Something(s) I wish I had been told

Chris Mares

Something(s) I wish I had been told
by Chris Mares.

 

The thing about teaching is… you learn through experience. You have to put in the time. You have to feel embarrassed when you can’t answer a question and you have to get all hot and sweaty when there is a technical glitch that you can’t fix. That is how you learn. And it takes years. In fact, it’s a never-ending process. I’ve been teaching for thirty-eight years and I’m still learning. 

A true teacher is always a student. Richard Feynman, the famous American theoretical physicist once said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t.” A similar thing might be said of teaching, “If you think you have arrived as a teacher, you haven’t.” It is an art and an ongoing process. 

So, is there something I wish I had been told? Or perhaps things, even. I was certainly told a lot. However, a lot of what I was told created a tremendous amount of stress in me. I had to prepare rigorous, minute by minute lesson plans. I was castigated for going over time in my warm-up activity and berated for not following my lesson plan to the letter. 

The answer then is yes, there is something I wish I had been told. Forget about present, practice, produce. Sure it has its place, but what is more important is what I am about to tell you. 

Teaching is theatre. It’s drama. Think performer and audience. Think improv. Think stand up. 

Someone should have told me that so I could have immediately given myself permission to be me and get on with the show. Stagecraft is all about schema-raising, engagement, and storytelling. These are the things that excite and motivate students. 

And now the genie is out of the bottle, there are a lot more things someone could have whispered in my ear. For example, “Don’t just stay in your comfort zone. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Take risks. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Come on? What? A minute of mild embarrassment, or the class laughing at something you failed to do or got wrong? Big deal.” 

Am I being clear? No? OK, let me put it like this. Just because you can’t sing is no reason not to sing. Giving it a shot is the key. Students love that. And you can bet there’s someone in your class who can sing. The same goes for drawing, or dancing, or playing the guitar. 

I have got swirled up in my own enthusiasm, so I will slow down, in order to clarify. Generally speaking, teachers tend to teach how they were taught, or not how they were taught, or how they were trained, or not how they were trained, or any combination of the above. 

One of the other things I wasn’t told is that the process and practice of teaching is about our students, not as a hypothetical demographic with their requisite needs and interests, I mean as living, breathing human beings with lives and histories. It is these students as humans who we must connect with and engage. We must enthrall them with what we do and also with us and themselves. Needless to say we do this with intentionality and purpose. We recycle and give meaningful feedback. We note down what we have actually done and we point out to students what they have actually done, in terms of language practice and development. 

Students want and need a teacher who is passionate, engaged, perceptive, responsive, and reliable. 

I wasn’t told that. But I learnt it. And I try to spread the word to my trainees and mentees. 

Be you. The rest will come in time. 

 

The Power of Professional Development

Chris Mares

The Power of Professional Development
by Chris Mares.

 

In November 2017 I attended Colorado TESOL as a featured speaker and returned to Maine inspired, energized, and ready to hurl myself back into my teaching and writing with even more energy and enthusiasm than usual.

There is nothing quite like teacher energy, particularly at conferences and workshops. There we all were for two days sequestered in the Radisson South East, in Denver, surrounded by freeways and concrete, doing what we love – sharing our stories, listening for ideas, giving inspiration, pawing through texts, meeting new people, reconnecting with old friends, and realizing that what we have chosen to do is meaningful and worthwhile.

I was gripped by Andy Curtis’s pertinently brilliant talk on teaching as a political act and Dorothy Zemach’s artful commentary on music, metaphor, and teaching. Maggie Sokolik brought me down to earth with her pragmatic insights into writing, students, and classroom practice. Finally, the gifted and lyrical Thomas Healey, in the final session, had us all dancing The Chicken while revealing how it is possible for teachers to be in two places at one time.

I took frantic notes and my head span with ideas.

And I was in Denver, far from Maine, sitting at breakfast with a group of wonderful teachers attending their first conference. One was going to give her first ever presentation and our table hummed with supportive energy.

A month earlier I had been in Japan observing teachers in middle schools in Aomori Prefecture.  It was wonderful to see how far along public school teaching has come since I had lived in Japan, twenty years previously.

I even managed to inspire myself with my own talk on using teachers’ anecdotes and stories as material for classroom use.

What a giving lot teachers are. There is so much sharing of materials and ideas, so much time spent supporting and advocating for students.

I listened to teachers talk of the work they do with immigrants and refugees.  I was moved to my core by the lengths teachers go to on behalf of their students in various parts of Colorado.

Then, of course, there was the joshing and banter. Andy Curtis, who said to me, “Great presentation. So old school. No handouts, no power point, glasses up and down like a yoyo, get some gosh-darned bi-focals.” He had a point.

On the plane back to Maine, I looked down at the towns below thinking of all the teachers there are in the US and around the world. All of us trying to make a difference. And in these times of political despair, it struck me that we have a duty to do what we do as well as we can and to model acceptance and tolerance. We are in a position of power where we can inspire and motivate our students to become the best they can be, not only for themselves but for each other and for us. For the world.

And so I look forward to TESOL in Chicago in March of this year, and IATEFL in Brighton, in April. I know I will see familiar faces and meet new people, and return to Maine with that fresh feeling of wanting to make a difference.

In a good way.

Mental Health – There’s a lot you can do. And you should.

Chris Mares

Mental Health – There’s a lot you can do. And you should.
by Chris Mares.

 

Having been brought up in England, a long time ago, mental health was not something that was ever talked about. We were taught to get on with it. Stiff upper lip and all that. Everything was always fine and if it wasn’t, no one would know what to say, except “Fancy a cup of tea?” Most males were hopelessly adrift from their emotions and were quite unaware of how to deal with the stressors in their lives, other than going to the pub, supporting a football team, or smoking cigarettes. 

Now, looking back, I see that mental health in ELT needs to be addressed from the get go. Teaching is draining. Especially when starting out. The fears we have all experienced are numerous: Do I have enough material? What do I do if someone asks me a grammar question I can’t answer? What happens if I can’t remember their names or they don’t like me? What if I can’t think of anything to do? I’m teaching too many classes… 

The list goes on. In my case, many years ago, I got divorced. That led to depression. That’s mental illness. And then, when my youngest daughter went to college, I no longer had to pay child support or alimony and, without realizing it, I went temporarily mad. In a manic state of euphoria I bought boats and bikes and almost bankrupted myself before suddenly coming to the realization that I had to stop. 

Over the course of my career and certainly during my teacher training I often allude to the importance of mental health. We owe it to ourselves and our students to be both physically and mentally healthy. 

The two points I’d like to make concern professionalism and the need to actively tend to our mental well-being. 

During my times of duress, I found that I could, like an actor, hide behind my cheery teaching persona. Teaching, in fact, was a relief. I could escape my crumbling marriage, and temper my unbridled spending. Without teaching I may have come even more adrift than I already was. 

On a personal level, being in the classroom, interacting with students, preparing and writing materials, all of these activities prevented my mental health from deteriorating. 

My second point relates to how we address mental health. We need to treat it like physical health, i.e. you have to actively do things in order to remain or become mentally healthy. I know what works for me and perhaps some of these activities will work for you. Firstly, I need to get satisfaction from my teaching by teaching all my students and making the classroom experience both positive and worthwhile. Secondly, I need to have at least one writing project going that doesn’t relate to our field. At the same time, I need to have one writing project that does relate to our field, either a blog post, or materials for teaching. I also need to be learning something – currently new songs on the guitar and Spanish through Duolingo. The fanfare at the end of successful completion of a five-minute lesson is highly rewarding, motivating, and addictive. In my case I can only do these things if I do them at the same time of day. Every day. In short, I make them a practice. 

Lastly, mental health is not possible without physical health. Rest, exercise, and a healthy diet are all central to this endeavor. The body supports the brain. The brain generates the mind. 

There is one coda – honesty. Honesty with one’s self and others. If something is bothering you, admit it to yourself and take action. If someone is bothering you, the same applies, take action. 

To ensure success, when you wake up in the morning, say the word “gratitude” and think of three things you’re grateful for. Then think of someone to forgive, even if it is only yourself. Next, remember that family and friends are more important than anything. And breaking bread together brings us closer. I bake brownies once a week. My students now order me to. I give the rest to strangers on campus. 

It’s amazing what small acts of random kindness can do. 

 

Learning to Teach Better with Penny Ur

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.