Staff Spotlight: Alex Barnes

Quality/Training Supervisor


Alex Barnes has been in the English education industry in Japan since 2011. He started out by teaching both kids and adults, moving to corporate English instruction, then moving into training for new teachers.

He now oversees training, quality assurance, and employee care for all foreign instructors at Benesse BE studio, headquartered in Tokyo, Japan. He and his team of about 10-12 trainers and mentors take care of foreign instructors in the greater Tokyo area, Osaka, Nagoya, and other locations around the country.

What is your favorite travel memory?

Personally, I prefer traveling to places where I have no expectations. Kyoto is a fabulous city, but after a while, I wanted to experience a place a little less known. I once went to a place called Sado Island, northeast of the main island of Japan. I didn't know anything about it before I went, just that it had a weird shape, but it was by far the best trip I've had.

It had tons of history, traditional buildings and cultural festivals dating back to the 6th or 7th centuries. The seafood was amazing, and the people were incredibly friendly. When I couldn't find a place to eat lunch, this little old grandma closed up her shop and fed me, then drove me around the island, showing me famous temples and historic spots.

You can find good food, history, and hospitality all over Japan, but Sado Island topped it for me.

How have you changed/grown since working for your current company?

This is my first experience in management, so the jump from teaching and training was pretty big. However, I've realized over time that a lot of the things that I love about teaching can be applied to the job. For the same reason, that employee training appealed to me because of its similarities with teaching, managing a team has often felt like teaching, but more focused on teaching employee development rather than English skills.

My attitude has also changed in terms of working with other departments. Most of my work before was more focused on what's right in front of me. Now I have the responsibility of caring for teachers all over the country, so I've come to appreciate how working with other departments can help to meet the needs of our teachers.

What is the best story you've heard from a return student?

Our instructors are employees rather than students, but the stories I like to hear best are from those who have continued their careers in education back home. I've talked to several who, after teaching children here in Japan, have gone back to teach in public schools or pursue a doctorate in education. I must admit that I feel a guilty pleasure when they tell me that they miss teaching young kids in Japan, but I'm proud that their experience with us can be a step towards those goals.

If you could go on any program that your company offers, which one would you choose and why?

Our company only operates in Japan, so I can only speak to locations in Japan. However, I would choose one of our school locations in the greater Tokyo area, but somewhere more on the edge of Tokyo or surrounding prefectures.

The good thing about Tokyo is that it has all the food, museums, and nightlife you could want; the bad news is that it's expensive for day-to-day expenses. Living right in central Tokyo can get pricey, so being more in a suburban area, while having access to the entertainment that central Tokyo provides, would be the most ideal.

What makes your company unique? When were you especially proud of your team?

There are plenty of teaching programs in Japan. However, what makes Benesse BE studio so special is that we focus on young learners, and many of our students are in the 3- to 6-year-old age range. We often look for teachers that not only have an interest in working in Japan but also love working with young children.

Our trainers and mentors care about helping our teachers improve their skills, but they're also personally invested in the teachers' concerns. It's not always easy to live and work in another country, so when our team visit a school and give feedback about their lessons, they often make sure to leave time to talk about how they're doing and provide emotional support as well.

What do you believe to be the biggest factor in being a successful company?

I think recruiting and developing staff that cares about customers is the key, whether the customers are students, parents of students, or anyone else. It's easy to go through the motions with teaching overseas, blindly following a lesson plan or activity without putting much thought into it. But we try to impress on our staff the importance of really knowing your students and making a personal connection.

The same can be said for employees. Committing to treating employees as cherished individuals, not just as someone filling a position, clearly pays off long term. It's not always easy to remember, but that's the kind of attitude I try to bring to work every day.