Category Archives: guest posts

My Time in Japan, a guest post by Chris Mares

I find personal stories fascinating.

We can share or disagree with people’s beliefs, we can have dramatic differences in our interests and/or life priorities, we can value the same or opposite things in life – but a personal story is a story that, to my mind, will always bring us closer to understanding each other. And I think we should give each other more space to share our stories, which can largely explain who we are and why we are so.

Chris Mares is a teacher, teacher trainer, and materials writer based in Maine, the US. For me, a person who has never met Chris, he is a writer and a powerful storyteller. In fact, I share many of Chris’ views on teaching and on what being a teacher means. And when I asked him to write a story about his time in Japan (because I knew nothing about it and was curious to find out), he did, for which I’m grateful.

Below is Chris’s story about his time in Japan, and it’s a story well told. Enjoy.


***** My Time in Japan *****

Gosh. Something I have never written about. I went there, ostensibly for a year. And never came back, at least not to England. I was twenty-one. I had worked in France, lived in Israel, was idealistic, romantic, unrealistic, and impetuous.

I was in Japan long enough to save money in order to do the Cambridge Certificate in TEFLA, the Cambridge Diploma in TEFLA, and an MA in Applied Linguistics from Reading University.  I was also there long enough to find a wife and co-produce three children.

I had never thought about being a teacher, despite the fact that both my parents were initially teachers. I had imagined being an author, actor, movie director, or some such – things that I never made any effort to do. I did become an author. But that’s another story.

I was in Japan long enough to become involved in the ELT writing business with my pal and best friend Steve Gershon. Some of my happiest memories involve giggling helplessly with Steve in various coffee shops along the Odakyu Line between our respective homes, laughing about faux listening scripts, when attempting to write actual listening scripts for our coursebooks.

I am a bundle of contradictions as will become apparent. I read Japanese literature passionately in English. I ate only Japanese food. I loved the rural geography, the sanctity of the temples and shrines, the chaos and order of Tokyo, the rush of the city.

I windsurfed at Enoshima and kept my board there. I would cycle 25 km to get there on my town bike. Then 25 km back. The wind always in my face.

When I left Japan, my windsurfing master, Toshiki, told me my Japanese was strange – a cross between a woman and a child. To my shame I never learned katakana or hiragana for that matter, and only recognized about four kanji. Though I had the greatest respect for my friends who studied hard and became extremely fluent. I never did.

Japan was a complex pleasure. I wrote book reviews for the Asahi Shimbum and will always be indebted to Jim Dalglish for the opportunity.

I never had a Japanese girlfriend and only slept with one Japanese girl. I never went to a love hotel. I learned to drink excessively but to use my weekends wisely, always heading for the hills or the coast or a hot spring.

The one year became many. They tumbled by. I loved to teach. To pick up my kids from the hoikuen. To chat with the hobo-san. To grocery shop. To ride past the rice paddies to the beer machine and back with all three kids on my bike.

I rode my mountain bike in the Tanzawa mountains. I would run from our little farm house to the top of the hill in Hadano and ring the temple bell, then run home, the deep tone resonating as I descended.

“We heard the bell,” Aya would say, when I returned.

I remember the smell of mosquito coils. The cicadas. Reading the series Master and Commander on the train between Hadano and Machida. Finishing all twenty one novels and then starting over.

And then I left. And here I am. In Maine. Happily teaching at the University of Maine. I’m still idealistic, romantic, unrealistic, and impetuous, though slightly tempered.

My energy and enthusiasm are the same. My kids are grown and gone. I’m divorced. Jackie, my beautiful black lab, is fifteen and on her last legs, her brother Steve long gone.

I’ve been back to Japan. It felt strangely familiar. In Japan I learnt that the world is not black and white. That contradiction is the norm and that Japanese culture is profound, complex, and simple all at the same time.

My best friend Steve Gershon is still there. I miss him.

And when we get students from Hirosaki University in Maine, I’m thrilled because I get them.

I never meant to go. I never meant to stay as long as I did. But that’s what happened.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.



You can read more of Chris’ stories, or rather blog posts he wrote for the iTDi Blog, here.



#OneStudent and his guest post.

This is a guest post from D., my former student. Read on, and then on to my commentary at the bottom to make sense of my reasons to request the writing in the first place and publish it here, unedited and with permission.



As far as I got from the letter, for some reason your opinion about my level of EFL is quite good, so I am to tell why.
It made me think for a while so for now there’s a couple of words I can say.

It was maybe the 2nd grade (12 years ago) to offer an English lessons for the first time. It wasn’t obligatory so we had a small group of children whose parents wanted their kids to study foreign language. The teacher was my mother’s friend in youth so I became special for her (for my teacher, not for my mom; for mom I’ve been special before for good marks and other stuff). Her name was Ekaterina Vladimirovna, and she was awesome. I remember her way of remembering structures and words, it was based on a rhythmical repeating. It was so effective so i still remember the rules of being polite (“be the first to say “hello””, “say “thank you” a lot” etc.) and the line from the text about breakfast that I will never forget: “…porridge, an egg, a sandwich and a cup of coffee for breakfast…”. We painted arrows up and down over the words to remember where to go with the voice up and down. Once she made me repeat “Africa” nine times till I pronounced it right. Nine times for poor Africa.
After her course I was able to list my breakfast with an excellent pronunciation. But the even better thing to change was that after her lessons I would never consider English as a discipline. For me it always will be a game, a song that I have to sing, a rhythm that I need to play with. Since then being at the ordinary lesson would be a torture for me.

In later classes my teachers were changing every year. They were my school’s director that skipped half of the lessons, three of four students or university graduates (I had problems with literally ALL of them) and one extremely old woman with so German voice so I considered her to be a fascist. Students were so boring and dumb that I had to argue with them to feel awake. Once one of them said that the right noun to be derivative from “lonely” is “lonelity”. I called it bullshit because I knew that in Coldplay’s “Yes” Chris sings “…cause I’m just so tired of this loneliness…”. She was unarmed.

Thanks to them my knowledge in English grammar is about zero. I don’t know any rule, I don’t know how to make two parts of the sentence seem relative. My strategy of allocating the prepositions is terrible. Why am I writing now? Because there’s another awesome woman in my school history of English learning.

She was a teacher in another school, and her lessons were extremely cheap. So many times I asked her to take more money for the lesson but she never accepted. She was not very old, she had a cat named “Boy”, and she was in love with English. Evgenia Ivanovna taught me that English is a LEGO construction toy that I MUST create words and structures in a case of not knowing how to say something right. She tried to explain me some rules but soon she gave up on it. I had a insight, so all we were doing was solving tests in “automatic” mode and reading tons of texts. She never allowed me to spell aloud the wrong answer twice. With her help I won two municipals and one regional English contests. She was proud of me, and that was her best reward.

In my university life I’ve been only polishing what I have on classes (hate to boring lessons, love to the great CREATIVE ones with A.V.) and mostly by myself. I started to read in English (Flowers for Algernon, To kill a mockingbird). Sometimes it is still hard for me (I hate this stupid feeling of forgetting the word I’ve just found in a dictionary) but I do read sometimes. What concerns speaking I benefited a lot from the lessons of Ann because she demanded us to make a speech every lesson. This was helpful to demonstrate my taste to forget all the words that I know during the speech.

This is it, I suppose. Playing English is still one of my hobbies, the bad side of it is that I do not make any progress. My luggage of words does not fascinate, I still use dictionaries (for typing this story I used a dozen of times) and sometimes play dumb (today in a short conversation with a Chinese tourist I found myself unable to recall the word “passage”). But it’s just me being lazy to study.

I think this story above is what you wanted me to do. If not, well, I spent a couple of hours in my past; this is a great gift of you. Thank you. (Thank you! A.V.)



I wondered if D. could write up a story of how come his English is so natural and style so fresh after I read this post by Mike Griffin.

My point, if there has to be one, is not about Russia being an EFL situation and students getting bright and shining with their Englishes (which D., believe me, is a very vivid example of) against all odds, including their schools, books and teachers. A continuing, irritating to many, flux of English teachers, entering classrooms to stay for several months and then rush away. Apparently, D., just like Yeajin somewhere on the other side of the globe, is not a typical student… but in some *good* ways he is. He’s interested, he’s curious, he’s lazy, he’s evaluating teachers by what they taught him, how they did that, what kind of people they came across as, and other subjective factors. He is not typical at all in that he can reflect on his learning like he did, he can create a rich and colourful narrative without being assigned a creative writing task. Or maybe exactly thanks to this.

I don’t know much about D.’s experience travelling abroad and yes, I believe the mere fact of travelling does not guarantee transformative insights in regards to language learning. When I was in the UK after graduation and went to Starbucks, I had a most embarrassing time making a simple order. On second thought, that was a kind of an insight.

D. explicitly shared what has worked for him personally in his 12-year English language journey, and you can also read between the lines to find out more. There’s no conclusion I’m planning to make here or a moral to take away. It is just another #onestudent story, which also features many teachers along the way.

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December 13th. An exceptional present for my blog’s birthday.

        I don’t know how it happened. But I’ve managed to keep a blog (off and on) for a year. Hurray and fireworks, yay!=)


        It is a strange one, though. It is a posterous blog, first of all, so it is as unexpected as my own writing. There is no specific line it follows, there are no limits to what might one day appear here (ELT-related, still). Within this year it has not said much, but it has a lot hidden in the basement waiting for me to breathe life into. Ideas and notes need my discipline and time. Inspiration I’ve got plenty!

        Let’s unwrap the present. It is a beautiful one and I hope you’re going to like it just as much as I did! The present is a guest post by Rose Bard (@rosemerebard), a wonderful person, a teacher I met thanks to iTDi. One of those exceptional honest thinking people you can be lucky to have conversations with. I’ve been lucky.

Meet Rose.



About a month ago I added Anna on Twitter and posted one of my first blog comments online on her blog. As a teacher that has lived connected online for so many years, but mainly lurking it has been really an awesome experience to actually start exchanging ideas and sharing my own teaching context. I have been teaching for about 14 years now, and since I moved back to Brazil from London and Egypt. My two homes for 5 years. I have finally settled down in the South of Brazil, but originally I am Carioca (Rio de Janeiro). I love learning most of all. Because of that, I try to inspire my students of all ages instead of just teaching them. From my first year of experience to now, from Rio to Santa Catarina, two different cultural contexts I have learned a great deal of things about learning and teaching and one of those is the power of connecting with one another. That does not mean being in the same place or doing things together, either online or offline. What does mean is to take the time to engage with people and learn from and with them.

One educator that has shaped me to believe in that was Paulo Freire. His ideas just sounded so right that I had to take them into the classroom. One of the things he wrote that changed my mind about my role as a teacher, even though I am a language teacher and soon to receive the title of a specialist in Early Childhood Education, is that education is not just about pedagogy but also politics, therefore language is not neutral. All that we say or do implies something and has the power to shape things around us. To liberate means to give voice, to learn to listen and to take co-responsability for the present and future. As the years pass by and the more I learn about education and I try to understand it, the more engaged I get into it and the more I believe as an educator that connecting to PEOPLE in the deepest level is the most important thing to do. Why?


“The more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”

― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

So, I thank Anna for taking the time to enter in dialogues with me, to listen, to share her ideas and challenges and to all TEACHERS who have done the same, encoraging me to connect online. I sincerely hope to meet personally each one of you one day.

Keep blogging Anna.

Best wishes,

Your Teacher-Pal from Brazil!



 Thank you, Rose! I am learning every day from people like you. Will keep and on, in my style =)


P.S. Special thanks to Adam Simpson whose challenge a year ago nudged me to create this blog (see my first post).

P.P.S. Thanks to the people who actually FOLLOW my blog (and comment here, too)! As I’ve found out, there are such people. Much appreciated!! 







What’s it like, inside your PLN? Guest post by Alexandra Chistyakova

It’s been a looong while since I posted here last, which was right after British Council’s E-merging forum 2. Days of work and procrastination and pressing deadlines from all over followed – and finally it’s almost SUMMER!

Well I”d like to welcome you into this summer 2012 with the first ever guest blog post on my blog! Ta-da!=) This post has the AIM. It is meant to attract/tempt/convince/seduce EFL teachers into joining online professional community that exists here – in the blogosphere, on Facebook, on Twitter. There’s NO reason I see for teachers to not join us. To not make connections in the global ELT sphere. To not benefit from all the knowledge that is given. ETC. You know it – you’ve been here before, so if you find this a good idea – please share this post around, make it reach the teachers who are skeptical as yet. Let’s get them on board! They, too, have lots to share!=)

Alexandra is my colleague and I”m so happy she’s created her PLN. So we decided it’d be a good idea to share this example – with an intention in mind to show that it’s simple and so possible!) Enjoy Sasha’s insider views!



If you’d asked me about my view of teaching almost a year ago, I’d most likely have mentioned the following words and phrases: endless time and energy-consuming hard work; a repetitive but yet involving constant challenge and stress dead-end job; long anti-social hours, toil and burden. I did feel happy and content after successful lessons but these were a cold comfort to me. My teaching career’s future didn’t seem bright and promising. I thought to myself that students would come and go but I would go old and turn into an old spinster in the end. Not very optimistic, was it?


However, starting my PLN added a new momentum to my work. Getting to know so many other dedicated like-minded teachers around the globe opened up new horizons to me, energized and inspired me. And though I’m still working hard never finding spare time for myself, my job doesn’t seem so pessimistic to me anymore. Now, to my description of teaching I would add the following: joy, excitement, communication, purpose, inspiration, interchange, life-long passion. So my job ceased to be anti-social and got the purpose.


Before establishing my PLN, my professional life was something like sitting in a room and socializing and networking only with the people who happened to come in into the room. Creating your nation and/or worldwide PLN is like walking out of this tiny room into a sunny summer day and meeting lots of people walking around, smiling, open and friendly, and ready to share, the people who are enjoying their lives and profession.


 A PLN is both beneficial and joyful. First, you establish a lot of new connections who you can learn from and who are interested in your work and who you can share your experience with or ask for advice. This no doubt helps you to grow professionally. Second, you develop a new perspective at what you are doing. You find source of inspiration and creativity. You make new friends – just think of exchanging casual messages or commenting on each others’ photos on a regular basis with such biggies as Scott Thornbury, Ken Wilson, Luke Meddings, Penny Ur, Jim Scrivener and others! Doesn’t it feel great?!


We are all professionals engaged in the same field. One might think, “What can I, a secondary school English teacher, give or share with such biggies as Penny or Scott?” The answer (given to me by Luke Meddings) is your perspective, the way you look at teaching process and issues. The people out there, in your future PLN, are waiting for you and ready to listen, discuss, learn from and share with you, because what you’re doing and know is valuable and unique.



 Alexandra has been a teacher of English at Moscow State University (Russia) for 7 years. She has also been working as a private tutor. Her professional interests range from teaching very young learners to adults. Follow Alexandra on Twitter @AlyaAlexandra, on Facebook here. She has recently started her own blog – ELT Diary