Tag Archives: guest post

Serendipity (#ELTmentor story by Chris Mares)

In my previous blog post I wrote about my keen interest in understanding mentoring relationships and the way they work for teachers. Chris Mares (whom you might remember from another guest post here on this space and whom I since then have been lucky to meet) quickly responded to my call for #ELTmentor stories, and now I’m excited to share it. One mentor story from a man who I’m certain has been a mentor to many.

 

SERENDIPITY

by Chris Mares

They say everything happens for a reason. It does. But not always for the reason you think.

“I think you’d like him,” Bob, my friend, said, finishing his story.

“And he wants to teach English in Guatemala? Send him to me.”

Which was how it began. And now, weeks later, I’m standing at the white board during English through Film, looking at Mikal with the, “OK, hit play,” look.

“I’m giving them time to finish writing down those phrases,” Mikal said, not rushing, sensitive to the pace of the class, rather than caught up in the excitement of it, as I was.

I smile. Shake my head. Who’s mentoring who, I wonder? Twenty-two meets fifty-nine.

“What?”  Mikal says.

“You,” I say, thinking, you are something else, Mikal.

His story comes out in fits and starts. He hasn’t seen his dad for years. Or his mom. He was a military kid. Always on the move. Rootless.

“But he’s so grounded. So comfortable in his own skin,” I say to Bob. Mikal lives in Bob’s house because Bob is a writer and writers bring interesting people in their lives.

“He picks up languages so fast,” I say, “in break I hear him speaking Thai, and Turkish, Portuguese, and Spanish. What an ear.”

“Have you heard him sing?”  Bob asks.

A week later Mikal and I were playing guitar together. I sang JJ Cale’s Magnolia and Mikal played lead. Smooth, understated, and right on the money.

“That was sweet,” Mikal said.

He was in a different league. Then he played Norwegian Wood with a dreamy elegance that made me tingle.

The day I had to take my truck to the dealer to have the brake cables replaced, I had Mikal teach my classes. I had full confidence in him.

I have seen him with all sorts of people and he is always who he is. A listener. He gives and he gets. He embraces life. Plays the sitar and shamisen, the banjo and the ukulele.  And he’s only twenty-two.

“Mikal,” I said, “come and do the TESOL Certificate Program during Spring Break. You don’t have to pay.”

Mikal’s face lit up. He was so grateful. So touched.

But not as grateful as I was. He will make the program special. For all of us.

Ostensibly I am his mentor. In some ways I am but I have learned so much from him.

And so, in all humility and wonder, I thank you, Mikal.

And serendipity.

 

In addition, Chris kindly agreed to answer some of my more specific questions about what the experience of mentoring entails. 

What do you do as a mentor?

I simply do what I do. I believe in the apprentice model. Follow me. Watch me. Eventually I will give you something to do. And then something more. Until you’re doing it.

What do you talk about together?

We talk about Bob, music, love, friendship, students, beauty, food, travel, language, shared experiences.

How often?

We see each other every day. If Mikal wasn’t living with Bob I’d install him in my basement.

Why is Mikal such a good fit?

We click. He gets me. He knows I live on the edge. That I’m marginal. That I don’t care what people think of me. That I’m smart. That I’m funny. That he doesn’t have to tell me what key he’s playing in because I will find it. That I care about the truth. That I’m an iconoclast.

Having said that, a good mentor can tailor themselves to anyone.

In Mikal’s case, tailoring is not required.

 

*****

Thank you, Chris, for sharing what seems to be a very personal account of a very special mentoring relationship. I’m going to guess not so many young teachers can boast such a story (well, I know I wouldn’t have been able to…). While I tried to picture myself in your shoes and understandably soon failed, I think  I have some learnings to take away from your story:

  1. To be a mentor one should not only love what the mentoring is about, but also love people. Be humane, a person of big enough heart to care.
  2. Maybe mentoring relationships can develop organically from the seeds of understanding each other and being “on the same wavelength”. Maybe. And then, is the other way around also possible?…
  3. I want to believe that a good mentor can tailor themselves to anyone, but I can’t just yet persuade myself to believe in the “anyone” part.
  4. And finally and related to the above, I wonder if my perception of a mentor as a person who you have a deep connection with is true and not limiting. Limiting me to seek to learn how an honest, beneficial mentor-mentee relationship could be grown and nourished from a different place. I want to understand if idealizing mentoring is an attitude that helps or hinders (or neither).
  5. I want to read more stories. Different stories. Like this one from Matthew Noble (thank you!) and this one from long ago by Michael Griffin.

 

As usual, thanks for reading.

 

 

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#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 http://www.thefreedictionary.com/ 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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