How I Taught English in Brazil — And Survived to Tell the Story (Part One)

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By most accounts, teaching appears to be the preferred, most widely accepted — and fundamentally easiest — method of obtaining work for most foreigners and native speakers of English, who come to Brazilian shores for more than just a cursory tour of its beautiful beaches.

Unfortunately, for those adventurous souls willing to take the academic plunge, good, reliable information about how to go about doing it is hard to come by, and relatively little data are available either in the country itself or abroad. Even a film such as Bruno Barreto’s Bossa Nova (1999), which paints teachers of English in a romantic but highly fictionalized framework, tends to distort the true image of the profession.

This series, then, is my attempt at an all-purpose guide for budding pedagogues. Its aim is to elaborate on the teaching of English as it is practiced today in South America’s largest city, and to place the teaching profession in its proper professional context.

It is written in the form of a journal, with additional commentary and explanations where appropriate.

Wake-Up Call

“Jeez, what time is it?” I mumble to myself, as my Sony desktop clock-radio alarm sounds. “Oh. It’s 5 o’clock… a.m. Ugh, time to get up.”

I struggle to rise out of bed and rid my eyes of the sandman’s residue. It’s Monday morning, mid-March, and I get ready for my first class of the week.

I usually leave the apartment at a little before 6:00 a.m., so I have plenty of time to change, shave, eat a quick breakfast, and get my things together for the trip to downtown.

Before leaving, I make sure I pack my student folders, my pasta (“portfolio” or “bag”), cassette player and tape, course book, teacher’s manual, subway ticket, and spare change for the bus. Oh, and I mustn’t forget to take my identidade (“identification card,” also called RNE or Registro Nacional de Estrangeiro). Teachers can’t get past a company’s reception or security desk unless they carry around their photo ID at all times.

I used to take an authenticated copy with me, which is good enough for this purpose. You really don’t want to have the original on you anyway, as it might get lost or stolen. It would then be a veritable nightmare to get replaced.

This is just one of those little quirks of Brazilian big city life you have to learn to deal with — and get used to — as a teacher in the Big Abacaxi (“pineapple”).

Big City Blues: Stats and Facts

São Paulo at night

I first started teaching English in São Paulo, I was simply astounded at how huge this major city is — and how long it takes to get anywhere.

It’s not so much the physical distances between the North, South, East and West Zones that test your patience and endurance, but rather the disorganized and improperly maintained public transportation system, which most teachers are forced to use in order to traverse this massive metropolis.

Incredibly, there are more than 18,000 buses and lotações (“private vans”) on the streets at any given time, but only three full subway lines that serve the city’s 15 million or so inhabitants. The lines crisscross São Paulo in a more or less well-planned pattern, and the subway system itself, called the Metrô, is fast, clean and reliable, but due to its limited reach doesn’t always get you to where you need to go.

That’s when you’re forced to use the city buses, which have acquired a near legendary reputation for poor service among its many riders. In all honesty, the numbering system used to identify each bus by its street route is actually quite sophisticated and efficient. It’s the physical state of the buses themselves that’s the most harrowing thing about them, along with their kamikaze-style “pilots.”

The poor driving habits of Brazilian bus drivers are matched only by the rudeness of the cobrador (“change-maker”), a pitiable fellow who sits all day behind a turnstile-like device while wielding a misplaced power over anyone who deigns to pass through his metallic domain; strangely, for a change-maker, he never seems to have any change, even when you need it the most.

The older electric buses, which date back from the 1950s, are so worn and dilapidated they look like they were ridden by the Flintstones and are as tick-infested as a starving mongrel. They’re also privy to multiple breakdowns, so steer clear of them at all costs. The sleekly built newer models are a pure joy to ride in, but are as slow as tree sap.

The private vans that dot the city landscape should also be avoided, except as a last resort. Many are illegal or clandestine operations that carry little to no insurance coverage for their passengers, and are run by persons of dubious competence. Use them sparingly, if at all. The same goes double for the city’s trains, which appear to be from another era entirely.

In addition to buses and vans, over three million automobiles clog the city’s main roads during the day, not counting the innumerable taxicabs, motorcycles and delivery trucks that seem to be everywhere at once. I didn’t own a vehicle when I lived in São Paulo — why add to the already elevated pollution and noise levels, I thought — so my principle mode of transportation was always the subway and bus, as it will probably be for most English teachers.

The sheer number and quantity of these conveyances can have a truly mind-boggling effect on a person’s sanity, and they exact an equally heavy toll on the city’s streets and highways, which are persistently pock-marked with gaping potholes of immense proportions.

This aspect of the teaching profession, as well as the endless traffic jams and choking exhaust emissions, can be exceedingly trying at times. If you are a clock-watcher or a nitpicker and want to be an EFL teacher in São Paulo, my advice would be to put away that timepiece, give yourself plenty of leeway to get to where you want to be, and go with the proverbial flow.

Otherwise, you will have a very tough time dealing with the situation, especially when there’s little that can be done about it.

In the Wee Small Hours

I leave my home before the crack of six. Since it’s fall and the sun is up, I feel a little bit safer, but during the winter months I walk briskly to the bus stop under cover of complete darkness. There are only a few commuters around, which fills me with a shared feeling of commiserating with my fellow paulistanos. It can be pretty bleak out here at times, especially when it’s damp and foggy.

Before I moved to Brazil, I was told that most people in São Paulo worked a normal nine to six shift, or something resembling those hours. So why do I have to get up so early? The answer is that the average salaried employee gets paid for eight hours of work a day, with one un-remunerated hour for lunch.

As far as taking English classes are concerned, employees must not let them interfere with their regular job function. That’s why most in-company private language instructors teach limited hours, starting at 7:00-9:00 a.m.; then during lunch hour, between noon and 2:00 p.m.; and finally after the close of business, usually around 6:00-7:30 p.m., and sometimes beyond.

These teaching hours are fairly consistent for most regions of the country, with only minor variations here and there, depending on the locale. In Rio de Janeiro or the Northeast, for example, where things tend to be a bit more “relaxed,” overall, the teaching environment is not as physically debilitating as it is in workaholic-driven São Paulo.

For teaching in the many established and accredited English language schools, such as Alumni, Berlitz, Cel-Lep, CNA, Cultura Inglesa, Seven, União Cultural, Wizard, Yazigi, and many others, the hours are dictated by the needs of the student body, which is primarily made up of school kids in the lower and upper grades (75 percent or so) and a proportionately smaller percentage of adult learners (around 25 percent).

Since my teacher training in New York focused exclusively on adults, I gave up trying to earn a living in places like Alumni and Cultura, which cater mostly to kids and young adults, and for which I lacked the appropriate pedagogical background.

Besides, to work as a permanent employee in one of these institutions would require official certification by the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC), a needlessly time-consuming prerequisite for private instructors. The salaries at most accredited schools are so miserly in comparison to private tutoring you’d be better off giving them a wide berth.

I decided early on to make my fortune giving private lessons in-company and in my home.

Sizing Up the Competition

Cultura Inglesa Website (www.culturainglesa.com.br)

As I approach the bus stop, I glance across the street at a new branch of one of those English language schools that have just recently cropped up around my neighborhood. The school building must be three stories high, with at least a dozen or so classrooms on each floor, and a spacious parking lot serving as a drop-off and pick-up point for the busy parents of EFL students.

I shake my head and sigh wearily as I pass the school. Nowadays, private English teachers are faced with the harsh and terrible reality of going up against language schools that are heavily armed for the battle of attracting new students to their courses.

Just take a look at some of the advanced weaponry most of these schools hold over the average individual instructor:

  • The latest generation of computer hardware;
  • Sophisticated marketing techniques, including TV, radio and newspaper ad campaigns;
  • Up-to-date computer software and DVD-ROM packages;
  • Video and conversational language labs;
  • Internet chat groups, customized websites, and 24-hour customer service lines;
  • Cassette recorders, television monitors, VCRs, and DVD player-recorders in every classroom;
  • Erasable whiteboards, endless streams of school supplies, and other pertinent paraphernalia.

Indeed, most private teachers may get the uneasy feeling they are nothing more than puny Davids sent forth to face monolithic, multi-headed Goliaths. This is not really the case, but the perception of the deck being firmly stacked against them is obviously there.

Schools have the ability (and the luxury) to recycle the bulk of revenue received into their basic infrastructure. Because they consciously try to be on the cutting-edge of technology and sophistication, they can afford to pay teachers dirt-cheap salaries.

This is why the turnover rate for teachers at these institutions is so high, sometimes by as much as 50 percent — or more. This is also the reason they are constantly hiring new teachers at the end of each semester.

Meanwhile, they charge their students the highest possible fees for classes. It’s a workable and surprisingly successful strategy for the schools.

So how does a small, lowly, independent private instructor compete against such deep-pocketed giants? It’s difficult, to put it mildly, but the difference can be in how you set your sights.

If all you see is this monstrous foe striding towards you, then you’ll go down in defeat as quickly as the Biblical strongman did; however, if you are able to supply a missing ingredient to your teaching that all the high-tech hardware and software in the world cannot possibly fill, then you would have found the winning combination to your success.

What could that winning combination be? It’s up to you to find it. It can be an extra degree of individual attention, say, more innovative teaching methods, or more competitive rates. Let your students tell you, for they should know better what they’re looking for.

Don’t forget: as big and as rich as some of these language schools appear to be, they can be as lumbering as brachiosaurs in the fast-paced language-learning market. Change for them can come about more slowly than it can for you.

Your best bet is to try and stay one step ahead of them by offering a more personalized type of service, such as going to a student’s place of business at a more convenient hour, or throwing in the price of all classroom materials into your monthly fee, even offering discounts of one free class every six months to selected students. Use your imagination. The sky is the limit here. Teachers who think quickly on their feet and can bounce back from adversity do well in the big city.

Who will be your students? Start out with people who are the closest to you, i.e. friends, relatives, girlfriends, boyfriends, next-door neighbors, business associates, you name it. Get the word out you’re looking for students. Word of mouth spreads quickly in São Paulo, sometimes quicker than you realize. Network as much as you can. Teaching opportunities can appear from the unlikeliest of sources, from your local supply store to the shop where you make photocopies.

Try to put an advertisement in the neighborhood newspapers or trade journals. You may get more nibbles than bites, but if it’s good for at least one new student, then you’ve more than paid for the ad. It’s sometimes just a matter of marketing your services in a highly targeted and organized manner, and going for it with all your strength and conviction.

Business for Pleasure (and Profit)

I embarked on my in-company career in 1996-97, working for a small English-language school that I located through a want ad in the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper. Coincidentally, the same advertisement appeared in the Folha de São Paulo daily as well.

Normally, sending out résumés or answering classified job ads in Brazil are a waste of time, but once in a while an opportunity does arise for the enterprising individual that actually appears to be a legitimate teaching assignment. Don’t pass up the chance for a quick interview — and possible offer of employment — by ignoring them. Always give the local papers a quick perusal in case something worthwhile pops up.

The school I worked for was run by Leonora, a Brazilian teacher of Business English who had lived for several years in the United States, and who was contracted to teach in-company to the employees and partners of PriceWaterhouse, a large multinational accounting and consulting firm with headquarters (at the time) in downtown São Paulo.

In order to work for the school, however, I had to be officially registered with the city as a self-employed language instructor — one of those inescapable necessities mentioned earlier. To accomplish this, I hired a despachante, an individual who knows his way around the myriad complexities of Brazilian bureaucracy. He’ll charge you a fee for his services, but it’s a small price to pay for having it done right, and for your peace of mind.

Although I was a certified EFL teacher, no one ever asked me for my teaching certificate, not even Leonora. So the question of whether one is necessary to teach in Brazil remains open. Is it an absolute requirement? No, not really, but it does help to have one.

Most language schools provide some form of teacher training to potential applicants, but as you can imagine, the quality of the training is variable. If you don’t have a teaching certificate, then you’ll just have to wing it. If you do have one, then you will already know how to teach English to foreign language learners, and this is a definite plus in the over-crowded, competitive São Paulo teaching market, as is being a native English speaker.

After a few months at Leonora’s school, I started to make some valuable personal contacts among the employees, secretaries, managers, directors and partners of PriceWaterhouse, all of who encouraged me to branch out on my own as their private language instructor.

This proved to be a most lucrative move on my part because of the additional business it brought me, and I must emphasize its importance to all potential private teachers: if you are able to get a foot in the door of a large corporation as a private instructor, you will pretty much be able to set your own fees — within reason, of course — and make your own hours, which will most likely revolve around your students’ availability for classes.

The employees of the company will be the primary objects of your focus. Since establishing personal relationships in Brazil is so important, doing a good job for your students — and having them like your teaching style, too — will enable you to obtain multiple referrals and job leads, which can sometimes mean the difference between survival or failure in the business.

It may also open up other job prospects, such as translation work, on-the-spot consulting, interpreting, one-to-one coaching, and a host of others, as you become a virtual part of the company itself. The more you know about a particular company — and the more you have in common with one — the smoother the fit will be for all concerned.

After having worked on Wall Street for a number of years, I was able to use this past experience to my advantage in dealing with accountants, auditors, consultants, and other financial experts. Teachers should always look for facets of their own background and personality that will give them that competitive edge when considering an in-company teaching assignment.

This sounds so simple, yet you’d be surprised at how many teachers ignore it, or worse, dive into realms of job possibilities they are totally unprepared for, such as recording or voice-over work, only to realize later on they had jumped in over their heads.

Unless you’ve had some relevant experience in a particular area, go easy upon entering unfamiliar terrain.

(To Be Continued…)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

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2 thoughts on “How I Taught English in Brazil — And Survived to Tell the Story (Part One)

    Trista Vassure said:
    November 6, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Good article. I’m dealing with a few of these issues as well..

    Francesca Bridgers said:
    November 11, 2012 at 4:43 am

    I have often desired to say these things and you happen to be my voice and have said it for me. Actually, I think which you have said it even louder!

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