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

In this second installment of my series on teaching English in Brazil, I discuss the many challenges and problems of giving in-company lessons to employees.

Riding to Work

I go to the corner bus stop, which is about two blocks from my apartment in Zona Norte (The North Zone), and wait for the bus. I don’t have long to wait, for there are dozens of buses roaring down the avenue, one after the other — all of them spewing forth thick, black smoke as they screech to a halt in front of me.

I hop onto a bus that’s marked “Praça da República.” Thank goodness it’s not as crowded as some of the other buses arriving, all of which appear overstuffed with passengers hanging on for dear life by their fingertips and toes, and from all sorts of precarious perches and makeshift openings.

There are several points to ponder before you take on an outside teaching assignment: first, the travel time it will take you to get from one class to another; second, the form of conveyance, whether by foot, car, bus, subway or private van, that will get you there; and third, which part of the city you intend to teach in vis-à-vis where you live, or where you need to be for your next class.

This last point may be the most significant, for it directly impacts on the number of teaching jobs you are able to handle at any one time, and will tend to hold true regardless of where you live.

You can’t conceivably teach a class in Morumbi, for example, if you reside in Guarulhos; similarly, you can’t effortlessly go from a late afternoon engagement in Vila Leopoldina to an early evening lesson in Santo André, as the distances (and traffic congestion) will be too great for you to reach your destination within a reasonable length of time, particularly during rush hours.

What’s considered a reasonable length of time? That’s a good question, and not always an easy one to answer. I’ve known teachers to travel upwards of two or more hours to get to a class or teaching assignment, and very haphazardly at that. You, however, must decide for yourself what is the easiest, most comfortable, and most convenient travel time for you — and for how long you would be willing to commit to such a schedule.

Keep in mind that the daily commute, especially in the big cities, can grind you down before you know it, and, in the long run, may affect the physical state of your health and your emotional well being.

In my own case, if the potential students were more than an hour or so away by bus and/or subway, I would invariably decline the teaching assignment. It wasn’t worth the added stress of confronting traffic trauma or road rage for a few infrequent lessons a week, no matter how much the student or language school was willing to pay me.

Remember: if you are offered much more than the going rate for a particular teaching assignment, then something is not quite right. I would question it strongly.

Teaching in one’s own home or apartment can be a more viable option for the English language instructor whereby you forgo having to face the many rigors of public transportation — but your earnings potential will be severely limited, as will your teaching opportunities.

If this restriction appeals to you, then by all means go for it. However, most teachers juggle numerous job assignments at once, both inside and outside their homes, partly due to the additional income these can bring you, partly because of the inherent job diversity, but mostly out of financial and economic necessity.

Rates and Things

Which leads us into the next issue for teachers: that of how much to charge students for your wonderful classes. What’s the standard going rate for in-company lessons? And for that matter, what’s the hourly rate for teaching at home? That all depends on a wide variety of tangible and intangible circumstances.

Suffice it to say that São Paulo is the unquestioned Mecca for teaching English in the country, and because of this elevated status your rates perforce will be higher there than for most other regions.

Expect to charge less — significantly less, in some cases — if you live outside the city limits. Conversely, the cost-of-living index in another city or state may be considerably lower than in the major overcrowded urban centers. This is the inevitable and expected tradeoff of living and working in a less hectic environment.

As a general rule of thumb, the rates for private in-company lessons vary from about R$ 35 to R$ 55 reais per hour, sometimes even more. You may find that your classes are somewhat longer when you teach at a corporation (with the average duration lasting about an hour and a half) than when you have them at home. In that case, add on an extra 30 minutes to your standard hourly rate to arrive at an acceptable amount.

When in doubt, just negotiate a mutually agreeable figure with your prospective pupils. They will appreciate your having taken the time, and their personal financial situation, into consideration before your teaching fees are etched in stone. I knew a teacher who basically charged whatever her students could afford. There was one catch to this winning arrangement: she was already financially secure and only took up the teaching profession for the fun of it.

Of course, the vast majority of English teachers will definitely not be occupying such a privileged position, and will need to charge their students accordingly.

Payment for your classes is due in advance and for the entire month. For instance, on July 1, or whenever you meet with your students for the first session of the month, you will ask for the entire month’s fee for your services. There are exceptions to this and many other regras do jogo (“rules of the game”), but know upfront that this is the normally accepted and customary practice for all private teachers in the country, no matter the field of expertise.

For teaching at home the rates can be anywhere from R$ 25 to R$ 60 reais per hour, or higher. The considerations here are the neighborhood that you expect to live and teach in (of very high importance), the aforementioned financial condition of your students (equally important), and whether or not they have long-term aspirations regarding learning the language. These are some of the most tangible and quantifiable factors surrounding the topic of rates.

The more intangible ones all revolve around the current state of the Brazilian economy, which, as you may (or may not) be aware, is in perpetual flux. For now, things have stabilized somewhat and the currency under the Lula and Dilma presidencies has recovered some of its former buying power. But like most things in Brazil, the leading economic indicators cannot always be counted on to remain healthy and strong for very long.

In the entire time I taught in São Paulo, I was only able to raise my rates once, and that was back in 1997, when the economy was still considered relatively robust. And the course of the economic headwaters has a way of changing rapidly, sometimes overnight — as with the devaluation of the real in 1998. You and the rest of the population have little to no control over these aspects, so don’t spend time worrying about them: just know that they exist and may possibly interfere with the fair practice of your livelihood.

Bear in mind, also, that if you raise your rates too often or too high, you may lose the very students you hope to keep or attract, as well as get yourself into deeper financial straits than you may already be in. Don’t put up roadblocks to what could be a highly satisfying business relationship for you and your learners before you’ve had a chance to reap the full benefits.

Like the president of the Central Bank or the head of a major utility company, you should carefully review your proposed monetary modifications against the potential downsides before you contemplate passing along any rate hikes to your customers. And make no mistake about it: your students are your customers, and should be treated as such.

In addition, as a self-employed teacher you are also entitled to paid holidays, regular days off, and a reasonable vacation allowance. These must be made clear to your students before you accept any teaching assignment. This means that if you decide to take the months of January or July off for leisure time, you will still be paid the full amount of your monthly fee. Comparably, if your students decide to go on hiatus for a spell, they will need to pay for the entire month in advance in order to reserve their spots on your busy calendar.

Both students and teachers need to be flexible here, for this part of the negotiations can — and will be — a particularly sticky one to overcome. I’ve had students suddenly quit on me, the sole reason being their refusal to pay for my vacation time. And, as much as I sincerely regretted it, many times I had to bear this loss of income in silence before I would compromise what is a basic and fundamental right of all workers, i.e., to take time off to recharge one’s batteries and to be fairly compensated for it.

On the flip side, there are federal, state, and municipal employees who have not had any adjustments to their wages in quite some time. Unemployment in the country, especially in the large cities, may remain high. There will be plenty of student cancellations for you to deal with — and many of them permanently so — due to this precarious state of affairs.

There will also be thousands of native and non-native speaking teachers of English out there, just waiting for a chance to pick up the discarded strays and add a new aluno (“student”) or two to their busy agendas (“schedules”). You could be in a perfect position to profit from the turbulence. It’s all in how you view the situation.

Teachers must take all of these variables, including both the known and unknown aspects, into advisement when planning for their own financial contingencies.

First Class of the Day

The bus ride to the Centro (“downtown”) is a long but uneventful one, and that’s always a welcome sign. I walk over to the PriceWaterhouse building, register at the reception area, grab my crachá (“visitor’s badge”) from the security desk, and go upstairs to my classroom, which is on the fifth floor.

It’s 7:30 a.m., but no one’s showed up yet. That’s no surprise. It was as early for the students as it was for me, but I usually tried to arrive for class before they did. It doesn’t look good for teachers to be late as it shows a definite lack of respect or seriousness of purpose on their part. Students, however, can always be fashionably tardy.

Ten minutes go by, and then Lidia appears. She’s a teaching colleague of mine who lives just minutes away by subway, but can never seem to get to class on time. As she stifles a yawn, we talk about our respective weekends. After a minute or two, a few stragglers finally come forth to fill up the classroom, which is really more of a conference area.

An Empty Office

It’s been a veritable battle to find a decent place to hold a class. Recent remodeling and expansion have displaced the only remaining offices available for teaching purposes. There are days when I have to play a regular round of ring-around-the-rosy with my students, as we march from one room to another in a never-ending search for empty office space, only to be told that a likely looking classroom has already been booked for an eight o’clock meeting.

Today’s class is no exception. Just as the session is about to begin, a secretary pokes her head in to announce that we can’t use the room because of an early morning conference with the department managers. So it’s back to the drawing board, as we vacate the premises in another futile quest for an empty classroom.

But thanks to the intercession of one of my students, an office miraculously materializes on another floor, only now we’re down to 60 of the original 90 minutes allotted for teaching time. We take the elevator to the second floor and quickly head for the empty classroom before someone else takes it over. Turning the knob, I realize that the door is locked. My student runs off, down the hall to fetch the key.

After what seems an eternity she returns with a bombeiro (or fire marshal), who fumbles for a few minutes with the keys on his enormous key ring until he locates the right one. He opens the door and we all file in, thanking him profusely for his timely assistance.

We attempt to follow the course book, but after this morning’s escapade no one seems particularly interested in class work. We decide instead to spend the next fifteen minutes talking about the weekend, the current political climate, and the latest films to hit the local multiplex, as well as other topical subjects, before moving on to the lesson. As this is an intermediate class, we’re able to discuss a much wider range of topics than usual.

These types of frustrating situations are by no means widespread, but you will find they occur more often in-company than anywhere else.

I had a student, a financial analyst in the portfolio department of Bradesco Securities, who was prevented from having further classes with me because of the questionable practices of her fellow coworkers.

Apparently, some of the employees of her department had abused the privilege of taking in-company classes by never showing up for sessions; yet they would put down on their time sheets that they were late for work due to having been delayed at class. Bradesco’s response was to institute a policy whereby all adult learners of English had to take lessons at an accredited language school outside the office — in other words, no private classes were permitted on company property.

Clearly, language instructors cannot be taken to task over this egregious example of jeitinho brasileiro, or the Brazilian method of “bending the rules.” But no matter how comical they may appear to be, these kinds of circumstances can — and quite often do — have a cumulative effect on the motivation and morale, not to mention the heightened frustration levels, of both teachers and students, who want nothing more than a peaceful and permanent place to hold an English class.

More often than not, the sharp-eyed professor is forced to improvise a tailor-made solution by employing something Brazilians call jogo de cintura, which, for most foreigners, is best translated as the ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds by “thinking outside the box,” what we business types used to refer to as the old “song-and-dance.” Acquiring and mastering this enviable technique can definitely help to smooth over some of life’s more effort-full patches when they do occur.

Even still, it cannot be considered a perfect solution to this perplexing problem, an example of the Catch-22 situation (you need a classroom to teach in, but one cannot be found; therefore, you cannot teach; yet your students still need to be taught; so you set out in search of a classroom), and one that was never satisfactorily addressed in any of the companies I rendered services to.

The Breakfast Club

Due to the daily diversion of having to find an empty classroom, some of my more resourceful students decided at one point to meet me at a coffee shop or restaurant in order to hold an impromptu “study” session, while we enjoyed an aromatic sip of Brazilian coffee, or a piece of that delicious French bread.

“Coffee Class,” as it came to be called, was most helpful to break the ice for new students or to get to know the ones you have better — but it could be a real chore for professional teachers.

In the first place, there’s no way to teach anything at a coffee shop. You can’t use classroom materials or learning aids if you have to stand up constantly and gulp down your stimulant; you can’t make meaningful conversation, or work on your students’ pronunciation, if they answer you with a baguette protruding from their mouths; and you can’t assist in your students’ struggles with the latest phrasal verbs if the many onlookers who step up to the counter keep interrupting by asking the attendant for another cup of carioca (a small and very strong espresso).

A restaurant or luncheonette is better than a coffee shop for regular early morning lessons. At least you can sit down for an hour or more and concentrate on a particular grammar point.

Try to choose a place that’s clean and decent for yourself and your charge, but not too pricey. If you’re lucky some students may even pay for your breakfast, courtesy of their company’s meal ticket or voucher program. This is a very welcome benefit that can save financially strapped teachers some extra change. Be sure not to overlook it.

And be cognizant of your surroundings. Looking for a place to sit near Praça da República, Avenida São João, or (heaven forbid) Praça da Sé, can be fairly intimidating. Be cautious and observant at all times, evenings as well as mornings. This is sound advice for any urban-dweller regardless of country or city.

In-Company Horror Stories

There are five minutes remaining in the class, but some of my students give indications they have to leave, so we adjourn the already shortened session and say our mutual goodbyes.

“Bye, gang,” I tell them, over the din of morning greetings and bits of hallway conversation. “See you on Wednesday. Oops, I almost forgot. Please sign the attendance sheet on your way out. Thanks a lot.”

“Bye-bye, Joe, see you later,” they intone in unison.

Most of the students I taught in-company were pleasant, eager, unfailingly polite, and from the upper-middle-class stratum of Brazilian society. Some were also very good speakers of English due to certain situational advantages (i.e., frequent overseas forays, high school in the States, parents who were native speakers) that their coworkers further down the economic food chain were not exposed to.

These socioeconomic distinctions, while not as readily apparent in more mainstream American business life, can be quite noticeable in class-conscious Brazil. They can manifest themselves in both intricate and disarming ways, such as in how your students speak, dress, look or act.

Like most normal individuals in a group situation, adult learners of English can appear at times to be manipulative, bossy, gossipy, childish, selfish, domineering, quarrelsome, jealous, suspicious and, above all, petty. Although they are generally respectful of the teacher, they do not always hold their compatriots in the same regard.

Granted, employees of firms are under a great deal of pressure nowadays to be ever more productive, but they are also overly preoccupied with making measurable improvements to their language skills.

This added level of stress can lead to some annoying personal habits, even to bizarre emotional behavior. It’s reality television brought to vivid life, as you suddenly discover that some of your formerly tolerant student body begins to express blatantly belittling opinions of their working-class brethren, while other, less stable members exhibit definite paranoid-schizophrenic tendencies.

One of my students was a manager who loved to take up class time with her personal pet peeves, and forced everyone to look at her huge album of photographs from her many overseas trips. Another manager was absolutely convinced her superiors were watching her every move, and was in a perpetual tizzy over some callous complaint the senior partner had made about her work. One time she broke down in abject resignation over her job situation, right before the start of class. It took a Herculean effort on my part to put her back together again in time for the lesson.

And then there was Luiz Antonio. His was a most “amusing” case: a bright, overachieving auditor of about 30, he missed over half his lessons due to too many late-night numbers-crunching sessions. When he eventually decided to show up for class, he complained that we were still covering the same subject matter:

“Why we are yet in that topic?” he griped.

“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled.

“Last time I here, we do same thing, prepositions. Why never we can go in to new topic?”

I then proceeded to berate him in a fruitless attempt to make him take some responsibility for his frequent absences, as well as his total lack of desire to do even the slightest bit of homework — and if anyone needed help with his prepositions, Luiz Antonio was a prime candidate.

It was a losing battle, but from it I learned a valuable lesson, and one I must impart to all my readers: do not try to force your students into coming to class or doing their lessons. They are much too busy worrying about their careers to be able to keep up with homework.

Yet, if given half the chance, they will readily grasp at any straw as an excuse for their lame language performance. The only thing that teachers can do to circumvent this situation is to document the absences as a way to substantiate the students’ inability to pass the course or to go on to the next level.

Here’s one more “horror” story for the record. Since ours was an early morning class, Luiz Antonio would often interrupt the lesson by throwing his head way back, opening his mouth widely, and emitting a long, protracted — and very audible — yawn.

I politely hinted to him that somebody in the room needed to get some extra sleep before showing up for class, but my subtle asides went unheeded. Since he was an infrequent visitor to class at the time, I didn’t concern myself too much with his antics.

Finally, a teaching colleague of mine, who taught Luiz Antonio at another level and who did concern herself with his outlandish behavior, put a stop to his diurnal display by informing him that he was being offensive to her and disruptive to the other members of the group; that if he continued to gape in that offensive fashion she would personally escort him from the room herself.

Given that my colleague’s rebuke was a bit harsh, it did help to curb the yawning problem to everyone’s satisfaction. Everyone, that is, except good old Luiz Antonio, who promptly quit coming to class soon after that exchange, and then went so far as to file a formal complaint against my colleague with the head of the language school.

An English language instructor must adapt to the ever-changing rules of classroom etiquette in order to successfully deal with the heavy workloads of overburdened adult learners. The teacher must learn to handle the few troublesome types with the deftness of a seasoned camp counselor, and endeavor to lead the students back to the main reason why they are taking classes in the first place: to learn English, not to receive ad hoc psychoanalysis or hand-holding at others’ expense.

(To Be Continued…)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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