How I Taught English in Brazil and Survived to Tell the Story (Part Three)

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In this next installment of my series on teaching English in Brazil, I cover some of the more practical aspects of the profession, as well as taking a look at other types of jobs that are available to teachers.

Weather Patterns: Dress for Success

Sao Paulo at Sunrise (gringoes.com)
Sao Paulo at Sunrise (gringoes.com)

I quickly glance at my watch and see that it’s now 9:00 a.m. I fly down the stairs to the lobby — no time to wait for the elevator — where I deposit my visitor’s badge, and then head straight for the exit.

On my way out, I run into some former students, who either wave friendly hellos or exchange brisk handshakes with me, as I brush past the guards and bolt across the street before the traffic light changes. Streaking across the plaza, I bound down the steps of the subway station and break out into a light sweat.

The temperature is already 29o Celsius, or close to 84o Fahrenheit. It’s hot and stifling in downtown, which is shrouded in a dull, orange-gray mist that covers much of Avenida Paulista. The noise and pollution levels have risen dramatically — and in close proximity to the temperature reading — as rush hour in the city reaches full throttle.

Today, I decide to take the subway to Santana, and then switch for a bus to Zona Norte (North Zone); all told, about a 45-minute ride on a good day.

I always tried to dress casually but presentably for each teaching session, knowing that São Paulo can go through four different seasons in one day; it can be chilly in the morning, warm around midday, brutally hot in the afternoon and rain like a tropical monsoon in the early evening. If you are out in this mess, you are constantly susceptible to the elements and must, therefore, dress appropriately.

On one occasion, I simply overdressed, thinking it was going to get colder later. When the temperature rose higher than expected that same afternoon, I found myself melting under a ton of extra layers of clothing. By the time I got home, I was a pale vestige of my former self. After a refreshingly cool shower, abetted by several delightful glasses of bottled water, I went to sleep off my debilitating dehydration.

From then on, I religiously set my Sony clock-radio alarm to the all-news station and listened intently to the weather forecast before deciding on what to wear.

Another time, I almost came down with heatstroke after rushing to a job interview in Pinheiros under a broiling noonday sun. With my bald-pated head, I should have known better than to expose myself at that hour, but I was in a hurry (as usual) to get there and forgot to take the necessary precautions.

I finally arrived to the interview with a monstrous headache and a decidedly green pallor to my visage. I managed to survive the ordeal, but only after I had wolfed down two mouthfuls of aspirin accompanied by a hefty ice-cold glass of lemonade courtesy of my future employer. My head hurt so much I had to excuse myself to go to the bathroom and splash water all over my face — and right in the middle of our conversation. It was a fairly embarrassing moment, to say the least.

The next time I went out in that sweltering heat, I made sure to wear a good sunscreen or baseball cap to protect my pale skin from exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

To facilitate my meanderings around town, I usually wore a light polo shirt or cotton print over a clean pair of sport slacks and some comfortable walking shoes. In hot weather, a clean T-shirt, sneakers and blue jeans were added to the ensemble. For cold snaps, a long-sleeved dress shirt with a heavier pair of pants was the order of the day, topped off with a smart woolen sweater or an insulated jacket.

Depending on where you intend to live and teach in Brazil, your wardrobe will need to be modified given the region’s climate and weather patterns, but most instructors should be able to adapt swiftly to the prevailing trends in informal teaching attire with little to no problem.

However, I’ve known some male colleagues to over-abuse the wearing of blue jeans, so much so that the jeans started to take on that rough-and-ragged look more beloved of Harley Davidson bikers than steadfast English teachers.

And a few of the younger ones used to wear their open-collared shirts a little too open for my more conservative dress tastes to approve of. A bit more discretion and decorum are good rules to follow when conducting in-company classes; at home is another story, where informality and comfort are the major themes.

And men, please take this next piece of advice to heart: do not forget to shave. It only takes a few minutes of your valuable preening time in the morning to make this a regular part of your daily routine. I grew a small beard to keep my mouse-colored mustache company, so I didn’t have all that much facial hair to scrape off.

You have no idea how scruffy-looking a male teacher with a five o’clock shadow appears to a group of sleepy-eyed students at seven o’clock in the morning. It’s like talking to Zé Colméia (Yogi Bear). Unless you are Ben Affleck or Thiago Lacerda — in which case, you wouldn’t be teaching English anyway — you are much more presentable with a nice, close shave or an expertly trimmed beard.

Even my female colleagues were not immune to violations of the “dress code.” One teacher I knew used to wear a super low-cut blouse over skin-tight stretch pants that left nothing to the imagination.

Another friend once came to work wearing a ghastly array of costume jewelry and gold pieces, with rings flashing from every finger and bracelets galore all up and down the length of her forearms. She also absolutely reeked of her own liberally applied perfume. It took all my powers of concentration to fight back the unseen fumes that floated up toward my super-sensitive nostrils every time we chatted.

The point of classes is not to parade oneself as if in a fashion show, nor is it to distract students from the session — particularly those with short attention spans. You will want to look your best but not overdo it.

A professional outlook and appearance to match are the best combination for all language instructors, who don’t get enough respect and recognition in their profession as it is. Inappropriate or over-elaborate dress can only lead to ineffectual lessons.

These may seem like minor quibbles, but even experienced professionals can overlook these basic but strategic tips.

It Looks Like Rain  

Cloudy Skies over Sampa (theguardian.co.uk)
Cloudy Skies over Sampa (theguardian.co.uk)

As the subway car pulls up to Santana station, I peer out of my window for an on-the-spot check of the weather. The clouds have that dark and menacing appearance of a late-summer rain shower, as my sense of dread tells me it’s going to pour like the dickens!

Sure enough, no sooner do I finish my thought than it immediately starts to drizzle. In a few minutes, the drizzle turns into a heavy and penetrating downpour.

I run for protection under one of those fiberglass-covered bus stops along Rua Dr. Gabriel Piza. As luck would have it, I’m able to step aboard a bus bound for Avenida Nova Cantareira, which is just close enough to my apartment that I won’t have to walk too great a distance for very long.

I always carried a small portable umbrella in my bag for just such a situation — you never knew when the skies overhead would suddenly open up and all hell would break loose on top of you. And it can really rain in this city! You would think you were in the middle of a deluge somewhere in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

One time, I was accompanying my student back to her place of business after a lunchtime restaurant class — another one of those wonderful teaching perks I previously talked about — when all of a sudden the clouds unleashed a powerful rainfall of antediluvian proportions along Avenida Paulista. Within seconds, the streets were awash in a raging torrent rivaling the Mississippi River in strength and ferocity.

After I was successful in escorting the student safely to her office, I still had to go out into that storm to catch the subway for the trip back. By the time I reached my apartment building, I was the spitting image of a very cold, and very wet, street rat — even with my trusty umbrella in hand.

Residents of the major cities all face this terrible dilemma of flash flooding during the dreaded rainy season. City officials and state bureaucrats alike have so far failed to come up with a permanent solution to this seasonal set of circumstances, which many feel are due to rampant, unregulated overbuilding and to inadequate drainage systems, among other complicated causes. It remains a serious and potentially life-threatening hazard for anyone caught in the middle of these habitual rainstorms.

Because of this, teachers are strongly urged to avoid scheduling any late afternoon or evening classes too far away from their apartment, home or business, particularly during the months of January, February and March. This will help you to avoid being stuck in traffic somewhere, or up to your literal ears in rainwater.

Fortunately, the rains tend to come when the majority of your students are on vacation or on holiday, but you can’t always count on the seasons to obey your carefully worked-out schedule.

Illness can sometimes be the result of over-exposure to bad weather, or too dramatic a fluctuation in the temperature, or too many hands shook during a major influenza outbreak. Sooner or later, it may even require a little trip to the local health clinic.

A reader recently wrote me requesting information about medical insurance and hospital facilities in Brazil. Although my experience with these matters is limited, my family and I did have occasion to use the local doctors for treatment of various degrees of illness.

And, at the risk of sounding like a senator up for reelection, it is an absolute necessity for teachers with families to have adequate and affordable health insurance in case of sickness or emergency situations.

Language instructors should shop around for qualified insurance agents — and try to obtain the best available rates from them — for single, married, or family coverage. Again, your friends, relatives and teaching associates can probably guide you better along this well-beaten path than I can.

As a self-employed professional, however, be prepared to pay mile-high insurance premiums for your children and spouse, unless your language school has appropriate medical coverage under its health plan (not always likely, or even possible). It’s worth the extra effort to check it out and make absolutely certain.

Mid-Morning Utility Break

HBO do Brasil Logo
HBO do Brasil Logo

I arrive in my apartment around 10:00 a.m., which, because of the águas de março (waters of March), is pretty fast timing, considering all the traffic problems our bus encountered along the way.

My wife greets me at the front door and hands me a message from Flora, a teaching colleague of mine. The message says that Flora has a movie for me to transcribe, and wants to know if I can pick it up at PriceWaterhouse around noontime and before my next class.

I call Flora back to tell her that we can meet in the lobby at twelve.

“No, Joe,” she says, “I’m too busy to meet you myself. You’ll have to take the movie from my husband. Would you please be a dear and help me out with this problem?”

“Sure, Flora,” I grunt in acknowledgement. “No sweat. I’ll take care of it,” as I hang up the phone.

In addition to teaching, I also did freelance work for Home Box Office (HBO) of Brazil. My job was to transcribe the dialogue for films, movies, television series, news programs, documentaries, and other TV shows for the History Channel (Civil War Journal), the SuperStation (Biography), and the NBC Television Network (The Today Show, Dateline).

It was a lucrative and challenging area for an English teacher, but an extremely cliquish one as well — and very difficult to penetrate. It was also exceedingly demanding of my teaching time and all too regularly crept into, and interfered with, my social and family life.

As an example of what I mean, transcribing an hour program such as Great Chefs of the South, Biography or Modern Marvels can translate into approximately six to eight hours of non-stop, butt-busting work on the computer, television, headphones, and VCR. You are stuck in your home for all this time while you’re trying to complete the task.

It was a boring, tedious, and meticulous job assignment whereby every word and line of dialogue was listened to, typed, repeated, checked, and then saved to diskette for eventual dubbing or subtitling prior to being aired.

And there were other considerations for me to keep in mind: because of the high service and use charges in São Paulo, my monthly utility bills were going through the roof every time my electronic devices were kept on for longer periods of time than normal—and certainly over the course of an entire day’s work.

The same thing was true for the telephone lines and my Internet Service Provider. In addition, embedded within these regularly-billed items were such exotic charges as “frequent-user tax” and “value-added tax,” “rate adjustments” and “readjustments,” “additional fees and tariffs” and “penalties and late charges,” “interest charges” and other “add-ons.”

Many newcomers to Brazil are completely unaware of these hidden charges. You will become an expert on them, I assure you — once you have been a frequent utility, telephone and computer user. Your lifestyle may need to be “readjusted” as a result of them as well.

The Video Follies

I was definitely not looking forward to this additional drain on my free time — and on my wallet — but my friend was in a bind. She had to deliver the finished product by Wednesday morning in order to meet HBO’s strict deadline, but she was too laden down with other work to do it herself, so she was counting on my assistance.

That was the problem with transcribing in general, and HBO programs in specific: they were always on such a fixed and immutable airing schedule that simply had to be worked around.

I calculate the approximate time it will take me to complete Flora’s film; she told me over the telephone it was an hour-long documentary, so the chances of it being wordy are fairly high.

I surmise, then, that it’s going to take roughly six hours of solid work to transcribe the lengthy dialogue in its entirety.

If my noontime student cancels his class that will give me the six hours I needed to complete this task before my next set of lessons later this evening. With a little luck, maybe my evening students will cancel out on me (it’s happened before). That will free up even more time, just in case it takes longer than expected to finish the job.

Since I was now under the gun, I had to make the best use of my available time and resources. This is another all-too-common occurrence for teachers who are on a tight teaching schedule. Interruptions, extra workloads, spur-of-the-moment job requests, and due-yesterday translations of important documents are all part-and-parcel of the teaching profession.

There were days when I hardly even taught a class, much less stepped outside my apartment, because of the additional assignments I had taken on.

Why do teachers do this to themselves and take on so many more job functions than just plain old teaching? Well, for the fundamentally sound reason that teaching by itself does not, and cannot, pay all the bills all of the time.

Although a busy private teacher can expect to earn anywhere from R$2,000 to R$3,000 Reais a month — more or less — that’s only when the Brazilian economy is booming. If you are a young, single, and upwardly-mobile English language instructor, this can sound like an incredible amount of money.

But consider that most salaried employees in the country only earn about three or four times the minimum wage, and you will have a much better appreciation for the pitiful salary conditions most Brazilian workers find themselves trapped in.

If, like many wage earners, you have your own family to feed, extra school expenses to face, insurance and medical costs to meet, and a home or apartment to pay for, you will need to supplement your teaching income by tackling a wider array of English-related tasks or work assignments.

When cash gets tight, as it inevitably does in balmy Brazil, and your students find they can no longer afford your private language classes, you must look elsewhere for work opportunities to be able to weather the economic storms.

Translations, Always Translations

Doing transcriptions for HBO movies is only one of the many different jobs available to language teachers. I once received a call from a business entity called Save Speed Back Enterprises, Ltd., a private São Paulo-based firm that specialized in emergency medical treatment to business people and their families.

I thought to myself, “What in the world could they want me for?” As it turned out, an employee at Save Speed Back had come into possession of one of my business cards, and was interested in taking advantage of my services to translate some flyers, brochures, and nursing course descriptions into colloquial American English.

This was a lucky break for me, because I really needed the extra cash at the time, since I had stopped doing HBO programs due to the devaluation of the currency in 1998, and I had other financial setbacks because of the loss of several of my students. I jumped at this chance and told Save Speed Back that I’d be very glad to meet with them.

An extremely popular and growing field for English teachers to engage in, then, is that of traduções (translations) — or versões (versions) — of books, brochures, pamphlets, newspaper and magazine articles, proposals, legal contracts, correspondence, letters, memoranda, and other types of business documents.

To put it simply, a tradução involves the translation of a document from the English language into the Portuguese language; a versão, on the other hand, is basically a translation from Portuguese into English, or whatever language the translator is most comfortable or familiar with, which makes it a “version” of the original document.

Of course, this presupposes that you have a thorough knowledge of the Portuguese vernacular. It’s a given, however, that not all English language instructors will know the foreign tongue as well as their own, but teachers should not discount what could be an additional source of revenue simply because of this seemingly insurmountable obstacle. After all, that’s what Brazilian wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, relatives, colleagues, and acquaintances are for. They should always be relied upon and recruited to lend a helping hand when needed — and be justly compensated, too — for their translation efforts.

Once you accept a translation assignment, be ready to work diligently, rapidly, and under a tight, pressure-filled deadline. Have a large supply of dictionaries, thesauruses and encyclopedias on hand (in English-Portuguese/Portuguese-English) to help you wade through the more difficult portions of a given text.

Carefully proofread your work and have another person double-check your spelling and grammar for accuracy. You don’t want to submit anything that’s sloppy or slipshod, or you’ll lose the repeat business, which is where the real money can be made.

One Last Call

Future Brazilian Lawyers
Future Brazilian Lawyers

I get ready for my noontime class. Before leaving, I make myself a light snack just to have something solid in my stomach. As I munch on my sandwich, the telephone rings. My wife answers. It’s Wilma, a lawyer friend of mine, who dabbles as an English language teacher on the side.

Lately, because of the turnaround in the economy, Wilma’s law practice has been sliding a bit, so she’s been doing more translation and teaching work as financial stopgaps. I take the call, knowing that my friend will keep on calling me until I respond to her query.

She says she needs my help with a translation of some “phrases” for a legal document she’s preparing. I spend about twenty minutes on the line with her, trying to waylay her “doubts” about the text. She wants me to review her work and make any changes to it before she prints it out for her client. I tell her to send it to me via email and I will get to it later today. She thanks me for my help, as I hand the receiver back to my wife.

I met Wilma while I was attending a gathering of teaching colleagues at a mutual friend’s house. She earned her Master’s degree in Linguistics, taught English as a Foreign Language at União Cultural, and was currently working on her post-graduate thesis in Comparative Law.

As a non-native speaker, though, there were moments when she was simply unable to grasp the innate subtleties of the English language. At those times, she required the services of a competent legal “advisor.”

Since I happened to have a paralegal degree from an accredited American university, I was more than willing to help Wilma with her inglês jurídico (Legal English), which is used in all forms of Contract Law, Criminal Law, Procedural and Substantive Law, Civil and Matrimonial Law, as well as Bankruptcy and Immigration Law.

For Wilma’s law studies group, I was even able to teach several courses of my own design, which were taught in English (with a smattering of Portuguese), and tailored to the tastes of lawyers, law students, secretaries and other legal professionals.

As I mentioned before in Lesson 1, prospective teachers need to look carefully at their own business backgrounds or past specialties, and try to turn their previous work experience into potentially lucrative fields that may involve the use of English.

Other areas that may be applicable here are the airline industry, journalism, travel and tourism, hotel and hospitality, manufacturing, metallurgy, agriculture, crop science, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, engineering, Internet, computer technology, troubleshooting, and sales, marketing and research.

Take a Card, Any Card

Your Business Card
Your Business Card

Your business card can be your entry ticket to many potential teaching opportunities, both of a temporary or permanent nature.

Be sure to have your pertinent contact information (including name, home address, home telephone number, cell phone number, pager, email address, and Internet website, if applicable) all professionally printed on good quality stock. You can either do this yourself if you have the requisite software and high-speed printer, or have one of the many specialty print shops around town do it for you (for a fee).

While you are at it, try to think up a clever phrase, slogan, or jingle describing exactly what you do. It makes it easier for your potential pupils to remember you by. And have it printed on your business card, too. It can be anything within reason that tells students you’re in the “Teaching English as a Foreign Language” business.

Have a recognizable foreign symbol or logo printed onto the card that will connect you to your place of origin. For example, I used to have the American flag and a bald eagle — quite apropos, in my case — placed on all my business cards, followed by my title (Mr. Joe Lopes, but not Josmar, which sounds too Brazilian), my profession (English Teacher), and a brief description of my services (translations, subtitling, dubbing of videos, English for Business Purposes, Legal English, whatever).

Hand them out to as many people as you come into contact with on a regular basis. You never know where they will end up, or in whose hands.

Before you know it, your telephone will be ringing off the hook, especially after Carnival, when most companies and their employees seem ready and willing to get down to the serious business of learning English.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

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