In this fourth and final installment about teaching English in Brazil, I conclude my discussion regarding the practical side of the profession and move on to some of the language and cultural problems foreign teachers face, as well as talk about the tools of the teaching trade.
Sessão da Tarde (Afternoon Session)
To make certain that there will be an afternoon lunchtime class I call my student’s secretary, Sônia, to confirm the session.
“Oi, Jô,” (“Hi, Joe”) she answers. It’s funny how after only a few weeks of teaching in-company the informality of Brazilians quickly becomes apparent. I can still remember when it used to be “Bom dia, Seu Josmar” (“Good morning, Josmar, sir”), before I became a regular visitor.
“Oi, Sônia, tudo bem? (“Hi Sônia, how are you?”) Is Márcio there? I called to confirm our class.”
“Márcio is not here. He went to see a client, but he’ll return by noontime, so I think there will be a class.”
“OK, thanks a lot. I’ll see you later. Tchau (“Bye”).”
I grab my case with all my teaching accoutrements and head off once more for the trip to downtown. This will be my second tour today of the Centro, with this class being a bit of a minor setback for me, but I still have enough time to work on my friend Flora’s HBO video after I return home. Besides, I need to go downtown anyway to pick it up, and could certainly use the exercise: all that bread, butter and cheese in the mornings are starting to deposit themselves along my expanding waistline.
After about an hour’s ride, I arrive in downtown at precisely noon, sign in at the front desk, and ask the receptionist to call Márcio to let him know I’m here. The receptionist gets the secretary on the line, talks to her for a few seconds, then hangs up to tell me that Márcio hasn’t arrived yet — but if I would like to wait for him in the lobby, I’m most welcome to do so.
Uh-oh, I’ve heard this one before. Nine times out of ten, if my students haven’t shown up by the usual lunch-hour starting time they’re not likely to appear at all.
Just then, Flora’s husband comes busting through the doors. He’s a boisterous, bespectacled fellow of about 70, with a wavy head of salt-and-pepper hair, and the rapid-fire mannerisms of a first-generation Italian descendant. He’s full of anecdotes about his time in Rio de Janeiro, and his younger days as a mechanical engineer in the wilds of West Africa.
We exchange greetings as he slips the HBO video into my waiting palms. He’s in a terrible rush, as always, and can’t really stay — no, not even for a quick cafézinho. He suggests we go out for a cup the next time he stops by. It’ll be his treat. Promise! Then in a flash, he’s gone, just as suddenly as he arrived.
I wait around for a half-hour or so, all the while conversing with the receptionist, whose English is simply appalling. Much to my general bereavement, she keeps threatening to have classes with me.
“I thought all receptionists were supposed to speak English,” I comment to her.
“Yayz, we speekee, but I needee taykee cless. You teechee?” she inquires.
“Umm… I’m kind of booked up at the moment,” I cringe, “but here’s my card. Call me in a month or two, and I’ll see what’s available.”
Against my better judgment, I once took a receptionist on as a student, but she could only have class during her lunch break. We couldn’t have any sessions on the premises as she wasn’t really a company employee (security and reception personnel are often contracted out to third-party firms) and, therefore, not allowed access to the upstairs offices. We didn’t have anywhere else to go — except to the local restaurant.
We wound up having a very one-sided conversation at a diner somewhere along Rua General Jardim, as waiters scurried about our table tending to the lunchtime crowd. It felt as if we were in the eye of a storm.
As you can imagine, it was an absolutely dreadful class. Besides, the receptionist only wanted to gossip about the other employees of the firm, which I adamantly declined to do. Thankfully, she stopped having lessons soon after that class, to my great relief.
Put It in Writing
The history of the teaching profession is littered with tales of pupils who were either the class pet or on permanent detention. Indeed, not every student you accept will turn out to be Hermione Granger, or even Harry Potter, for that matter. Some of them can even be downright ornery at times — and behave more like Draco Malfoy — while others help make the session pass ever so slowly with their bad manners and disruptive antics (see “Lesson Two” for the gory details).
Since your primary aim will be to teach adult learners, you will need to protect your rights with regard to giving classes. Having a written contract between you and your students is one of the best ways to do this.
My wife helped me put together a version of a contract in Portuguese on the reverse side of the main document, but the basic content of your agreement should spell out the class rules and regulations in a clear, concise, and easy-to-understand manner.
You do not need to be an expert in Contract Law or write like a Supreme Court justice to be able to create something functional, but your agreement should certainly cover the following points:
- Hourly rates and fees;
- Days and times you are available to teach;
- When payment is due, and how much;
- What to do in case of insufficient funds checks;
- Late-payment charges and bad-check penalties;
- Days off, including federal, state and municipal holidays;
- Vacation time, the duration of it, and when;
- Cancellations and emergency situations;
- Policy regarding makeup classes;
- Rate adjustments or increases due to inflation;
- Anything else of importance.
There were only a few times in my teaching career where I had to haggle with students over late payment for classes, reluctance to pay for my vacation and holiday time, or the passing of bad checks. Somehow, when students are forced to put their signature to a piece of parchment, they tend to take their classes a little more seriously.
Make sure you go over the details of your agreement before the student signs on the dotted line. It’s usually a good idea to spend the first session of class in an informal, relaxed discussion about this topic — all the better to iron out potential problems prior to facing future misunderstandings later on.
As a sidebar to this issue, the Brazilian notion of what is a legally binding agreement between individuals, versus the American (or foreign) notions of what it is, are altogether different and much maligned to boot. Some business people I taught were under the rather mistaken impression that the written contract was only the beginning of our negotiations — and, ergo, open to interpretation at that; whereas, in the Anglo-Saxon Common Law tradition the contract is ultimately the final result of them.
But whether your agreement has the force of law behind it or not is irrelevant, for the very act of putting it all down on paper — and making the student recognize the seriousness of the business relationship you are trying to establish — is more than enough to lend it credence.
Still, expect some of the brainier bunch in your groups to deliberately question, argue over, deny, nullify, misconstrue, waive away, or even distort the finer points of your accord should you ever have the need to chastise them over some abuse of its terms.
Hopefully, this will not happen too often, but it’s good to know that you’ve “got it in writing” whenever the time comes to properly defend yourself.
It’s Getting Late!
Glancing furtively at the time — an occupational holdover from my Wall Street days — I see that it’s now 12:40 p.m., and still no student. I have the receptionist call Sônia again, who, I’m told, has just gone out to lunch. I instinctively grab the telephone receiver and speak to Marly, another secretary, to try and get to the bottom of this.
“Hello, Marly? It’s Joe. How are you? Can you tell me if Márcio has called yet?”
“Yes, Joe,” she replies, “he just called in to say that he couldn’t make it to class today. I’m so sorry about that. Sônia didn’t tell you?”
I thank her for this latest news flash, hand the phone back to the receptionist, shrug in resignation, and return my visitor’s badge to the security desk; I then rush out of the lobby with the video in hand and prepare for the long trek back.
Being stood up is a major dor de cabeça (headache), I don’t mind telling you, for private teachers, who are busy enough as it is not to have to worry about no-shows, let alone be able to confront cancellations on a periodic basis. Often, they must plan their day well in advance, and to the split second.
Going to class and not having students show up — especially after they’ve already confirmed the lesson — is a precious waste of time and resources, and downright disrespectful as well. I couldn’t help but get stewed over the situation.
However, students are not always responsible for their cancellations, as business obligations do take precedence over English classes. The teacher must realize this and tread lightly, where the student is concerned, to avoid a direct confrontation with the frequent offender. A well-placed suggestion, or “word-to-the-wise” talk, can usually overcome most stumbling blocks. But be prepared for those inevitable missed sessions; just try not to take them too personally, as they are nothing more than ossos do ofício (part of the job).
How long should a teacher give a student no-show? I usually waited about half the lesson, or approximately 45 minutes of a 90-minute class. There are no hard and fast rules regarding this, by the way, but a goodly amount of patience — and reasonably sound judgment — are warranted on the teacher’s part before getting up and going on to something else.
One possible solution to this problem may be for teachers to space out their classes more evenly to allow for a variety of unforeseen circumstances. Making “gaps” or janelinhas (windows) in your daily itinerary may help to alleviate the stress of those annoying times when you find yourself falling behind schedule. They are also of immeasurable aid in having to replace a canceled class.
Speaking of which, teachers should try to keep those Saturday-morning sessions and early-afternoon weekend hours open for this and other purposes. It may mean postponing a planned family outing at the beach, or that longed-for excursion to the countryside, but it can prove most profitable to you in the long run. You never know when you’ll get a call for that extra teaching assignment or that last minute translation task, which will necessitate putting in some serious overtime hours.
I frequently found myself working many a Saturday — and all day Sunday, too — just to complete the transcription for one of those “wonderful” HBO cable-TV programs (ah, the good old days!). Again, you will learn by experience and decide what is best for your own particular situation.
Welcome to Chaos!
Going back home after not having taught class really irks me — especially since I have yet to get started on this dumb HBO video. But I really can’t complain, since I now have the rest of the afternoon to do the transcription.
Hey, what was that? Oh no, the subway has just stopped between stations, and all the lights have gone out! Now the overhead fans have stopped circulating!!! Boy, it’s really getting hot in here after only a few minutes. What the hell is going on, anyway?
I feel the subway car lurch forward, and several people are thrown together by accident. Well, we’re moving again. Must have been one of those five-minute, energy-saver breaks I’ve heard about — you know, where the city’s subway lines just sit there on the platform, with no lights, for minutes at a stretch. This is São Paulo’s radical new “solution” for energy conservation. Huh, good thing it was only for a short spell.
The last time I got stuck in a stalled subway car it lasted for over an hour. And another time, all the passengers were told to disembark from a car that had suddenly caught fire. The platform at the Praça da Sé station got filled up in seconds with people from the other arriving and departing subway trains. It was a positively claustrophobic experience that reminded me too much of Manhattan during rush hour.
Frequent work stoppages and strikes, as well as unplanned delays, demonstrations and detours, are all common occurrences in the big cities, and can happen at most any time.
Luckily, I only experienced a few such minor slowdowns, but they were enough to disrupt the flow of traffic and prevent me from getting to class on time. I would usually try to replace the missing session, but it’s not really a requirement since it wasn’t my fault. Besides, my schedule had grown so large that I rarely had time anymore for replacement classes. You, too, will find this to be the case. Offer to give the student a discount on next month’s payment, if replacing the canceled lesson proves to be impractical.
Early in my teaching career, as I was going to a private in-company class, the bus I was on came to a grinding halt along Avenida Tiradentes and did not move for over ten minutes. Some of the more impatient passengers onboard started to shout abuse at the driver without knowing what exactly was going on.
From my window seat, I could see several perueiros (private van drivers) staging an impromptu demonstration along the side street that emptied out into the main avenue. The van drivers were fuming over some city ordinance or other that required them to pay additional fees to register their vehicles with the Department of Transportation. In protest, they had strategically parked their vans right in the middle of Tiradentes to prevent any oncoming traffic from moving.
As I was watching them, the van drivers grew more and more agitated with our bus and started yelling at the driver and at various passersby. I decided to leave in a hurry. Walking brusquely past the dueling drivers, I headed straight for the elevated subway line for the ride back home. I wasn’t about to risk my hide over some ridiculous disturbance, and I certainly wasn’t about to risk being without a means to get back home — which seemed very likely, given the length of time it took to bring the situation to a semblance of normalcy along Tiradentes.
When I finally got home, I tried to contact my student to inform him of the delay and, more importantly, to cancel the lesson. I was told that he had gone to a late-afternoon business appointment and wasn’t expected back in the office until the next morning — and he hadn’t even called to notify me beforehand of this change in plan.
If I had gone to meet him downtown that evening, I would most certainly have been stood up. As luck would have it, I chose the right course of action.
I cite this incident not to scare teachers away but merely to alert them to the very real, and ever-present, inevitability of strikes, slowdowns, demonstrations, and the like; and to train them to be prepared at all times for emergency situations which they may need to face in order to teach.
Always plan on alternate routes to-and-from your class or home. Unfortunately, the options here may be limited, because if traffic stops in one part of the city, it may very likely stall in another.
Congestion in the Big Abacaxi (pineapple) is a universally accepted fact of daily urban life, as is the ever-present crime and violence; in other, sleepier towns and villages these problems may not exist, or be as bad, but there might be other hazards that take the place of crawling traffic lanes. Keep your eyes open at all times to avoid serious trouble.
Subway workers, bus drivers, bank employees, autoworkers, civil servants, municipal and government employees, and many other functionaries frequently stage walkouts in sympathy with their brother protesters. In the event of strikes or other mass interruptions, stay tuned to a good all-news radio or television station for the latest up-to-the-minute information.
Language & Cultural Barriers
I get to Santana and immediately mount the long flight of stairs down to street level to transfer to a bus. When I was a rookie Paulistano and still green in the ways of commuting, I used to wait on those interminable lines at the subway station for the next bus to take me home. Later, I learned to walk to the next corner, a mere two blocks away, where the choice in bus lines was far greater and the waiting time next to nothing.
Today, I happen to take a bus that I’m not too familiar with, and notice that it turns into a side street I’ve never been on before. Realizing I probably took the wrong conveyance in error I walk up to the cobrador (change-maker) and ask him if the bus goes to Avenida Nova Cantareira. He stares at me for a moment and doesn’t answer.
Equally perplexed, I ask him a second time if the bus goes to Nova Cantareira. He rattles off some incomprehensible riposte, but then I notice a metal sign behind him that indicates this bus definitely does not go to my desired destination. I hurriedly get off and take the next one to the correct stop.
For someone such as myself — born in Brazil, but raised in the good ole U.S.A. — the impenetrable parlance of many of the Nordestinos (people from the Northeast), who populate the greater metropolitan area, both intrigued and exasperated me. But there was more than just their accent at work here. After being away from the country for close to 40 years, the native culture was now as alien to me as that of Afghanistan’s.
As an example, I once went with my wife to the Santana subway station in preparation for a trip to downtown. I decided to make a quick pit stop into the men’s room before venturing forth. It was the first time I had been in a Brazilian public restroom in nearly a quarter century, but I rightly assumed it to be similar (in most respects) to every other restroom I had ever used in my life, so I did not expect much in the way of difficulty.
When I got inside, I was greeted by a long and glistening metallic trough. It was slightly higher than my waist and covered the entire length of the bathroom wall. Not finding any of the usual stalls or urinals I had been accustomed to seeing in the States, I deduced that this must be where the guys did their thing, so I opened up the old fly, stood on my tiptoes, and proceeded to relieve myself.
No sooner had I begun, than a highly indignant subway employee — dressed somewhat like the janitor, I suppose — came over and started yelling at me. He rudely pushed me aside, the action of which led me to inquire as to the reason for his belligerent behavior. I gathered from his loud demeanor that I had committed some grievous faux pas, but couldn’t imagine what it might have been.
Zipping up my trousers, I attempted to explain myself to this hothead. From what I could fathom of the janitor’s shrill reprove, I shouldn’t have been doing what I had just done. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I had urinated in the public sink tank, set aside for the main purpose of washing one’s hands and face.
I beat a hasty retreat from the restroom, flushed with enough vergonha (embarrassment) to light up Jardim França at Christmastime, and ran right into the protective arms of my dear and loving wife — who laughed uncontrollably at my discomfort when I told her what had transpired.
Let this particular incident serve as notice to any-and-all male newcomers to Brazil: when in doubt as to the public rest facilities, make sure you ask around before dipping your paintbrush into an unknown well.
It should also demonstrate to all foreign teachers that you must bring your Portuguese language and culture skills up to an acceptable communicative level, or you will be left by the wayside should a truly serious situation develop that necessitates your total involvement.
Tools of the Teaching Trade
When I finally get home, I take a brisk shower to shake off the effects of the subway and bus ride, but wasn’t really able to relax, not with that HBO video on my mind. After grabbing another bite to eat, I hunker down to commence my laborious transcription.
Wouldn’t you know it, the telephone rings, only this time it’s Flora, apologizing for having wasted my time and asking me to please return the video tomorrow, as she has just learned that it’s not needed after all! Relieved, I graciously thank her and proceed to turn off the computer, television set, and VCR — now I can relax!
Some teachers may be curious as to what tools they might need in order to be set up for the life of a fulltime English-language instructor. Believe it or not, there’s really not all that much involved.
If you plan to teach in-company, you should carry with you a sturdy portable cassette or digital player/recorder, preferably by a reputable maker. Try to avoid those quickie bargain-basement brands found on the benches of so many camelôs (street vendors) scattered around town. They’re not worth the plastic they’re fabricated from. Cassette tapes are relatively cheap in price and can be used to record the sessions for later student playback, or nowadays you can do a digital download.
The cassette/digital player will be most useful for listening activities that accompany your language books. You’ll probably need some pointers on how to develop a decent library of materials, and on which learning aids to buy.
My own experience taught me that the excellent Interchange series of books (Cambridge University Publishers), along with Focus on Grammar, Business Objectives, True Stories in the News, Great Ideas, and other related workbooks are all good for practicing the Communicative Method. The best thing about them is that the teacher’s manuals come with ready-made lesson plans, thus saving you gobs of preparation time.
Where can you purchase these books and player/recorders? A good place to start is Livraria Cultura, located along Avenida Paulista in the Conjunto Nacional building, easily accessible by subway or bus. There are branches of this major bookstore chain in most large urban centers, but all their ware can be ordered online or by telephone. The staff is cordial and knowledgeable, an unbeatable combination in time-is-money-conscious São Paulo.
Another excellent resource for teachers is Special Book Services, or SBS for short. They’re situated on Avenida Casa Verde #463, in the Casa Verde section of the city. As a self-employed language instructor, you can even participate in their program of discounts (anywhere from 5 to 10 percent off) on goods and items bought at any of their branch outlets. They’re not as large a concern as Cultura, but offer a wide variety of teaching aids. And the employees are equally patient and polite, though not as well informed as the people at the Cultura stores.
Teaching at home will require additional implements in the way of whiteboards, laptops, iPads, dictionaries, thesauruses, folders, highlighters, paper, pens, and pencils, in addition to classroom furniture. These can be found in stores specializing in school and office supplies.
One of the best is Unilivros Paulista on Rua São Bento in downtown São Paulo, which caters to students and faculty of most of the well-known institutions of higher learning, including various private schools, colleges and universities. Their materials tend toward the pricier side, but they’re worth the extra cost if you are seriously inclined to making the teaching profession a lifelong endeavor.
For electronic or computer equipment, many of the local department stores are prime candidates for your patronage. Try Casas Bahia, Eletro-Brás, Lojas Pernambucanas, or other similar establishments, readily found in the ubiquitous shopping malls in just about every neighborhood.
Be wary of stores offering a payment plan called parcelado, or monthly installments, as the interest on your original purchase will mount up precipitously; their rates are notoriously high at best, so avoid them like the plague.
As a final wrap-up to this topic, it may be to your best advantage to buy as many of the teaching aids you think you might need before you reach Brazilian shores. Of course, it’s difficult to plan that far forward, or to anticipate your future needs, with regard to the type of students you’ll be teaching; but it could save you big bucks later on and spare you a major portion of your expense outlay, in buying up as many of the learning materials as you can possibly lay your hands on. These items are very expensive in Brazil, due mostly to the unfavorable exchange rates — although they are all supposedly free from import duties and taxes.
Don’t forget to ask for assistance from colleagues, compatriots, friends, acquaintances, relatives, and people you socialize with who are in the teaching profession, especially those with intimate knowledge of the ups-and-downs of the English-language market. You’ll need their expertise, counsel and advice to keep you going when the going gets tough, which it frequently will from time to time — trust me on this.
Have fun, stay healthy, keep smiling, and boa sorte (good luck)!
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes