That’s not something you expect to hear when a phone call interrupts breakfast on a Saturday morning.
“We have a project to open a language school and we would like to invite you to oversee it. Would you be interested?”
It took a few seconds to click. I had sent my CV to a school in Gabon but it was for a regular language teaching position, not a language school project.
“We’ve reviewed your application and if you are interested, we are willing to bring the language school project forward from 2016 to now.”
Up to that point, Gabon was not at the top of my preferred list of the different applications I had made but this opportunity to set up a school almost from scratch lured me in. Now, a year on from that phone call, we have just finished our first short courses and are ready for the second sessions. The rest of this post will summarise and reflect on the work that went into getting this school open.
My first task on arrival was to get to know the local ‘market’ (I hesitate to use that word following some recent debates but in the context of ‘market research,’ it will do). I started with Gabonese staff at the school who speak English and expats who had been here for a while before branching out to speak to the school’s business partners and associates. I simply asked them how they themselves had learned English and what they thought people would expect from a language school here. The conversations developed from there (conversation driven market research if you like).
A couple of interesting things came up in response to those initial queries. When talking about language learning experiences, most of the people I talked to never mentioned teachers or school. They told me about travel to Anglophone African countries, the UK and the US. They described their days studying in South Africa and how they had to get to grips with the language to understand the lectures. They talked about working for Shell and the US embassy here in Gabon. Only the European expats mentioned learning in a school environment and that was only to say how much they hated it!
Secondly, the expectations were interesting. Did they mention NESTs or NNESTs? No. Experienced teachers? No. Course books and study materials? Technology (the digital kind)? Class size? Specialised learning programmes? No, no, no, and no. So what was mentioned?
Exams and accreditation.
“Will you offer courses for TOEFL or IELTS? Will people be able to sit those exams in the language school?” Those are questions I was asked again and again. When I said we were looking into options for offering those exams but it would take some time, the questions changed to what exams we would offer internally and by whom they would be accredited. Even in the middle of Africa in a country with no permanent testing centre for TOEFL and people telling stories of travelling all the way to Ghana just to sit IELTS, the standardised test is king.
Materials and marketing
Once the market research was done, it was time to design a learning programme and individual courses. I had fancy thoughts before coming of working in a low resource context where perhaps courses could be run free from the shackles of publishers that were so pervasive during my time in Turkey.
But no such luck.
I am, of course, not really in a low resource environment. The language school is backed by an international school with a target clientele of businesspeople, local and expat, and diplomats with plenty of disposable income. They would expect, so I was told, all the same features they might find in a language school in Europe or anywhere else.
So, reluctantly, I started to contact publishers about their materials and whether or not they operated in Gabon. However, as has been told in another recent story of mine, I reminded myself that it is not all about the books. They should not define the courses we run and the lesson we have. They should merely be available as a resource. With that in mind, I searched for books that offered plenty of extra resources for study outside of class (workbooks, online materials, and so on) and were from a well-known publisher (for marketing purposes).
Speaking of marketing, it was an interesting experience to be involved in the creative process for brochures, posters, and online ads. This was especially true during the photo shoots (not as flash as it sounds – it was done in house with school equipment and personnel). We wanted some action shots of ‘classes’ in action. At one point, I was told to make myself more prominent in the photos. When I enquired as to why, I was told that it was not really clear from the photos who the teacher was. That, I replied, meant the photo was what I wanted!
A flexible learning programme
Despite being unable to escape from published materials, I resolved to not be trapped by them. The learning programmes for our general and business programmes were sketched out long before our course books arrived. Once they were here (after a lengthy and expensive process of clearing customs, worthy of a few blog posts of its own) rather than make any changes, I simply mapped the content of the books onto the programmes I had already been working on. As I said, they were ’sketched out’ to offer the teacher and students as much flexibility as possible in terms of timing and progress.
I also went for short-term courses of 24 hours of class time over 6 weeks. This was part marketing so we could open new classes and/or add in new students at regular intervals and also so we had enough time to show some progress but without it turning into a slog. After six weeks would come an assessment and then a week’s break to recharge before continuing. As a rough guide, we aim to cover about a quarter the relevant book’s material in those six weeks (not necessarily sequentially) but if the class can progress faster, great, and if they need more time to go through things more slowly, that’s fine too. As long as they are getting the input they need at the pace they need it, they are happy.
(An interesting aside here when I compare my Gabonese experiences with those in Turkey – students in Turkey were very keen to progress as quickly as possible and would take the view that the higher the level they were in, the better even if it was too tough for them. Here, people tend to sell themselves short. One lady, having been placed in an intermediate level class, looked surprised and told me in these exact words “I think it would be better if I were to start in an elementary level class” !!!)
Dual stream assessment
As mentioned above, I scheduled an assessment for the end of each six-week programme. However, I deliberately avoided pencil-and-paper testing of grammar and vocabulary. Instead, I went for a programme like this:
in the first week of class, each student completes a writing and speaking task, the results of which are used by the teacher to inform the direction of the course in the final week, the same writing and speaking tasks are repeated and then compared with the original attempts to show progress a self-assessment task is also completed at the end of the six weeks and discussed with the teacher in a feedback meeting there is also a skills-based assessment, focusing either on a reading text or an audio/video passage followed by comprehension questions and a related discussion and/or written task
Besides, as I mentioned before, the demand for exams is all about brand names – TOEFL, IELTS, TOEIC and so on. The students have the option to do external exams as well if they want/need an accredited ‘score’. We have accreditation for TOEIC in place already and we are progressing with Pearson to offer the LCCI JETSET exams (TOEFL and IELTS will be part of the long-term plan). When we already have these exams, why load the students with more in-house?
Future expansion plans
We have now been open for six weeks and the first round of classes has been completed with the second set to start after our mini-break. For now, the focus is on building a core group of general and business English clients and adding a few people interested in taking TOEIC this June.
Long-term there are plans for expansion in mind. We already have one contract with a local business and are aiming for a few more. EAP is also on the long-term plan with an increasing number of Gabonese young adults looking to go to English-speaking countries to further their academic studies. Together with an EAP programme, we are also looking into offering Saturday classes for teenagers next academic year as that is a demand that has emerged since we started taking enquiries and enrolments.
For now, we don’t want to push too far too soon but there are also longer-term aims to keep in mind: teacher training is one as we would like to reach out into the wider community and train up Gabonese people to be language teachers. That’s something I may not stay here long enough to realise but it is something I would certainly like to lay the foundations for.
Learning programmes with space in the syllabus to be flexible, responsive, and explore the language. Materials that are used to complement but not dominate our classes. Assessment that actually assesses and doesn’t just test. I knew it was possible. I just had to come to equatorial Africa to prove it!