A Teacher Who Made a Difference

Chris MaresA Teacher Who Made a Difference

by Chris Mares.


Perhaps you are expecting me to write about a fellow language teacher who made a difference to me. I could, after all, because a lot of teachers have influenced me positively and made a difference. But I’m not going to write about a language teacher, I’m going to write about my Tae Kwon Do Master, George Manlove. 

Our group met twice a week and consisted of both students with black belts and students who were complete beginners. Despite this range we were taught as a single class. 

We would start out with a series of exercises and stretches that were similar each class. They were not too demanding and anyone could pick them up quite quickly, including complete beginners. We would count in Korean and Master Manlove would call on the more experienced students to lead the count. 

Even on my first day I could tell I was fortunate to have an excellent teacher who provided both structure and direction and included all students in the class. The model was very much that of an apprentice with a skilled master. 

And there was no doubt we were being taught by a master. He noticed everything but would only comment when necessary and was always sure that all his students got feedback. 

As a teacher myself, I became captivated by Master Manlove’s style. He had presence and bearing and was always in control. His equitable approach and obvious skills resulted in a great respect from the students. We knew that our Master would take us as far as we wanted or were able to go. 

Master Manlove would stand at the front of the class, facing us. The students were assembled in rows according to their belt color, black belts at the front, beginners at the rear. 

Master Manlove would model all the moves and the students would do as he did, as best they could. Students then received feedback according to their level. 

At certain points Master Manlove would have students break into groups to practice different skills or to simply spar. Usually the more skilled students would be asked to work with small groups of less skilled students. In this sense, some of the teaching was delegated. However, Master Manlove ensured that he visited all groups and gave everyone feedback. 

The tone of the practice was always one of deference and respect. Master Manlove was attentive to what everyone was doing and all he asked was that everyone treat each appropriately and try their hardest. He emphasized the value of regular practice, not just attending class. 

Master Manlove taught us that Tae Kwon Do was a discipline of both the body and mind. Our version was non-contact so all punches and kicks were pulled. Any contact, especially if hard, was viewed as demonstrating a lack of skill and self-discipline. 

Master Manlove’s manner of teaching showed us the importance of humility and respect. We were also taught to help others as best we could, to put away the mats we had used, and to return the room to the state we had found it in or better if it had been messy. 

Tae Kwon Do is far more than self-defense, it is a practice based on self-discipline and effort. The more you put in, the more you get out. We learned the importance of stretching and breathing and the importance of one’s bearing. In short, Master Manlove’s approach was both humanistic and holistic. It impacted every aspect of each student’s life in some form or other. 

At the end of class the students would gather in a circle to repeat a parting phrase together in Korean before we were released. 

This is what I learned from Master Manlove: 

* The teacher is the Master while students are apprentices. 

* Learning must become a regular practice. 

* Students must respect themselves and show respect for others. 

* The teacher can expect to have students of differing skill levels in one class. 

* The students themselves are a resource. 

* A class needs to have a shape – a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

* All students must be included and feel included. 

* Students can only learn new skills that are just beyond their reach. 

* Feedback must be useful. 

* Instructions must be clear. 

* The teacher must hold students accountable for their actions. 

* The teacher must be encouraging and consistent. 

* A class can be purposeful and fun. 

* Every now and again switch things up and do something different. 

* The teacher must be a model in all things. 

Master Manlove taught me about presence. He demonstrated that language was not always necessary to run a class. He modelled inclusiveness and fairness. All that mattered was effort on behalf of the students. He would teach each person at their level, offering only pointers that they were able to follow. 

Master Manlove is a true master, and in my life he made a difference for which I am, in all humility, grateful. 

Working With a Colleague Who is a Friend

Chris MaresWorking With a Colleague Who is a Friend

by Chris Mares.


For some reason the phrase “team teaching” has always had a positive connotation for me. I’m a people person and a team player so it’s understandable. I love teams and I love teaching. But what is team teaching and how should we set about it in a principled and positive manner? In this post I will describe one of my experiences.

A number of years back, a colleague of mine, Laura, and I were sharing the same class during a four-week summer session. Laura taught in the morning and I taught in the afternoon. It was a small class of around ten students who ranged between low and high intermediate.

Of course, we could have taught in a parallel fashion, simply focusing on the skill sets our classes were designed to focus on (listening and speaking for Laura and reading and writing for me). I’m sure it would have been fine and the students would have been satisfied, but Laura and I decided we would do something different.

As most of the students were only in Maine for the four weeks of the program, we wanted them to benefit as much as possible from our teaching.

We arranged to meet every day, both before class and at lunch-time, to go over what we planned to do and to discuss the students in terms of how they were doing and what was going on in class.

Very quickly it became apparent that there was a lot we could do in terms of recycling vocabulary, key phrases, and grammar points. We could also share details about what students had said, what they had done, and how they were feeling.

Pretty quickly the students realized that Laura and I were talking to each other about what went on in the class. This impressed the students because they realized that we cared and that we wanted them to do as well as possible. This motivated the students and they became even more motivated than they already were.

Here’s what we learned.

  • Team teaching is effective provided it is principled and organized.
  • Commenting on what students did or said in the other class is motivating for students. It shows you care and that you take the time to plan your lessons to be as effective as possible.
  • Knowing what your co-teacher is doing in class in terms of target language makes it easy for you to recycle.
  • Having two teachers observe students is useful as one teacher won’t always catch everything that the students say or do.
  • If you have a mixed class in terms of gender, it is good to have co-ed teaching team. Sometimes female students are more comfortable with a female teacher and visa-versa.
  • In order to communicate efficiently note down everything you do in class immediately after class, especially words, phrases, or structure you would like your co-teacher to recycle.
  • Always meet your co-teacher at the same time and in the same time. Make the meeting a practice.
  • Meet every day.

We had a great four weeks. The students’ pleasure in the fact that their teachers were working together was palpable and they made great progress in the brief amount of time they had together as a group.

At one point, one of the students asked me if Laura and I were married. I knew what she meant. She detected a level of communication that was far deeper than simply chatting about class. It was an intimate pedagogical relationship.

There is, of course, a flip side to this. I have team-taught in other contexts and it hasn’t gone so well for a variety of reasons, most of which are obvious – the lack of chemistry between co-teachers, unwillingness to share, a desire to “own” the class rather than share it.

At the end of our four-week program Laura and I agreed it had gone so well for several reasons: one, we were on the same page in terms of our approach to teaching. Two, we both enjoyed the class and recycling each other’s material. Three, we both had energy and presence, though clearly we were our own woman and man. And finally, we enjoyed the change and believed in it.

Finally, if you are new to teaching and haven’t team-taught, give it a shot. You have nothing to lose and I am sure you will learn a lot. It is also a way to get close to another teacher’s approach without physically observing them teach.


Small Changes All the Time

Chris MaresSmall Changes All the Time

by Chris Mares.


I am coming at this cold in the sense that I haven’t yet read John Fanselow’s book. But I will. However, I am a great believer in small changes. It fits in with one of my principles of teaching which I picked up from a mentor of mine, Ray Pelletier, who is both an excellent teacher of French and a miraculous chef. He once told me that as a teacher it is important to be consistent, reliable, and … wait for it – unpredictable.

I shall focus on the notion of principled unpredictability and the belief that this can positively impact student interest, engagement, and overall motivation.

For a long time, before class started I would write on the board the items I intended to cover during the class and at the end of class I would put a check next to the ones we had covered. Quite often I found that we didn’t cover everything I intended, though we thoroughly covered the goals I checked off. After a while, I sensed that some students were feeling that we weren’t achieving what I had set out to achieve. A small change I made was to not write what I intended to cover at the beginning of the class, but to write what we had covered at the end of class. I felt this was a small but positive change that helped motivate students.

There is no doubt that student motivation is vital with regard to successful learning outcomes. For this reason, as teachers, we must be mindful of this and do what we can to keep our learners engaged. One way to do this is simply to switch things up. For example, let’s say that when you correct students’ written work you highlight and correct every error. A change would be to focus on different errors. For example, only correct errors regarding prepositions, or articles, or verb tense. This draws student attention to a particular type of error and is less overwhelming and certainly less demoralizing. Another change might be to choose a random four lines, mark a box around these lines and correct all errors. Explain to students that the type of error you corrected will be similar throughout their paper. Next, have students mark another random four lines and have them try and correct their errors.

All teachers know that students, given freedom to choose, will gravitate towards the same seat and consequently end up working with the same partner or the same group. A small change that will shake things  up and create interest is to have students switch seats and form new configurations.  This can be done once a week or whenever there is a need to inject some new energy into the classroom. In order for this to work, it should be done regularly and not as a one off.

Teachers have a lot going on in their minds when teaching. Not only do we have to envisage the tasks and activities we want our students to do, we have to remember to take attendance, and think about what technology we may need. A way to mitigate this is through rotating delegation. Have one student take attendance for the week, another be your TA, another clean the board at the end of class, and another be responsible for ensuring desks are put back where they should be and that there is no trash left in the classroom. The following week have different students assume the same responsibilities.

A final area of small change with big potential big pay-off relates to our own professional growth.  In the same way that I promised myself I would read professionally for twenty minutes every day, I also made a pledge to try one new, principled activity a week with each of my classes. To do this I need to reflect on what we have done in class and why. I also have to google and ferret out an activity I haven’t done that will compliment what I am doing in class. Not only do students benefit from the surprise of a new activity, but I get to expand my repertoire.

And so we loop back to the beginning. Small changes can positively impact student engagement and motivation and also keep us, the teachers, in a state of positive mindfulness – and this is a good thing.


The Reluctant Director

Chris MaresThe Reluctant Director

by Chris Mares.


I am, by nature, a teacher. I enjoy people and showing people how to do things, whether it’s playing a sport or learning how to speak, read, or write in English. I’m also good at thinking on my feet and being creative. As a result, I have always loved to teach.

Administration, on the other hand, has never appealed to me. I say this having been the Director of the University of Maine Intensive English Institute for almost twenty years. Quite frankly, it was not worth the extra five thousand dollars I was paid annually as a stipend.

During my second year at the University of Maine, the Director of the Intensive English Institute gave two weeks’ notice and left. And there we were, a rudderless ship. Not wanting us to sink, I visited the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and volunteered to keep things going until a new Director was found.

Two years later I was made interim Director and two years after that, Director.  I had no background in management and no idea how the financial aspect of the job worked. The situation was compounded by the fact I was given no training. It was sink or swim.

The first thing I noticed was the change in my relationship with my former peers. I was now the boss and was viewed differently. The second thing I noticed was that I was usually the last person to hear about things concerning either students or teachers.

I’m a people person and I like to be liked so I didn’t enjoy the new separation I was experiencing.

And so my journey as Director began. Here’s a brief list of some of the things I am not good at: confrontation, giving bad news, attending to financial details, sitting through long and tedious meetings with the other chairs and directors.

Admittedly the title Director had some cache and it helped get some things done, but could I have lived without being the Director? Yes, absolutely.

I did learn some things about people. For example, if you are easy-going and cut people slack in terms of office hours, they really resent it when you try and rein things in.

The previous Director ruled with an iron fist. She was unpleasant, demanding, and lazy. She would take all the credit for things that went well and place the blame squarely on others’ shoulders when they didn’t.

This changed when I became Director and perhaps things became too relaxed. I allowed babies and children to be brought to the office. And dogs. I didn’t insist that teachers were at their desks when not teaching. The result was a complete change of atmosphere but whenever I attempted to tighten things up, I could sense a creeping resentment. I was learning that when you are the manager, you are, however good you are, the enemy.

I should say that now I am a teacher. I spend fifty percent of my time teaching in the IEI and the other fifty percent in the Honors College. I am in paradise. Teaching brings me nothing but joy and when I look at my friends who are administrators I do not see content people.

Administration requires a great deal of time and effort and a considerable number of meetings. One is viewed with a degree of suspicion when one has the power to hire and fire.

It was only out of concern for my job as a teacher that I volunteered to take the helm. In my latter years as Director I gave myself an almost full teaching load in order to minimize the amount of time I had to administrate.

My only positive observation is that the University has made efforts to hold training sessions for managers, which were quite useful.

Quite why a teacher would leave the classroom to become an administrator is beyond me. Peers of mine have become Chairs, then Deans, and even the Provost. None of them look any happier. They tend to dress more smartly and have notably larger salaries.

When my students ask me what I plan to do when I retire, I tell them that (a) I don’t plan to retire, and (b) if I was forced to retire I would volunteer to teach.
Teaching is my calling. Managing isn’t.

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.