Maree Martinez teaches kids on tv and film sets

Maree Martinez fell in love with Shakespeare at ten, then thought she might be a historical consultant on films, before deciding to leave her PhD program at Cambridge because what she really wanted to do was teach. After teaching history at a middle school, she moved with her family to Toronto, where she noticed signs of the city's film production as she explored with her son. She wondered who taught the kids on those sets, and soon enough, she was. Maree tells us how she believes "you're the sum of your experiences" and how her upbringing as a World Bank kid with "proudly Filipino" parents gave her a love of travel and adventure.

Maree as a high school student. She told us this "was taken during a family trip to North Carolina. We stopped by Wilmington, where they filmed the series Dawson's Creek, which was super popular at the time. I find it amusing and mildly prophetic."


Where she’s from: Northern Virginia
Grew up with: mom and dad, younger sister and brother
Education: Bachelor’s degree in history and Italian, Bachelor of Education, and MPhil in early modern history
Where she lives now: Toronto, Canada
Growing up she wanted to be: a historical consultant on film
Now she’s: a teacher on film and tv sets

What were you like growing up?

I was a gigantic nerd. I would read everything. I was obsessed with Shakespeare. My first experience watching a Shakespeare play, I was something like 10 or 11 years old on a school field trip. I came home that evening, and I asked my parents for the complete works of Shakespeare for Christmas.

I loved school. History is, was, will always be my favorite subject. My least favorite subject was math, which is ironic I guess because I do a lot of work with math now. I would always say that I didn't like math, but math seemed to like me. I liked the problem solving aspect of it.

What did you like to do outside of school?

I was in the drama club at school, but I was also on the math team. I was in the choir, and then I got into the dance company. I did some choreography, and was really big into ballroom dancing as well. I liked a whole bunch of very, very different things. I was lucky because I was in a very supportive environment where I had friends and family that I could discuss all these different interests with, that I never felt like I was pigeonholed into having to pursue just one thing or another, which I think has really helped shape me as a person and as a teacher.

I would say that my primary talent would be as a singer, and that’s something that I that continued well beyond when I was in school. Then it was musical theater, and when I got into college and grad school, I shifted more into jazz, and by the time I was in grad school, I was actually a vocalist for a 20-piece big band. We did a tour. We recorded a CD. We performed at a garden party for Prince Philip, when I was living in the UK.

I knew I wanted to have that experience of immersing myself in a different place. I loved it.

How did you decide to go outside the US for your post-secondary education, to University of Toronto and Cambridge University?

A lot of that has to do with my background as what we call a World Bank kid. My mom worked for the World Bank for about 27 years, and she traveled all over the world, and in turn, exposed us to so many different viewpoints through her work, occasionally taking us with her, or at the very least, introducing people into our lives that were from all over the world. Also my mom, being from the Philippines and moving to the US to go to school, that sort of example had already been set for us. It wasn’t really that big a leap for me to consider going to school abroad, because I knew I wanted to have that experience of immersing myself in a different place, and it was great. I loved it.

Can you tell us a little bit more about your family?

Because of the opportunities afforded to my mom as a World Bank employee, even though we lived 9,000 miles away from our grandparents, we got to see them almost every summer. My mom and my dad are very proudly Filipino, and they made sure that we knew the language, that we understand the culture, that we knew “where we came from,” and that we were able to maintain close links with our family in the Philippines and basically everywhere.

They also encouraged us to have our own opinions, to be independent. They both live in the Philippines again. We’re all really, really close. We have group texts where, no matter where we are in the world, we will joke around with one another. My sister lives in the DC area. My brother lives in Atlanta. My parents live in the Philippines, and I live in Toronto.

Did you study history in undergrad?

I went to the University of Toronto. I was a specialist in history with a minor in Italian, and from there, I went to the University of Cambridge [for graduate school] where I was a member of the first class of students to be in the early modern history program at the university. I was doing my research on changes in canonization rules in counterreformation Italy and its impact on popular veneration of the saints, which I loved. I remember distinctly sitting in the Vatican library and finding it completely beautiful and wonderful and incredible experience, and I had this moment where I thought, oh, this isn’t really for me. I didn't see [the PhD] as something that I needed to do what I wanted to do, which was to be in a classroom, and work with students, and really get involved in education. 

How did you transition to teaching?

I wanted to see if it was something that I felt like I could handle. I signed up to be a substitute teacher in the county school board back at home. That’s where I learned how to manage a classroom. It’s hard to do even as a regular full-time teacher, and it’s even harder if you don’t know these kids and you haven’t established a relationship with them, because you have to be able to build trust. I think what I learned from that experience was that if you project confidence through a respectful approach, if you start by saying “I’m not here to make your lives miserable. I’m here to help you.” I found that that kind of approach really helped, and it aided me tremendously when I entered my own classroom.

I was teaching middle school at an all-girls school in Greenwich, Connecticut, one of the best teaching experiences of my life. Amazing faculty, great, great students. They were really highly motivated. I wanted to make sure that they felt confident in who they were and what their abilities were, but also to learn that it’s okay to make mistakes. I really loved that community.

My husband had an opportunity to transfer back to Toronto, and as much as I loved the work that I was doing, his entire family is in the Toronto area, and I have a ton of family in the Toronto area. It was just too good of an opportunity for us to pass up, for our child to grow up near at least one set of grandparents and a whole host of aunts, and uncles, and cousins. It was something that was really important to both of us. So we decided that we had to do it.

I thought to myself, "there have to be kids who work on these TV shows or films. I wonder who teaches them?"

How did you become an on-set teacher?

At the time that we moved back to Canada about four years ago, there was a massive teacher surplus. When we moved, I made the conscious choice to take time off to focus on my family, to focus on getting ourselves settled in Canada. I would spend a lot of time with our son going around the city exploring, teaching him about his new home. I would start noticing a lot of these white trailers all over the city. That these trailers were all parts of film sets, because Toronto has really turned into a huge hub for the filmmaking industry. I thought to myself, "there have to be kids who work on these TV shows or films. I wonder who teaches them?"

I found that there is such a thing as an on-set teacher. They are responsible for the education and in many cases, the welfare, the safety, and wellbeing of their charges, and that piqued my interest. I started looking into who offers these services in the Toronto area, and I started sending out my résumé. I made a couple phone calls, and next thing I know, I was on a film set training. Nobody approached me. I didn't see an advertisement. I was cold calling people.

What do you do as an on-set teacher?

As an on-set teacher in Ontario, you’re basically talking about children between the ages of six and seventeen, and they could be learning anything. You’re responsible for implementing whatever curriculum they bring to you. My background as a substitute teacher of having to put on different hats and having to teach different subjects actually served me very well because it meant that I had a wide variety of teaching experiences that I could draw from when I was working with young actors.

The students are actually the ones that are responsible for providing the work. I will always be on hand to supplement if I find there’s more that we could do, or if there’s things that pique their interest as students. I go over it with them and make sure that they stay caught up in their classes. 

Do you work with students using different curricula at the same time?

It varies widely. In many cases, it’s almost like a tutoring arrangement because it’s one-on-one. That’s really, really nice, especially if I’m on a long-term project because you get to know the student very well. I’m really proactive about reaching out to the schools, reaching out to the principals, or the homeroom teachers, or the academic teachers of that student and saying, I want to work together with you to make sure that they’re on track, and more often than not, those teachers are quite responsive.

In some cases, you’re talking about anywhere from three to ten kids who are all in different grades who all attend different schools and pursue different curricula. You go with the flow, and you do your best. Every day is different, and every kid is different. Sometimes I’ll work with a kid for six weeks or six months, and sometimes I’ll work with them for a day or two.

The kids that I work with, they’re professionals. they recognize that going to school is actually part of their workday. It’s the only place that I can think of where you actually get paid to go to school

Have you ever worked with a kid one year and then again a subsequent year, or do you do things like that?

I could work with a student for a week, but then see them several months later for another week, and then see them a couple months later for another two days. There are some students that I have had where, even though I don’t see them on a regular basis, I’ve known them for as long as I’ve been doing this work.

I am a member of the crew of the show. I’m not just a teacher. We’re all working on this show together. The kids that I work with, they’re professionals. They’re bright. They’re motivated, and they’re there because they want to be, and they recognize that going to school is actually part of their workday. It’s the only place that I can think of where you actually get paid to go to school, because it is part of their agreement. As a member of the Actor’s Union, by law, school time is built into their workday.

How does teaching fit within the workday?

It varies. As an on-set teacher there is no such thing as a typical day. The standard in Toronto is an average of two hours a day five days a week. Sometimes that means that a kid will be in school with me for three hours and then the following day only for one hour. Sometimes it’s four hours and then nothing. They might be working on a scene at the beginning of the day and then be able to squeeze in half an hour of school, go back to set, and then do the rest of it after lunch.

How much do you interact with the rest of the production and crew?

My primary contacts are the assistant directors. The first assistant director is on set and is the direct liaison with the director. The second assistant director is the person that I talk to the most; they are there in the office or in the trailers, and they handle a lot of the logistics, scheduling. They’re the best resource when it comes to finding out when I will be able to work with students. I usually am in contact with the second and the fourth, or the trainee assistant director. 

Maree and her two boys on a family trip to Mexico a few years ago She says,."Sam is only 9 weeks old in that photo! I'm really just following my parents' lead, since they took me to the Philippines for the first time when I was 3 months old. Totally believe that you're never too young to start exploring the world..."

What’s the best part about your job?

I love the fact that I get to learn while I’m on the job. I have a really profound appreciation for what goes into making a show happen. I don’t think I will ever watch TV or film the same way again. I’ve observed a lot from this standpoint of someone who is not directly involved in the creative process, but is able to participate in a strange way. I’m actually also licensed as a California studio teacher, and that’s actually a far more involved job in the sense that I’m not just responsible for my student’s education, I’m also there to monitor working conditions, working hours, meals, things like that. When I am not actively teaching my student or students, then I am actually on set with them.

What fills your time outside of work?

The good thing about being an on-set teacher is that there’s a lot of flexibility in my schedule, meaning I can take time off whenever I want. But when I am on a production, I’m really committed to following their schedule as opposed to my own. I can’t just say, hey, I feel like taking a day off. Sometimes it means working on weekends. Sometimes it means working late at night. So when it comes to doing stuff for myself, when I’m on the job, it’s really actually quite difficult to have me time.

In the summers, as long as I’m not working on a production with a California minor, I have a lot of freedom to travel with my family, to spend time with my boys. My oldest is five, and my other one is going to be two soon. I’m going to be expecting my third, to arrive any moment now, actually. [Note: Maree had a baby girl!] In the wintertime, if I’m not busy, I actually curl. It gives me a lot of Canadian street cred. My husband and I are part of a social league. It’s a good, fun, social sport, and we enjoy it, and it’s a good way to get out, and my kids love it, too.

How did you imagine your life as an adult when you were a teenager?

By the time I was in high school, I always imagined that I was going to be involved in teaching somehow. So that part hasn’t really changed, but what is interesting is that I also really had this idea in my head. I had this idea that I would be a historical consultant for films. It was a funny niche sort of job that I had considered, and so I guess the irony is that I did actually end up working on film sets, just not exactly in the capacity that I had originally envisioned.

Know that there’s nothing wrong with starting at the bottom.

What advice would you give to a girl who is somebody like you growing up?

Everything is connected. You can’t discount any experience at all, really, because you are the sum of your experiences. Anything that you experience, anything that you learn shouldn’t be discounted, because you will be able to use it somehow. You never know when something that happens to you, good or bad, is going to aid you later in life.

Walk into things with an open mind. Be ready to learn at any moment. Know that there’s nothing wrong with starting at the bottom. There is value in falling down and getting up. There’s something to be said about how you got someplace as opposed to where you end up. I don’t think that people should focus on how hard it is to get somewhere. Just think about, “what can I take away from this experience? What can I get out of it?” as opposed to this is a frustrating thing that’s happening.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Check out books Maree loves and find out more about her!