The Whole Teacher – Kate

Connecting as a Community – Kate Cory-Wright

Kate Cory-Wright

A few years ago I left the ever-growing (and increasingly noisy) city of Quito, Ecuador, and moved to a tiny community in the Andes called San Juan. San Juan functions as a community in every sense. It centers around a small primary school next to the community center, where 40 elderly people are taught literacy and given free lunch every day. “Mingas”, the ancient Ecuadorian tradition of working together, play an important role: farmers help each other to plant crops, look for missing animals, and build new classrooms. There are no street lights, paved roads, or stores here. Just an overwhelming sense of peace I’ve never known before.



It sounds idyllic, and it is. But education is a huge obstacle for local children. There is no transport to the nearest village, where the secondary school is located. It’s a 3-mile uphill walk for the teenagers here! Secondary school consists mostly of rote learning. Classes are given by poorly trained unmotivated teachers from Quito, who live at the school from Monday to Friday. After school, kids work on their parents’ farms. Since most parents are illiterate, children get little parental help with their homework. Sadly, even the brightest children may not have bright futures. The chances are, they will become farmers, factory workers, or builders. Small wonder, then, that the locals reacted positively when I offered free English classes for their children.

The classes have been running for almost two years now. Most learners attend with a sibling, which means that the group is both mixed ability and mixed age (8 to 16 years!) Despite this mixture, my home operates as a classroom where we can work and relax as an integrated group. The students have made great progress, especially in speaking and listening, and their parents remain grateful, often sending me gifts from their farms (including live chickens!)

As for me, I’m still finding my way…

Most educators have a genuine wish to contribute to a happier society. We also wish to become “whole” as teachers. Yet, this is easier said than done. Despite decades of experience as a teacher, I have never been able to achieve these goals. In some cases, the long hours, large classes, and strict curriculum, gave me little chance to explore what it means to be “whole”. In other cases, the school obsession with English exams prevented me from keeping my intention alive. Now, at last, I can tap into my interests and passions. I can get to know my learners like friends, and care for them. Above all, I can experiment and fine-tune my goals.

Last Saturday I had “one of those classes”. You know the kind I mean… Nothing went according to plan and we ran out of time. That’s right. It was a wonderful lesson.

What happened? First, I reviewed vocabulary by placing candy in different parts of the living room and eliciting prepositions of place (the candy is on the table, etc). Then, half the class (Group 1) went out to play in the garden, while the others (Group 2) hid candy around the room. When Group 1 returned, they looked for the hidden candy. In order to eat the candy, they had to make a correct sentence about the location, using in, on, under, next to, etc. Group 2 listened and decided if the sentence was 100% correct.

Suddenly, I realized that this was working very well and could be developed further. So I added a new rule: next time they found a piece of candy, they had to describe the location using two sentences. Then a student suggested that friends could help each other in return for half the candy. More new rules were added (mostly by the students) until the task became more and more challenging. My intention had been to do a pair information gap on paper, but instead we played a spontaneous game. The final result? Everyone was able to confidently use prepositions of place.

“What’s so special about that?” you may be thinking. And you would be justified. There’s nothing original about the activity. Student involvement is common nowadays. And although the outcome was positive, it’s not so unusual. So what made it special?

Perhaps the best word to describe the lesson is connection. All the components came together. The class atmosphere was warm and supportive. The more I encouraged my students’ enjoyment and involvement, the more I rejoiced in it. I “went with the flow” and let go of my concerns (and my lesson plan). Above all, we worked like a community and we felt a sense of joint success. Spontaneously, we all did high-fives at the end of class.



No doubt you know this feeling, too? Sometimes everything just falls into place and you connect with those around you. You feel part of a “whole” learning community. But it doesn’t happen in every lesson, in part because we are not usually taught how to become “whole teachers” when we train. However, it is a goal that we all strive to reach. Consider this definition of the “whole teacher”:

“By your own act you teach the beholder how to do the practicable. According to the depth from which you draw your life, such is the depth not only of your strenuous effort, but of your manners and presence. The beautiful nature of the world has here blended your happiness with your power.” (Gilman, 1965, p. 437) (891)

There is no doubt that it feels wonderful to be more whole as a teacher. The more connection and care we feel for our students and colleagues, the more energized and joyful we feel about ourselves. There is also no doubt that this sense of wholeness has a positive effect. But the million-dollar question is: how can we make ourselves more “whole” as teachers?

Not being a person who thrives on airy-fairy descriptions or nebulous advice, I’d prefer to leave you with a simple list of questions! If you are interested, answer the questions for yourself. Then consider your “no” responses. How could you change yourself?

How “whole” are you as a teacher?

1. Do you forgive yourself if a class goes badly?

2. Do the majority of your lessons bring you a sense of joy?

3. Are you adaptable? If an activity goes well and you can see a way to continue with it, are you happy to run with the ball (even though it wasn’t on the lesson plan)? Equally, if an activity doesn’t go well, can you adapt it spontaneously/in real time?

4. Do you ever experiment with new ideas?

5. Are you able to let go of total control during your classes?

6. Do you “connect” with most of your students? Do you genuinely care for them?

7. Do you ever put yourself in your students’ shoes and reflect on how they feel?

8. Does an element of the “real you” come across in your lessons?

9. Do you feel a passion for teaching and for your subject? Does it show?

10. Do you take enough care of your health and happiness outside of class?



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The Whole Teacher – Hengameh

Understanding Teacher Effectiveness –  Hengameh Ghandehari

Hengameh Ghandehari

A great deal of literature and theory in ELT supports the worthiness of a set of core competencies that makes a teacher deserve the title of “one of the best”.  Despite the relatively opposing arguments coming out from a plethora of research findings on learners’ perception of an ideal effective teacher, there is still an overall consensus over what constitutes effective teaching in its modern EFL sense.

A broadly defined view of teacher effectiveness has been put forward by Hunt (2009: 1): The collection of characteristics, competencies, and behaviors of teachers at all educational levels that enable students to reach desired outcomes, which may include the attainment of specific learning objectives as well as broader goals such as being able to solve problems, think critically, work collaboratively, and become effective citizens.

Such attempts to define effective teaching, though quite ambitious, seems to have failed to contribute to EFL practitioners’ clear understanding of what exactly creates effective teaching in practice. The modern EFL teaching/learning context brings with itself a set of different cultural, affective, pedagogical opportunities as well as limitations which require teachers to show higher levels of dynamism and efficiency in order to respond timely and effectively to their learners. This simply means that a sharpened conscious understanding of such effective qualities is strongly demanded by both teachers and policy makers in the EFL industry.

In search for a deeper understanding, a number of studies regarding the characteristics of effective English language teachers have been carried out in a variety of EFL contexts. For instance, in one study, Shishavan and Sadeghi (2009), investigated the opinions of English language teachers and learners.  They figured that English language teachers believed that preparing lessons well, using appropriate lesson plans and assessing what students have achieved in a reasonable manner are the most important. On the other hand, the students who took part in the study assumed that the ability to teach English using the learners’ mother tongue was the leading quality of an effective language teacher. In addition, while proficiency in the target language, a sound pedagogical knowledge, and the use of the most efficient techniques and methods were important for the teachers, the students voted primarily for a teacher’s positive personality.

In a similar study carried out in Iran, Ghasemi and Hashemi (2011) probed students’ views of the characteristics of effective English language teachers under three main categories — subject matter knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and socio-affective skills. According to their findings, certain teacher characteristics such as reading and speaking proficiency, ability to arouse students’ interest in learning English, and building students’ self-confidence and motivation were seen as universally desirable. Moreover, many of their participants emphasized listening ability and grammatical proficiency as especially important.

In other studies, Wichadee (2010), priority was given to organization and communication skills as favored by students. Teachers’ personality and teacher-student relationships were considered to be playing a more vital role than instructional competence in a study done by Chen and Lin (2009); the teachers surveyed similarly believed that enthusiasm, friendliness, openness, respectfulness, and responsiveness were the leading qualities of effective English language teachers.

Considering the competing qualities reviewed and scrutinized in different contexts, it seems that more can be said about what makes a mediocre teacher rather than what specifically characterizes an effective one.  However, given the cultural, socio economic and affective factors and the continuing interplay among these, teachers might need to show higher flexibility to downplay or highlight certain characteristics and teaching behaviors according to the changing levels of learners, their age range and the expectations students bring to a language class.

With all this in mind, practitioners and classroom researchers seem to reach this agreement through intuition and practice that the modern EFL learner values certain non linguistic attributes more than others when forming her general assessment of a teacher’s performance. It can be grasped cautiously from the existing literature and anecdotal evidence that creating a positive learning attitude that results in students’ confidence counts as a key element in a teacher’s success. Such qualities are far more likely to result in a perceived level of success and satisfaction than having just a native like accent or a sound pedagogical knowledge.

Pedagogically speaking, students have seemed to favor special qualities over others in the teaching practices of their EFL instructors. Within an EFL context, based on students’ reports, a great deal of a teachers’ effectiveness has been usually attributed to clarity of instructions and directions for practices and drills in a class. Clarity in assessment criteria as an indicator of fairness is frequently reported to be a determining factor in characterizing levels of effectiveness by learners across different levels.

Given the above, EFL teachers and learners have developed a keener sense about the concept of teaching effectiveness in the 21st century. Broader frameworks now seek to not only to look at students’ surveys but also to probe into teachers’ reflections of their own effectiveness and inadequacies. A teacher’s view of her own effectiveness can be refined and adjusted only when we heighten our awareness of the fact that effectiveness is a relative concept. Such understanding helps us view effective teaching as a journey towards professional growth; and thus, teacher effectiveness should be perceived as a fluid dynamic rather than a fixed stage.



Hunt, B.C. (2009). Teacher Effectiveness: A Review of the International Literature and its Relevance for Improving Education in Latin America (Working Paper No. 43). Washington, DC: Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas.

Shishavan, H.B. and Sadeghi, K. (2009) “Characteristics of an effective English language teacher as perceived by Iranian teachers and learners of English”, in English Language Teaching, 2, 4: 130-143.

Chen, Y.-J. and Lin, S.-C. (2009). “Exploring characteristics for effective EFL teachers from the perceptions of junior high school students in Tainan”, in STUT Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 2: 219-249.


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The Whole Teacher – Chris

The Whole Teacher: A Process In Process – Chris Mares

Chris Mares

Teaching is necessarily dependent on a knowledge base and an array of skills that need to be practiced and internalized over time.  Certainly we can be ‘trained’ as teachers in a mechanical and procedural sense but this is not enough to become ‘whole’ as a teacher.  We also need to develop authentic relationships with ourselves, our colleagues, and those we teach.  To be whole as teachers, we must be whole as people – we must love ourselves, forgive ourselves, and accept ourselves.  I don’t believe this notion of wholeness can be taught but I do believe it can come over time and for each teacher the time it takes will vary.

A whole teacher not only has all the knowledge and skills necessary to teach, they also have something more.  They have ‘presence’, a complex quality, which is dependent upon a particular way of being.  The Whole Teacher is present reflectively and authentically.  She or he is mindful, sensitive and aware, open and adaptable.

In order to become present it is necessary to let go of many things, especially those that interfere with the process of teaching or learning.  A list might include fears, anxieties and the need to be right or in control.  This letting go process takes time and requires mindfulness.

Beginning teachers understandably spend a lot of time consumed by their own anxieties and fears which can range from concerns about having enough material, issues regarding classroom management, whether a class will go well, and whether students will like and respect them.  This is natural and is part of the process of becoming a teacher, but too much concern can deplete the presence of the teacher and therefore negatively interfere with the essential experience of teaching and learning.

At a basic level teaching is a form of performance in the same way that improv and stand up comedy are performances.  A successful performance depends on a keen sensitivity to the audience, an ability to change direction or dwell on a potentially fruitful moment.  Teaching is about making choices sequentially in real time and then reacting to the consequences of making a particular choice.  It is not a lock step process.  Opportunities arise and when they do we should take them.  By performance, I don’t mean the adoption of a role that isn’t authentic to the teacher but being present in a heightened way.  Much like a good storyteller who, by being present, transforms a story, making it memorable and meaningful on a new level.   The Whole Teacher does this, too.

Teaching is relational and depends on trust and connection with students.  It requires consistency, reliability, and a degree of unpredictability.  In short, teaching is an art and as such it takes time and effort to become as good as you can be.  To be The Whole Teacher you have to go on the journey and part of the beauty and pleasure of it is that you never ‘get there’ as it is a process of becoming, of unfolding.

When I work with new teachers I find that one of the most reassuring messages that I can give is that it is perfectly fine to not know something or to be uncertain about something.  What is important is how we react to our own not knowing or uncertainty.  When asked a tricky grammar question by a student, it is far more productive to admit you don’t know the answer and clearly state that you know where you can find the answer and that you will.  Following through and offering the answer or explanation creates trust and builds the connection.  This is the type of step that a teacher needs to take and to become comfortable with in order to develop presence.

Another ‘permission’ that is always received well by trainee teachers is the permission to be yourself as a teacher.  You are who you are.  Know yourself.  It is not possible to teach authentically trying to be someone else.  We should learn from others, borrow techniques, emulate certain behaviors and practices but as ourselves.

In order to be present we have to listen and observe and we have to do it empathetically and sympathetically.  To do this meaningfully, it is worth putting oneself in the student’s shoes.  For example, I know how cognitively demanding and also physically exhausting learning a new language can be, but it wasn’t until I recently began attending the Monday lunchtime ‘French Table’ at the University of Maine, where interested parties could bring their lunch and practice French, that I was reminded of how draining it is to try to drag vocabulary from the recesses of your mind or respond to questions you only partially understand.

We are not static entities.  Our lives unfold, we are socialized, educated, we work, patterns develop, possibilities occur, mistakes are made, our bodies change, and, over time, we get to the place we are now.  We are a process in process.  The Whole Teacher develops presence during this process through mindfulness.  This mindfulness comes from a stepping back and letting go of anxieties and fears.  It relies on trust, honesty, acceptance, forgiveness, the maintenance of authentic relationships and an unflagging belief in the fact that what we do is worth doing.


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The Whole Teacher

What does it mean to be a whole teacher? Kate-Cory Wright, Hengameh Ghandehari,
and Chris Mares offer perspectives from Ecuador, Iran, and the U.S.A.


Kate Cory-Wright
Kate Cory-Wright
Hengameh Ghandehari
Hengameh Ghandehari
Chris Mares
Chris Mares


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