One year ago, I was having a beer on a rooftop in Hanoi with my old friend Seb when we first batted around the idea of opening a TEFL school together. We both have similar professional backgrounds – the man had even done his TEFL course in Ho Chi Minh City with my wife. Though we didn’t feel so at the time, I suppose that we were following a fairly typical TEFL occupational ladder.
We had taught in different countries and contexts getting experience for a number of years. Gradually, we were trusted enough by our schools to be given more responsibilities. Eventually we were hired as managers, which we both did for a number of years. Now, we felt prepared to take on the position of school owners.
I love teaching and the freedom of place that working in the TEFL industry provides. One thing that many people don’t consider is that each with each new type of class you challenge yourself with, that with each new country, with each year of experience, you are advancing professionally. After working within TEFL for a number of years there are many avenues one can go down.
One such career path is to try and start your own school. If you want to know how I got from that beer on the rooftop to a point where I was wearing a Superman costume and trying to shuffle hundreds of students from room to room last Saturday, read on to learn from my experiences of opening a school.
Do You Really Want to Open a School?
This is an important question to ask yourself because I can guarantee you that 1) it will not be easy and 2) it will not happen overnight. Before you get started you need to make sure that this is something that you want to do. I urge you to consider your motivations and make sure that you will have the staying power to see your project through. If not, it might just be a colossal waste of your time and money.
Let me be more specific about the challenges that I’ve encountered over the past year. When I first came to the conclusion that I would have to get a lawyer to help me get an investment license for Vietnam I was kind of excited. It sounded so important to be able to casually mention to my business partner that I would, “have to discuss that with our lawyer.”
The novelty quickly wore off when I saw just how many hoops we would have to jump through to make our dream of opening a school a reality. I only know what it’s like to open a school in Vietnam, but I imagine that every country has its own difficulties. For the most part, patience and perseverance is what’s important here. It may take a year to get things going; use that time wisely to lay the groundwork for your school. Otherwise, when you finally get approval, you won’t necessarily know what to do next and will waste even more time.
Are You Financially Stable Enough?
This project is going to take a lot of time to get started. It will take even more before you start to see any kind of a profit. Here’s a little history lesson from my own project. You see, my business partner and I didn’t start a school from scratch, instead we purchased an existing school.
The school that we took over had been in existence for about three years. After the first year, one of the two owners had to go home for personal reasons, leaving one woman in her sixties to run the whole program. Eventually, she lost interest and became embittered about the entire project. Both of them had lost their initial investment completely and seemed sure that the school could never turn a profit.
Coming in with fresh energy and vigor, Seb (my business partner) and I were able to triple the student body and turn the business into a financially stable entity. The lesson here is not to give up early on. You need to keep trying and accept the fact that it will likely take a while before your project begins to see a decent return.
In order to be patient enough, you need to make sure that you have enough money. If not, you will make poor and short sighted decisions. I highly recommend budgeting things out with an accountant. I had only considered about 75% of the actual costs on my own and was surprised by how the small things add up. Financially, you should:
- Budget realistically
- Have a large financial reserve if things go wrong
- Have a source of income (or other savings) for yourself beyond your projectâ€™s return.
Are You Prepared to Take Full Responsibility?
I haven’t had a day off in over a month. In my free time I’m constantly worrying about what still needs to happen in the school. Occasionally, I miss the days when I could simply moan to my friends about how my employers really needed to get their act together. Now, when things go wrong, there’s nobody to blame but myself. If I don’t do something about it, nobody will.
Two weeks ago we moved into a new and nicer building. On Saturday, we had our welcome party where we invited all of the students to the school and had lots of fun activities planned for them. This is how I ended up doing “Superman Karaoke”. One thing that we still hadn’t fixed was the rooftop. It has a beautiful view, but isn’t properly protected for the children, so we’d planned to put a chain linked fence up. Three days before the party I received the news that the fence would not be installed in time for the party.
It was too late to cancel. Without the rooftop there wouldn’t be enough space. So, I spent the entirety of my Wednesday and Thursday drilling into concrete and installing fencing by myself in the rain.
This is one example of many that express the same idea. If you do this, YOU are the one ultimately responsible for everything that happens in your school. If there’s a teacher that is delivering poor lessons, YOU need to offer better training. If someone is sick, YOU need to cover. If the books are out of date, YOU need to replace them. If paint drips on the floor, YOU need to deal with it.
Obviously, delegation is the key, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to consider everything that is going on. The flip side of taking responsibility is that you also get to take pride in it when things go well. Occasionally, I will see something stupid in the school, like that cold water dispenser that was so hard to find, and it makes me nearly break into tears. I’m not sure why exactly…
Do You Have Support?
Even if I could have started the school by myself, and I’m not sure that I could have, I would not have wanted to. I have had to cash in quite a few favors already from friends and family recently. I mentioned our welcome party last weekend where over two hundred kids came. In order to make this work, we needed to make seven different stations, but we only have four teachers.
We were lucky enough to convince friends and loved ones to help out and set up photo booths and get involved in hand painting. Seb’s mother, an artistic soul, is in one of the rooms as I write this painting a mural on the wall! My wife, bless her little cotton socks, has been teaching split shifts six days a week for the past month because, at the time, we had no other option. You need support.
Other forms of support come with the people you hire. Taking the time to hire good staff and acknowledging their hard work is essential. Yesterday, I was locked in one of the classrooms by myself (faulty doorknob) and the security guard had to save me. I need to show this man my thanks and that his work is appreciated. Like myself, our operations manager hasn’t had a real day off in weeks. This week Seb and I are sending her to a nice hotel in Hanoi to relax for a few days and renegotiating her contract.
I’m a big believer in finding the right people and rewarding them properly for their work. I guess we’ll see if that works in the long run.
I hope that this post has been useful if you are considering opening a school or just want to see another side of the business. I don’t mean for it to scare anyone off, but it’s important to know that there is a lot of work involved. My first few years in the profession I used to tell myself a lot of things, “Well if I had a school, I’d…” Now it’s the time to see if my convictions are real.
Whether you’re starting a school, managing a school or teaching in one, regular events are a great way to please your students and parents. Also, you might just have the chance to dress like Superman. I’ve been brainstorming a lot of events recently and would love for you to take a peak. It might be just the thing to get you started if you’re in charge of planning an event. You can download my list for free by clicking on the button below.