.  However, ever year the income would decline lower than the previous year.  Finally, after two of my universities offered me a schedule that was not going to work out well, I decided I needed a break.

In April 2007, I left Japan to work in the United States.  I worked for the Lowe’s Regional Distribution Center in Rockford and operated Stateline Realty Solutions in Freeport, IL.  I did this for one and half years and then returned to Japan.  April 2007 is also when I officially ceased being the president of O’Leary Language Systems and turned the operation over to my son who had come of age.  Under his leadership, the school survived and since last year has basically turned the corner.  There is lot more to go.  The business is not big enough to use as an exclusive source of income.  I teach a little and my son teaches a little.  We both have to maintain OPM.  For him, he is a paraeducator for special needs students with Okawa City School System.  I work with food and lots of it.  I work for Watami Merchandising at their distribution facility doing cutting.  I also work for a local bakery in the early mornings.  I still have a lot of pride in teaching.  This is one reason when I fail to find enough teaching opportunities, I still refuse to give away my expertise for small compensation.  I do not mind earning entry-level wages as long as I am not teaching.  If people want Kevin the teacher, I still charge a fee commensurate with my preparation time and experience.  Private English lessons are 5000 Japanese yen per hour.  Group lessons are only 4800 yen per month but if the group is not full, my son and I close it with little regret.

What do I hope to achieve after more than 20 years in Japan?   The answer is simple, relevance.  I am experienced.  I am loyal.  I am dedicated.  I will leave no page unturned for my students.  I will work tirelessly for my students whether they are part of another school I am employed by or my son’s school.  As an experienced teacher, I want my skills recognized and used to help others become better English speakers.  I have kept my competions advertising flyers in my desk drawer since the beginining.  And I don’t mind inviting skeptical people to try them instead because we know we are good.  If they want to spend their education money elsewhere, it is their loss and not ours.  We know we can find students who will come to understand and embrace our system.

After backbreaking work moving 20 years of history downtown, there are at least 10 boxes of treasure in the closet that I will not have time to go through for many months.  But seeing things for the first time in more than a decade, I discovered something.  I am truly a man of great wealth.  I am generous man and I hope I can help others find prosperity through proficiency.  I don’t know what the younger generation thinks of me putting all those old things on the wall like pictures over the past 20 years.  Maybe some of my fellow old salty expatriate teachers will stop over for a Dr. Pepper with me gazing at the walls of the O’Leary Museum and reminisce about the great Japanese Bubble years.