A Day in the Life of the Director of the University of Maine’s Intensive English Institute

Chris Mares
Chris Mares
By Chris Mares

When I left Japan, I pledged to myself that I would never commute again. If I walk to work, it takes twenty-five minutes. If I cycle, twelve minutes. And if I drive, one song (currently Wild West End by Dire Straits). Every morning I feel gratitude. No traffic. The river. The same people walking or jogging. Rural New England at its best.

I get up early. Very early. And write. I have different projects. ESL related blog posts, fiction writing, and a story-telling project. I write for about an hour. In the dark. In silence. Slurping my way through a pot of tea.

The early mornings are my time. I hear the first birds. See the sunrise. Feel the day slide into being.

I go to work early and arrive around 7:00 a.m. I can get a lot done before anyone else arrives. Email, lesson prep. Fiddly bureaucratic stuff. Letters of recommendation. Inquiries.

I teach three fifty-minute classes a day. Currently these classes are English through Film, Reading Fiction, and Special Topics. I love to teach. I always have. I care about my students and I give a lot of myself. My students are currently from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Korea, Guatemala, and Brazil. They are wonderful. Bonded through humor and mutual interest. Gentle with each other and interested in me. And I in them. I’m fascinated by where they come from, what they think, how they react to Maine, and what they plan to do with their lives.

I am an American citizen but obviously English. This gives me a certain cachet I don’t deserve but I get it anyway. Plus, I look like Bruce Willis – I tell them that Bruce Willis looks like me.

Last week I began working with a group of Mandela Fellows from twenty five African countries. My sessions are focused on giving TED Talk like presentations. This morning I have a three-hour slot and am looking forward to firing the students up. “Get in circle. I will give you an instruction. You do what I say. OK?” They will look bemused. Feel slightly anxious. And then we begin, “Walk like you are carrying very heavy luggage.” And off they go. Then a story in which the structure of a presentation is revealed. It will be fun. Productive. Rewarding.

Two weeks ago I taught a one-week TESOL Certificate Program. Sixteen delightful students all giving up a week of their lives, taking a gamble that it would be worth their while. It was a blast. For me. For them. For the students they observed and did their practice teaching with.

It’s a great job. A great life. And I always want to go to work.

And so it was a shock to get a call from my union representative a couple of weeks ago. A Thursday morning. Out of the blue. I barely caught his name. But I did catch the phrase, “bad news”.

We are a fee supported unit. The revenue we generate from students pays our salaries and for everything else. For the nineteen years I have been director we have stayed in the black. In fact, our surpluses have been used by the university to fund endeavors such as the Faculty and Undergraduate Research Project.

And then the shift. Our numbers are down. I have had to lay off teachers and now the administration wants to phase me out. Reduce my contract from a twelve-month contract to a nine-month contract.

Suddenly my world has been rocked. We currently have seventeen students. Less for our second summer session. And perhaps even fewer for the fall.

There have been cycles before. Peaks and troughs. But this is different.

And so, at fifty-nine, I find myself pondering the future. However, uncertainty can lead to opportunity. It’s time to rethink how the next few years will go. I had imagined continuing as I am. In Maine.

But now I am reminded that there is a whole world out there. Where I could teach, or train teachers, or consult.

And I will.

The Teacher as Author

Chris Mares
Chris Mares
By Chris Mares

I would never describe myself as an author, even though I have been one.  I would describe myself as a writer. In the same way as I would describe myself as a reader. Writing and reading are two things I ‘do’ on a daily basis. They are an integral part of my life both in the world of teaching and outside it, too.

Reading informs me, inspires me, entertains me, and teaches me. Writing serves me personally and professionally. I write because I am creative, in the way a musician or painter is creative, and I write to hone and refine my thoughts on teaching, travel, and other matters.

To my mind, an author is someone who primarily writes for money. I have done this. It’s hard work. It takes time and sacrifice. But, of course there are rewards, at least there were back in the early nineties when it was possible for ELT authors to make decent royalties from four skills course book series, for example.

My experience as an author was back in the day when publishers were flush with money, they controlled the market and no one realized what changes were going to be wrought. The arrival of the internet, advances in technology, and the era of self-publishing were yet to come. And when they did, everything changed.

Now, getting published in some form or other is easy. Getting promoted and marketed is something else.

When I was a budding author with my pal Steve Gershon, we reviewed the market, reflected on our students needs, noted deficiencies in current materials and submitted proposals for competitive products. A competitive product in those days was the same as everything else, but different. Like most oxymorons.

I never made enough money as an author to survive solely on royalties and, to be frank, I have enjoyed being a writer much more. A writer writes. They don’t have to earn money doing it. They do it because they want to.

I associate my time as an author with writing under the direction of an editor for a specific market. The parameters were clear and the pressure relentless. First there is the writing, then the reader feedback, then the rewriting. This all takes time, during which one develops thick skin and learns to distance oneself from the criticism that inevitably comes. The most productive way to think about this type of authorship is to consider it as team work. The author is simply part of a team attempting to produce the best materials possible for the target market. In an ideal world the team are all on the same page. In practice this may not be the case. Publishers tended to be cautious. They wanted the same but different but couldn’t articulate what exactly that was. On more than one occasion I heard an editor say, “I’ll know when I see it.” The editor is key. They need to be informed, focused, clear, and relentless. Not all editors are. If your goal is to become an author, meaning that you will write a product that will be marketed and sold by a publisher, then find the right publisher and an editor you feel has the qualities I have mentioned, as well as being someone you can believe in and work for.

After the material is promoted and sold, there will be royalty checks. When I got my first royalty check, I actually owed the publisher money against my advance. That was not good for morale but par for the course, apparently.

My experience as an author helped to professionalize me in terms of materials writing, market awareness, current trends, etc. However, it was a demanding and relentless time. A work-life balance was sometimes not possible.

My experience as a writer, producing my own materials for my own use with my own students has been far more satisfying. Writing is my practice, something I do everyday. I have just completed The Richard Project, a collection of about two hundred 800(ish) word vignettes for use in class.

And this is what I write when I blog.

Remember. Whether you are an author or a writer you have to make it a practice. Do it at the same time each day. Preferably in the same place. Do it whether you feel like it or not. Never stare at a blank screen or page. Write.  Anything. Eventually what you want to see will come.

On a final note, there is no such thing as writer’s block and no time for procrastination. If you suffer from either of these – author beware.

Making stories your own

Chris Mares
Chris Mares

By Chris Mares

Many of my students are not regular or passionate readers in their first languages and seldom read for pleasure. By the same token, a lot of my students can “read” in English and yet rarely do so voluntarily, or for pleasure. In most cases, in fact, my students only read in English only when they have to.

This situation is, of course, not uncommon and not a surprise to many of you. The question is, what can we do to engage our students in reading? To this end I would like to report on a pleasing success I have had recently with my students.

I have never met students who do not like a good story that they can relate to. Stories are told in all cultures. They are part of the fabric that binds us together through shared experience and the transmission of values and knowledge.

With the above in mind, I wanted to get my students engaged in listening to stories, then reading them, then ultimately writing their own. And so, the Richard project began, in a class that met four days a week for 50 minutes, entitled “Story Telling.”

As a reader with a life-long interest in writing, I decided I would write my own stories for students – about me, but presented through the eyes of Richard. My thought was to write about things that we can all relate to: the first day at school, making friends, making mistakes, getting to know oneself, having parents and siblings, loss, part-time jobs, etc. I wanted to make them authentic, simple, understandable, and most of all, stories my students could relate to. The stories are around 800 words in length. I use short sentences, direct speech, and try to inject useful language which I then recycle in subsequent stories. I try to craft the stories in the style of “sudden fiction” with a hook, a body, and satisfying ending. I have found that students enjoy the humor and a full range of human emotions, especially those that reveal uncertainty, doubt, love, pleasure, and all the others that make us human.

So far I have used the stories in our regular core program plus two intensive programs, one with Mexican students, the other with Japanese students. I have also had one of my colleagues use the Richard stories with success.

Over time, students began to look forward to the stories and request that they be in them. Consequently, with ongoing groups of students I would write some stories that included them, and incidents we had discussed or that had happened in class. I found that not only were the students eager listeners, they also valued reading aloud, and would voluntarily re-read the stories at home. Another interesting development was that some students in my Personal Writing classes began to write letters to Richard, or write their own Richard-like stories. What I am reporting is anecdotal, but true. Finally, a couple of my students asked me about the University Library as they would like to find books themselves to read, stories, they said, like the Richard stories.

With my Mexican students who were very motivated I developed a worksheet on how to write a Richard story. It worked much better than expected as the students not only wrote wonderful stories but clearly enjoyed reading each other’s. Below is the handout I used in this class.

Writing a Richard story

When I write a Richard story, I first try and think about something that has happened to me in my life that you might find interesting or funny. Usually it’s something that I think you will be able to relate to in some way. For example, your first day at school, making a mistake, falling in love, or making new friends. I find it difficult to write in the first person. For this reason I write in the third person. I like to use direct speech in the stories. I keep the sentences very simple and often quite short.

I chose the name Richard because it seems very English to me and doesn’t have any particular associations. It isn’t the name of any of my friends or relatives, for example.

It normally takes me about 45 minutes to write a Richard story. It might take you a little longer.

The Process

  1. Think of a particular time in your life.
  2. Think of something fun or interesting that happened to you at that time.
  3. Note down the names of the other people who will be in your story.
  4. Choose a name for yourself.
  5. Think of a title.
  6. Get writing.

Giving it a try

Like many things in life, it takes a bit of time and practice. If you find it hard to begin (get going)… Just write. Start with the name of your character. Visualize him or her. Have a picture in your mind. Where is he or she? What is he or she wearing/thinking/doing? etc.


It is possible to get students engaged in stories and interested in reading. The stories need to be accessible linguistically and culturally and have a universal appeal. They also need to be short enough to be read in one class including the time available for schema-raising, which is to say, getting the students hungry for the story.

If you are interested in reading a short selection of Richard stories, please email me at siff.mares@hotmail.com and I will send some to you.

Error Correction: An Overview

Chris Mares
Chris Mares
By Chris Mares

The term “error correction” is problematical as the word “error” has a negative connotation, when, in fact, “errors” are a necessary part of learning and language acquisition process. Without testing hypotheses and getting meaningful feedback on “errors”, learners would not be able to master language.

However, teachers need to provide meaningful and constructive feedback at appropriate times. Naturally the issues to consider are firstly, what constitutes meaningful feedback, secondly, how we give it constructively, and thirdly, when is an appropriate time.

Knowing about languages helps

I often get asked if a teacher needs to speak the students’ first language in order to teach them. I say, “No,” but it helps. More importantly, it is helpful to know about the students’ first language. If you know something about Japanese, you will know that articles and prepositions will be an issue. If you know something about Chinese, you will know that verb tenses will be an issue. And if you know something about Spanish, you will know that word order will be an issue in general and sentence length will be an issue in the written form.

General points

Two general points to consider are whether “correction” is necessary at a particular time and whether it will achieve anything. Consider the adage “telling is not teaching”. Telling a student that she has made an error does not necessarily result in a benefit for the learner. However, training students to notice their own language will help them. It’s worth remembering that students don’t need to focus on all the errors they make and correcting all errors will be demoralizing and counterproductive.

In small classes

In small classes it is reasonable to give regular feedback to both spoken and written errors, and to have a sense of who knows what and who needs what. The trick is to maintain the pace of the lesson and the energy of the class while providing useful feedback to all learners.

In large classes

In large classes it is difficult to provide meaningful, regular, and individual feedback to either spoken or written output. However, it is possible to monitor the class as a whole, look for common errors, and give feedback in a more general sense at strategic points in the class, or in review sessions.

Feedback on spoken errors

Echoing works. For example, a student makes an error such as, “Yesterday, I go shopping,” and the teacher simply echoes the preferred response, “went”. Over time and with regular echoing, students will begin to notice and correct their own errors. The teacher must be principled in terms of deciding what items to echo. This will depend on the level of the student and the type of error being made. If the error is minor and doesn’t impinge on the clarity of the message, then consider ignoring it. However, if the error leads to a lack of clarity in the message or the teacher regards it as significant, then that would be the time to echo.

Feedback on written errors

I recently attended a presentation by a young Saudi teacher on burning the midnight oil. I very much enjoyed it and whole-heartedly agreed. Essentially the message was – don’t burn the midnight oil. You don’t have to. Correcting all errors in a piece of writing will achieve little except demoralize the student. Focus on particular types of error only. Vary the focus. If the assignment is a long one, focus on one error type for the whole assignment and then choose three lines, highlight them, and correct all the errors. This will give students a snapshot of the type of errors they make and have made throughout the assignment.

Final thoughts

Students need feedback and students need correction. However, they don’t need all errors to be corrected all the time. The art of teaching includes deciding which errors to correct, when and how to correct them.

Individual learners need feedback that is particular to their own learning curve, while groups of learners need feedback that is relevant to the group as a whole.

Learning when to give feedback and how best to give it takes time. Observe yourself. Reflect. Ask yourself what you choose to correct, when, and why. Over time you will arrive at a framework that works best for you in the context you teach.



Chris Mares
Chris Mares
By Chris Mares

The thought of “being observed” has struck fear into the hearts of many a teacher, including myself. It is often associated with being assessed for some purpose or other, whether it be for a qualification or a performance review. Naturally, when this happens, teachers are more likely to find themselves focused more on the act of being observed than the act of teaching. This is unfortunate and counter-productive. I know, I’ve been there. Initially then, and like many of my peers, I didn’t like being observed and I was unable to teach in a way that was natural for me, at least in my very early years.

I am now in a different place and my experiences as a teacher, mentor, trainer, peer teacher, mentee, and on-going learner have lead me to believe that there are many benefits to be gleaned from observing and being observed. More than that, I believe in an open door policy by which interested peers, trainees, or those simply interested in teaching and learning can pop in. Under certain conditions, of course.

Why observe? 

Teaching is both an art and a skill and as such teachers need to see the act of teaching being carried out in order to fully learn how to do it. When we observe others teach, we not only get ideas for classroom activities and learn new techniques, we also develop a sense of what we do ourselves and where our strengths and weaknesses lie. Thus, in one sense, we observe in order to learn and to hone our craft. However, we can also observe peers in order to offer support and feedback. This, when done constructively, not only provides useful information for the observed teacher, it also helps strengthen professional ties and creates an atmosphere of trust and support.

I believe teachers should be observed primarily to get constructive feedback on what they do in the classroom. However, this is not the only reason. Sometimes fellow teachers who are taking over a class or substituting for a class will benefit from observing a class they will teach in the future. This is also something that students notice and appreciate.

Who should you observe? 

The greater the variety of teachers you observe, the more you learn. If you only observe teachers you like or who are similar to you in some way, then your learning will be limited. If you observe teachers who you know to be different from you, then you may see things done differently and in a way you didn’t previously consider but might find useful. If you are easy-going in the classroom, then it would be interesting to observe someone with firm classroom management skills. We learn not only from what we see but also from reflecting on how we teach ourselves as a reaction to observing others. Try to observe both new teachers and seasoned veterans.

By the same token, the more you are observed by different types of teachers or personality types, the more varied and potentially useful feedback you will get.

What to observe 

There are many ways to observe, from the holistic and impressionistic to the very specific. You can observe simply to get a sense of a particular class or to see how a teacher deals with error correction, or classroom management. That said, it is crucial to remember that there is a lot that you cannot observe, for example, what happened in the previous class, or what will happen subsequently. A lot of the art of teaching is not observable as a snapshot, but occurs over time, such as the feeling of trust that can develop between a teacher and student.

 How to observe 

There are different ways to observe and it is worth experimenting with them. One way is to simply sit and watch the class without taking notes. Another way is to use a rubric that focuses on a particular aspect of teaching such as “teacher action”, “student action”, i.e. what the teacher does and says and what the students do. If a rubric is too complex, however, it becomes difficult to both observe and to make notes.

The bottom line 

For me, being observed is more a norm than an exception. It is something I am used to and something my students are used to. I feel a classroom should be a welcoming place and one in which anyone should feel comfortable. The people who observe my classes include potential students, potential teachers, fellow teachers, peer committee members, and interested community members. I have welcomed them all but I do insist on meeting them to discuss their intentions and to offer some explanation of what I do in class and why. This is important. Teaching is an ongoing and complex business, involving the establishing of protocols and relationships. This takes time. A one off observation cannot possibly capture this and a single snapshot can be misleading. This is something that both teachers and those observing need to understand.

An end note 

I will repeat the fact that I didn’t initially like being observed because, as a novice teacher, I felt vulnerable and insecure. I wasn’t sure of what I was doing and I didn’t relish the idea of being judged or criticized. At the same time, I had no experience of observing so I was unaware of the tremendous benefits of observation.

I am sure the feelings I had are common and not ones to be ashamed of. However, I now value the act of observing and being observed. I have learnt a great deal from observing others and have also benefited from the feedback I have received from being observed.

Many years ago, when I did my Cambridge Diploma in TEFLA at International House in London, I remember being observed by the excellent Ruth Gairns. The first time she observed me she had a yellow legal pad on her lap. I glanced down at it before I was about to begin my class and saw that she had written, “Good Points.”

I’ve never forgotten that, for good reason.