Jodi Pickles embraces the shift to virtual education as part of her dynamic role as an Oxford Learning franchisee
By Kym Wolfe
Jodi Pickles describes franchise ownership as “a dynamic role,” with its share of daily rewards and challenges. As a self-described optimist, she says she regards each obstacle as an opportunity for learning and growth. That learning and growth curve really ramped up earlier this year when COVD-19 forced a very quick pivot to move lessons onto virtual platforms, transition students to an online learning environment, and equip staff to work effectively from home.
For two decades, Pickles’ Oxford Learning centre in Kitchener, Ontario followed a predictable schedule. Teachers would be on site working with students Monday to Thursday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and on Saturday mornings from 9 a.m. to noon. There would be full-day camps in the summer. Pickles and some staff would be at the centre weekdays before classes started, looking after administrative tasks and doing outreach and promotion. But the majority of staff would be on site with the students late afternoon to early evening and Saturdays, delivering customized tutoring and helping students acquire transferable learning and critical thinking skills.
That all changed when the province of Ontario closed all schools and on-site supplemental learning centres in mid-March of this year.
“I still can’t believe how quickly we were able to respond … it was incredible, really. We were told we had to close our centres on the Monday of March break, and by the following Wednesday we had moved all of our classes online,” says Pickles.
The quick and successful transition was due in large part to the franchise supplying the digital versions of each student’s individualized package of learning materials, she says, as well as the staff quickly learning to use the online tools, and becoming comfortable with working with students in online meetings. “Everything was converted, from our assessment tools to our entire curriculum, a virtual platform and meeting links were set up, and it was all created and delivered to us very quickly.”
Parents were kept in the loop throughout the process, and given the choice to continue sessions online instead of in person. At Pickles’ location, just over 85 per cent of existing students transitioned to virtual sessions. In addition, her client base grew, as more parents were looking for ways to ensure their children were engaged in education from home. “The franchise immediately increased social media and online promotions,” she says. “Our brand is trusted and strong, and that has helped us grow our new online model.”
Pickles acknowledges that Oxford Learning didn’t have today’s strong level of brand recognition when she first opened her centre 20 years ago. Nor was supplemental education as popular as it is today, so when she first started out, much of her role involved outreach, marketing, and promotion.
Today those things still take up a large part of her time each day. It takes time to build a client base, and the nature of the business means that there is always a need to bring in new students. Pickles cautions new franchisees to be patient, and to be prepared to put in a lot of hours at the beginning.
“There’s quite a lot of competition in this industry, so you need to be able to explain what Oxford Learning does, and what differentiates us. We focus on the basics of math, reading, writing, and spelling, and we do have a component of ‘homework help’ for other subjects, but really we’re not just here to teach or tutor,” she says. “Through the Oxford Learning system, students learn how to learn, and how to figure things out independently. Those are skills that they will use not just at school, but also at work and in other areas of their lives.”
Learning from experience
Pickles was drawn to Oxford Learning as a post-secondary graduate who was exploring career options. She knew she wanted to do something to help people, and she had seen firsthand how challenging school can be for some students. “My younger brother had learning difficulties, and I watched what he went through. Because he didn’t fit the mold, he was put into special education classes, he was picked on, it really affected his self-confidence. It was really heart wrenching. There was nothing wrong with him, he just learned differently. And there was nothing like Oxford Learning in Kitchener at that time.”
A few years later, her father became an Oxford Learning franchisee, and he was the one who encouraged Pickles to explore it as an option for herself. “My initial reaction was, ‘Really? Will I have to be able to teach Grade 12 math?’” Not necessarily, she learned; she could hire teachers to do the teaching. She and her husband decided to take the plunge. “I was 27 years old, one of the youngest franchisees at the time,” she recalls.
While some Oxford Learning franchisees do have a teaching background, Pickles feels that having good business, leadership, sales, and people skills are the key elements to success for any franchisee. And you have to love working with people. “As the franchise owner, you can choose what you want to do,” she says. “You can do the assessments and face-to-face meetings with parents – that’s the rewarding part of the business – or you can hire staff to do that. You can do all of the paperwork and behind-the-scenes work yourself, or you can hire a bookkeeper.”
As a franchise owner, you do need to have a finger on the pulse of all areas of the business, but you don’t have to do everything on a daily basis. “Hire people whose skills complement your own,” Pickles advises. “I hired a full-time Education Director from day one, even before I had any students. When the phones started to ring, we were ready! When we got to the point that it was too busy for one teacher, I hired another.”
Today, Pickles employs two full-time and about a dozen part-time staff. “It is hard at the beginning – you might want to do it all yourself to save money. I have seen too many new owners try to do it all, and they burn out. Passion fizzles and you don’t grow.”
Two decades in, Pickles has never lost the passion she had when she first opened her centre’s doors. “What I love about Oxford is that we can really make a difference in a child’s life, we can totally shape a child’s future for the better. With the Oxford Learning system, they become active learners and their self-confidence builds. It overwhelms me at times, seeing the impact my team has on a student. It is unbelievably rewarding!”
“Oxford has a proven system to follow,” she adds. “It allows me to focus on people-building, and not get bogged down in all of the system details. Head office is very supportive. They listen to the people in the field, and they encourage franchisees to share our successes so that we can learn from each other.”