May 28th, 2009

Professional Interviews: Ben Rosenblum, English Instructor

I’ve been wanting to teach myself rudimentary interview skills for a while now, much the same way I worked on a way to write reviews that worked for me in the Rose-coloured Reviews. Obviously, reviews and interviews are both things I read all the time, and I feel like I can judge the good from the bad, but writing such things myself is very different, and very challenging, for me.

Interviews are that much harder, because they involve another person. When I write a review, I am ever conscious of working with an object that a real thinking feeling person made, and trying to be as respectful of them as possible, but it’s still not actually a personal interaction, the way reviews just are are are, no matter how scientific one tries to be with the questions.

I’ve tried to make this easier for myself in two ways. One, I’ll be interviewing people about their jobs. This is a subject that’s endlessly fascinating to me, so it’s easy to come up with questions, so much so that often my cocktail-party and bus-stop and first-date chatter often becomes a kind of what-is-your-job-like interview anyway. And two, I’m going to interview people I know to start (although, if you have an interesting job, or interesting things to say about your job, feel free to get in touch, and if you don’t seem scary, I will do my best to interview you!)

I’m starting with one of the least scary and most interesting people I know, my brother, Ben. I figured since we were in Japan together, I might as well make the most of the opportunity. Read and enjoy!

What is your job?

I am an English instructor.

Where do you work?

I work at an English-language studio in Tokyo. We give private lessons to clients, typically people who work in finance or other industries where the client or his company can afford to spend $80 to talk to me for 40 minutes. The world is strange.

What training or education or experience do you have that enables you to do that?

In order to get a job like this, you should have a Bachelors degree and at least moderately good hygiene. Sometimes, the Bachelors degree is not necessary. Personally, I have a little experience working with as a tutor at a community college, and also a certificate for having taken 40 meaningless hours of training for teaching English as a second language.

What personality traits do you have that enables you to do this?

The interesting thing about this job is that different teachers have drastically different styles. Clients can choose the instructor they want, so the important thing is to play to your strengths. Generally, I am a very patient instructor and I believe that I’m usually fairly aware if the client is confused, frustrated, nervous or sad. I think that having those qualities helps me to do this job.

Please describe a typical day teaching for you.

Typically I wake up at 4:45 am. Usually I mean to be very efficient but I’m often running down the strange Tokyo cityscape at 6am, trying to catch the Tokido Express which leaves at 6:11. Shortly thereafter, I arrive at work and trade insults with a 38-year-old Englishman who works 7 days a week and is fuelled purely by hate. Then I prepare for my lessons.

Each lesson lasts for 45 minutes with a five minute break at the end but it is very hard to get the students to leave so my lesson preparation, which is unpaid, is my last chance to come up for air for several hours.

The lesson begins; it is a private lesson. Sometimes the student has trouble finding my booth, which is actually a cubical. When he or she comes, I typically shake his or her hand, except not lately because everyone is scared of swine flu. Then they put their bag in a small basket and do something with their jacket; there is no hook. Then they look at me uncertainly, and eventually, we both sit down. I like to start with some small talk: “what’s new?” is for some reason a terrifying question. The more I think about it the more I understand where they are coming from. But I ask it anyway, because I think it raises useful problems. After 3 or 4 minutes of this, I have to make a decision: should I try to fill in the entire lesson with conversation, or should I turn to the book? This depends on the student, the book, and my mood. Some of the books have us discuss topics like, if man will be on Mars by the year 2000. I like those books. I don’t like the books where we endlessly practice the present perfect. Regardless of the choice, the important thing is to get the client talking.

What’s the hardest lesson to teach in ESL teaching?

In general I enjoy dealing with shy students because I am somewhat shy myself, so I understand how to put them at ease. However, some students are so incredibly uncomfortable with the entire process, that I feel as though I have to spend the entire lesson trying to put the client at ease and failing. This is difficult.

Why do you call them “clients” and not “students”?

My company refers us as instructors and the people we teach as clients. In training they taught us that this was because we weren’t some sort of nonprofit place of education but we were in the service industry and we basically have no goal besides satisfying the customer. So we have client-instructor studio. I suppose this somewhat removes the title of authority that a teacher might have but in the end, I think it’s just gibberishy corporate speak. I have been working there for 8 months now so of course I use it, just like the other goons.

What have you learned about the English language from this job?

I suppose I haven’t learned that much. What I have learned is ways of explaining the English language. I’ve gained a great deal of respect for people who are trying to learn the English language. At times, their style of Japanese-English has actually corrupted my own consciousness of the English language and I find myself saying phrases like, “Go to shopping,” and occasionally mixing up my Ls and my Rs.

Any fringe benefits of this job that you didn’t expect?

I wish I could could say there was.

What would be one thing you would change about the job if you could to make it better?

I would have preferred less unnecessary training.

What advice would you give to someone considering getting a teaching job in Japan?

It depends a lot on what they want. There are a lot more opportunities once you get your feet on the ground over here. For many people it’s best to have this kind of maximum choice but some would prefer to have a job before they buy a plane ticket. In terms of teaching, I think that you kind have to jump in on the deep end and hope for the best. The first few weeks is a process of learning to make decisions quickly and creating a structure that reduces the number of decisions that have to be made. After that, the chaos recedes.

Any final thoughts?

Actually, overall this has been an excellent experience for me. There were problems with the way it’s set up, but for me the pros have outweighed the cons greatly.

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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