Friday, February 02, 2007

The Nova Brouhaha

For those who read what I write and don't know what "Nova" is, it's a big chain of "fast food" English language schools. They are cheap, offer a set course of content (mainly based on a single series of textbooks but with some variation) and have a lot of branches. They are famous, perhaps unfairly, for being one of the worst places in Japan to work at.

The truth is that they are probably no longer the worst place to work at but the working conditions at the schools are generally quite hard compared to some other places. That is, teachers put in a relatively long, intense day. There is also an elaborate series of financial penalties for small infractions such as being late, calling in sick, or taking days off without sufficient notice. In the past, Nova was accused of cheating people out of salary they were due and denying them legal minimum vacation time but that seems to have stopped due to the creation of a Nova teacher's union.

I worked at Nova for 2 years when I first arrived in Japan and found that conditions varied from branch to branch. Smaller, less busy branches were not so bad to work at and bigger ones were madhouses where teachers were treated like a necessary evil as staff struggled to handle the overwhelming task of managing a stampede of students and fatigued teachers. The Japanese staff who worked at each branch were a big component in how bad or how good the job could be. If you were lucky, you were with a relaxed manager who cut you slack so you could enjoy down-time when you had it. If you were unlucky and worked for a hard ass, you'd be tossed into a conversation lounge during any free moment even if you weren't needed there.

Through the years, a lot of Nova refugees came to work during my former company's busy season (from October to March each year, we would hire 1-5 extra foreign staff members) so I got updates from people who worked there as the years went by. In fact, I was eventually replaced by a Nova teacher so my information is subjective but current.

Anyway, as of late, there has been a lot of news about 7 Nova teachers who have been accused of having a small amount of marijuana and cocaine. The quantity found would lead one to believe this was a group of people prepping for a party rather than a bunch of drug dealers. The amount doesn't matter much to the Japanese though because they are much stricter about drugs than some other countries. This is something that most people ought to know given that Paul McCartney rather famously got booted from Japan in 1980 for carrying a small amount of pot into the country.

I asked one of my students last night about how this news comes across to her and she told me a few things I hadn't learned from reading various news sources. For one thing, she said that Nova had denied (at least to a news sources she accessed) that it had any relationship with the arrested people. That is, it implied that they don't work for Nova. Since there was another incident in the past in which teachers were arrested, I think Nova is probably concerned that this is going to be bad public relations for them. They likely don't want to be seen as a school which employs a bunch of druggies.

I also asked my student about her impressions after the news and two points in particular were of interest to me. First of all, I wanted to know if she thought less of Nova as a language school after this and she said that she did not but felt they were careless about the type of people they hired. Second, I wanted to know if she felt this indicated that all foreigners were more likely to do drugs. She said her impression of foreigners wasn't changed by this at all and said without any prodding on my part that Japanese people use drugs as well.

Part of the reason I asked the latter question is that a common reaction among the foreign community in Japan (as seen by comments about this story on news sites and blogs) is that this news makes life harder for all foreigners in Japan as it will encourage the Japanese who stereotype us as criminals or drug users to maintain their prejudicial views. I think those who want to believe all foreigners are X, Y, or Z are going to do so regardless of how many people actually commit a crime or how many people are upstanding citizens who work hard and obey the laws.


Roy said...

Considering that you worked at Nova so many years ago, I'm surprised that people you worked with are still in Japan. Most people leave after 2-3 years, as you know.

Shari said...

I must have phrased my situation badly. The office I worked at after my two years at Nova hired new temporary workers each year that I was there (over 12 years). Almost every year, one of the temps we hired was a Nova refugee and could tell me about how things were. None of them were people I originally worked with at Nova. All of them were new acquaintances who I worked with at my company for 3-5 months and who tended to move on.

The last person I worked with who had spent some time at Nova was my replacement so I knew second-hand what it was like up until a year ago. He confirmed that the penalty systems were still in place and had actually been expanded to cover some "loopholes" that allowed people to not be penalized under certain circumstances.

None of the people I originally worked with are still in Japan to my knowledge though some of them were around 6 years or so.

The only person who has been here as long as I is my former boss who pretty much has been here longer than I though not in consecutive years.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I really want to go over to Japan and have been accepted at NOVA. I have heard horrible things online, however, and am now questioning whether or not to go. What are the chances of meeting local Japanese and learning the language and culture while there? Is the salary really enough to get by? How easy is it to find another job once over there?

Shari said...

anonymous: Hi there and thanks for posting. :-) It's difficult to answer your questions without knowing where you'll be located and what your salary will be. Also, I don't know if your accomodations are included in your wages and what sort of place Nova might set you up in.

Generally speaking, Nova pays you more than enough to get by on when you factor in the supplemented housing. They aren't the best paying place but they are also far from the worst. They also have a union to push them not to mess people over too egregiously.

From what I last heard, the worst place in Japan to work at was GABA as they attempt to cheat teachers out of wages and offer little security in the salary structure. I know two people personally who were cheated out of wages. One of them was cheated out of 300,000 yen and anothe 100,000 yen.

When you get here, you should easily be able to meet people and learn the language and culture. In fact, Nova is actually a pretty good place to make initial contacts as they have fairly big schools and you'll meet a lot of people (both students and teachers). They also guarantee you a wage and offer the chance of getting a raise with contract renewal (not all places do this).

I think that the main issue with Nova is that they work you pretty hard. You teach 40 minute lessons with 10 minute "breaks" in between but it's usually a madhouse during the breaks and not really much of a breather between lessons.

As I said before, things vary from branch to branch so your situation may be somewhat better or worse than the information you're reading on the internet.

Once you're here, it's not so hard to get another job but it may be hard to get a better job than Nova or a really "good" job. This is something I'm going to address in a new blog post (I'll post it today) as it's a big topic and relates to my husband's situation.

Anonymous said...

Man I work at Nova and they arent half as bad as you say. Stop complaining like a little baby. You want tough, unsatisfying work? Why dont you try slugging it out at a crappy retail job in a dead end English town. That is real torture. Nova is a walk in the park compared to retail so stop your belly aching and get a life!

Shari said...

Ah, an anonymous comment with an ad hominem attack from someone who has painfully poor reading comprehension.

You might want to break out a dictionary to help you understand this part of what I wrote, "They are famous, perhaps unfairly, for being one of the worst places in Japan to work at.

The truth is that they are probably no longer the worst place to work at but the working conditions at the schools are generally quite hard compared to some other places."

I'll help you a little since you seem to have some serious problems understanding English. I'm comparing working at language schools in Japan. I'm not talking about comparing work at crappy minimum wage jobs in other countries to working in a language school in Japan. In English, such comparisons would be referred to comparing apples to oranges. You might need to look that up to help you understand the meaning. Try Wikipedia if you're really stumped.

You sound like someone who is trying to convince himself that the job he has at Nova doesn't suck. Otherwise, why all this anger and defensiveness?

If you want to prove that anything I've said is wrong, then point out where I've said something which reflects an incorrect understanding of the situation at Nova. Are there no longer penalties for lateness or calling in sick in the morning? Are their hours now shorter than most schools? Do you now get longer breaks? This is the way one makes a point. Attacking the writer just makes you look like you have nothing to offer in the way of a substantial rebuttal.

chris said...

thanks for posting this. im interested in nova, but im not sure if i should really go or not. i love japanese culture and what not, but the work sounds hectic!

if i would apply, do i get to choose the location or area which i would prefer to work at? like yokohama, compared to osaka or gifu or some city in top of some random mountain

also, how are the shifts? 8-5 kinda thing? full time? is there part time available? ( i wouldnt think so)

Shari said...

Hi, Chris, and thanks for your comment. Nova offers various shifts including part-time. The full-time work is said to be "28 hours" a week but that figure is misleading as it doesn't incorporate 10-minute working breaks into the total.

The way classes work is they last 40 minutes each then you have 10 minutes between to write student comments for up to 5 students in their files, put the files away and then extract your files from the file cabinets for the next lesson and prepare for the next lesson. In other words, you are not on a break in any sense of the word.

The reason these breaks aren't factored into the total is that Nova had to claim teachers work less than 30 hours a week so they wouldn't have to contribute to the health insurance payments for teachers. When I was there, teachers worked the same hours but the absolute total (including "breaks") was what we were told.

If you go to Nova's web site, they have a list of working options and a sample schedule that might give you an idea of what the deal is. The URL is:

You'll notice that the average working day is 7 hours and 40 minutes. That probably includes a 40 minute or 60 minute lunch break but you can do the math. The schedule adds up to more than 28 hours.

I can't say whether they'll let a teacher choose his or her location since I haven't applied there for so long. When I worked there, they sent me where they needed teachers closest to where I was living. Later, they opened a new branch closer and I transferred but not because I asked. They may let you generally choose a location (such as Osaka rather than Tokyo) if you are recruited abroad. Since I was already here when I got hired, that wasn't an issue for me.

If you have a choice, I think you're better off at GEOS or AEON so you might want to look into them. They have a better reputation and take care of their teachers better.

Don said...

Now that Nova is out of business, how are you doing? Where you cheated out of salary?

Shari said...

Hi, Don, and thanks for reading and commenting.

I haven't worked at Nova for 16 years so I'm way past being affected by anything they have done as of late. I worked there from 1989-1991 only. After that, I worked in a Japanese office environment until I quit two years ago and am now private teaching and doing freelance work for my former company, so, I'm doing fine.