Teaching English as a Foreign Language

‘Sampa’ on My Mind — The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Following Your Dream

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Sao Paulo Skyline
Sao Paulo Skyline

It’s been almost a dozen years since I read an article posted by a journalistic friend of mine, whose name is John Fitzpatrick, about looking for gainful employment in Brazil (“For Job Seekers Brazil Is No El Dorado”).

By sheer coincidence, I, too, had followed a similar career path as outlined in that piece, but with very different results. My experiences of living and working in a foreign land, which I wrote about extensively in a series of blog posts entitled “How I Taught English in Brazil and Survived to Tell the Story,” have hopefully shed some needed light on this much neglected area, one that seems to be perpetually shrouded in mystery and misinformation.

Since so many people have asked me throughout the years how I got into the teaching profession, I decided to give readers a little background history — to fill in the blanks, so to speak — of what brought me to Brazil, and then back again to the USA.

Another reason for my doing this was to relive that eye-opening experience, not so much as a nostalgia trip down memory lane but more in the light of what I subsequently learned about the country and the teaching profession.

To begin with, I’m a naturalized American citizen, born in Brazil, who came to America as a small child back in 1959. I was raised in New York City, attended its public schools, graduated from a private university (several in fact), and worked there for most of my adult life. After many frustrating years in the financial sector, and certainly after the birth of my daughters, I was determined to leave the hustle and bustle of inner-city life to embark on a new career path. And after giving it a lot of thought, I immigrated with my wife and family back to the mother country.

In his original piece, John Fitzpatrick gave some excellent advice about learning Portuguese, which was absolutely essential back then and just as practical today. So let me repeat his sane advice: if you are planning to live anywhere in Brazil, do not expect to subsist on your high-school foreign language skills alone. You will not make yourself understood and, most emphatically, you will offend many Brazilians by attempting to converse in a language that does not pertain to their culture. It is imperative that you have a decent command of Portuguese, or you will be left in the competitive lurch. That means no Spanish, please! English will do, and you will find lots of friendly and curious Brazilians to chat with — but keep in mind that not everybody speaks English. Luckily, I still spoke enough Portuguese to get around, but that’s not always the case.

I left New York for São Paulo (or “Sampa”) in 1996, and spent the next four and a half years living and working in the southern hemisphere’s equivalent of the Big Apple. And believe me, it is a REALLY BIG APPLE! In fact, Sampa was, and continues to be, the largest urban center in all of Latin America! I happened to fit into the category of a professional who went to Brazil with no job prospects and with a spouse and two children in tow. We were luckier than most adventure seekers, because we had my wife’s family to help us during this transition period. In addition, we bought our apartment, out of which I gave lessons in English as a Foreign Language.

I obtained my carteira de trabalho (work permit), permanent residency, and CPF (a document used for financial transactions) without too much trouble — again, I have to underscore the fact that I was luckier than most immigrants in that respect, who, like the general population, are “treated like dirt” by most Brazilian agencies. It’s just an inescapable fact of life there (and in many places in the Third World) that one’s rights get constantly trampled on. So the quicker you get used to poor treatment, the better off you will be. Then again, maybe not…

Before my move, I prepared myself for the transition by spending two years in pursuit of a teaching certificate at the New School for Social Research (now called the New School University) in Manhattan. I was taught by some of the best teachers in the business, people with master’s degrees and PhD’s from such places as NYU, Columbia, Cambridge, and the like. I passed my course work and was highly commended for my efforts by all my teachers. Naturally, one would assume this kind of background, along with my Wall Street experience, would have entitled me to “streets paved with gold” in Sampa. Not so.

The hazards of job hunting and just plain surviving in the Big Abacaxi (“Pineapple”), as I sometimes refer to it, were many. For me, São Paulo was a merciless environment for a novice job seeker such as myself. At the beginning of my teaching career, I had only a few students at home. It was a start, but in no way did it cover our living expenses. So in order to supplement my meager earnings, and to pay for my ever increasing light, phone, gas, energy, food, school, and health insurance bills, I had to seek some type of full-time employment outside of my residence.

This was easier said than done. Although I interviewed for, and obtained entry into, Cultura Inglesa, one of the better-known (and better-run) English language schools in the country, imagine my surprise and dismay when I was told I would have to undergo a two-month training program (unremunerated, of course) — especially after having completed TWO YEARS of training in New York, and at my own personal expense!

Besides the humiliation of having to prove myself all over again, and despite my having a teaching certificate from an accredited North American university, I gamely plugged on. I was even admitted into another teacher training program at the Alumni School in the Morumbi neighborhood. My luck was starting to change for the better, or so I thought.

Teacher for Two Days

Cultura Inglesa banner
Cultura Inglesa banner

Unfortunately, I couldn’t handle the added stress and travel of “training” in two places at once, so I dropped out of Alumni (which was well nigh impossible to get to) and opted to teach at Cultura Inglesa instead. After completing their training program (an excellent one, I must say), I waited a month and a half before I was assigned to a local branch in my own neighborhood. Sounds great, right? No, not really. I was told the hourly wage at the time was a miserable $7 reais an hour (around $5.00 dollars, give or take), with an additional $2 reais for expenses. Now THAT was a shock to the system.

I quickly realized, to my horror, that I had wasted three and a half months of valuable job search time in a fruitless pursuit of permanent employment, and with an entity that was paying paltry starvation wages. I also learned, much to my chagrin, that teachers of English were a dime a dozen in São Paulo, many of them lacking even the most basic teaching skills. So much for advanced planning!

I abruptly left Cultura after only two days of teaching and went looking for other opportunities in the classified pages of the local newspapers. As has been pointed out on previous occasions, São Paulo is not North America (neither is Europe, for that matter) when it comes to finding work through want ads. Networking with relatives, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues is the preferred and more results-oriented method, by far.

Again, I lucked out, and through a want ad in the Estadão newspaper, I was able to secure a teaching/consulting position with a multinational accounting firm in downtown São Paulo. The salary was about $30 reais an hour (around $20 dollars) and I enjoyed the challenge of teaching adult learners rather than inattentive school-age kids. So far, so good!

However, I soon discovered that all good things come to a rapid end. When the Brazilian economy started to sputter and spin out of control in 1998, I lost more students than I had gained; ergo, I was forced to find additional work elsewhere. One soon learns that in Brazil an English teacher never just “teaches.” He or she must adapt to the ever-changing circumstances and seek out odd jobs (called bicos) wherever and whenever they can be found in order to survive.

After heavy word of mouth, I was able to provide translation work for several companies, in addition to doing work for a teaching colleague at Home Box Office (HBO) of Brazil. With that, I got into the subtitling/dubbing sideline, thanks to her, and had even urged my wife to get involved in the work. She took the HBO course, a course that despite numerous guarantees led nowhere because of the recession.

HBO Logo
HBO Logo

In point of fact, the HBO work was scattershot at best. Sometimes, I would get two or three films to work on, other times I would get nothing for weeks on end. When I did get work, I would spend my days, nights, and weekends at the computer terminal, away from family, friends, and relatives, while I was busily involved in the art of transcribing, a prolonged and fairly laborious process. The salary was decent enough, but I still needed to teach to pay the bills, plus I wanted a less ephemeral and time-consuming occupation to deal with.

This was not to be. When the HBO work eventually dried up due to the devaluation of the real and the still stagnant Brazilian economy, I hooked up in 1999 with another colleague who was a full-time lawyer and EFL teacher, and started teaching mini-courses for her students. I would serve as a substitute teacher for when my colleague traveled. I was even able to teach my own courses, which I had developed based on the American legal system — I had been a certified litigation paralegal in the U.S. for several years, which came in handy.

While these courses were reasonably successful as far as student satisfaction was concerned, there was no monetary profit to them. The continued bleak outlook for the economy, the rising crime and unemployment rates, and the loss of more and more of my students due to economic hardships, forced me to face the consequences and my own ever-mounting personal financial problems.

One good thing did come out of all this tribulation: I started to write to occupy my mind. First it was lesson planning — dozens upon dozens of them; next, it was movie reviews, followed by plans to use movies in English language lessons, and so on. Much of the work I did during those testing times were expanded into full-fledged teaching lessons, or better into articles and pieces that, until the present day, I continue to develop into blog posts such as the one you’re reading now.

Before I packed up my belongings and made the move to Brazil, I had already acquired an extensive video, CD, LP record, tape cassette, and movie collection. But it didn’t stop there, because during those long breaks between teaching sessions in Sampa I continued to scour the stores of whatever shopping mall I happened to run across in a constant and never-ending search for new additions to my collection. Again, it was a way of keeping my mind off money troubles.

I also learned more about Brazilian culture and music than I had ever known. When I came back to the U.S., I wanted to express this newfound knowledge in my writings. That’s one of the goals I had set for myself when the decision to return to America was ultimately made. I can say, too, with complete satisfaction, that I had met that goal.

Time to Go Back

Downtown Raleigh, NC
Downtown Raleigh, NC

My decision to return to the U.S., and start afresh in the State of North Carolina, was an extremely painful and heart-rending one, but one I resolutely made with my family in the hope of securing steadier employment and a more secure foothold than I could ever have in Brazil. Our relatives offered to help us through our difficulties, but I could no longer impose upon their generosity. Besides, I had my own children’s future to worry about.

Reluctantly, but with much optimism, we left São Paulo in January 2001. Since then, I have worked for three different companies here, some better and some worse than the ones I worked for in New York. I was even laid off from one of them due to downsizing (welcome to the U.S.A. reality!), but quickly found another position.

North Carolina, and especially the surrounding Research Triangle Park area, is a constantly expanding and vital center of business activity. It is well-known for its medical, pharmaceutical, research, and university facilities as well.

With this in mind, I think my family and I chose wisely. Without a doubt, we are better off today than we were in São Paulo. But as the saying goes, everything is a tradeoff. There is no gain without the pain. If most things are “better,” there is also much that is worse than either New York City or Sampa. It’s that fact of life again, intruding upon one’s dreams. You can’t have it all, no matter what the know-it-alls tell you. Life is difficult wherever you go — I say this not to dissuade anyone from the challenge, but to put things in perspective. I took a chance, and gave it my best shot. Unfortunately, my best was not good enough, but I learned from my mistakes and expect to do better in the long run.

All told, I tried hard to make a go at teaching English in Brazil. But no matter how many new students I found, I would inevitably be forced to look for new ones, or find new opportunities, new lines of work, just to make ends meet. This was the sad, hard, and unmentioned reality of teaching English in Brazil. I don’t mean to discourage aspirants or potential thrill seekers from doing what they love best, but I sure wish I had someone to point these things out to me BEFORE I made the decision to move to São Paulo.

Still, it was a most remarkable learning experience, and one I heartily recommend to young and single persons with the requisite courage, patience, flexibility, and stamina for the teaching lifestyle. If sometime in your life you decide to take the plunge, know that teaching English in Brazil has its own rewards, despite the many downsides of the profession. The work schedule is busy and lengthy enough to test the mettle of only the fittest of teaching souls. That’s part of the fun! But I’m sure you know that.

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

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Learning to Speak Brazinglish

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"Which way to the World Cup?" (Joao Fazenda)
“Which way to the World Cup?” (Art work: Joao Fazenda)

By VANESSA BARBARA

November 8, 2013

Our guest columnist for the month is São Paulo-born Vanessa Barbara. A novelist, translator and columnist for the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo, Vanessa edits the literary website A Hortaliça (www.hortifruti.org). Her article, “Learning to Speak Brazinglish,” is a masterful semi-serious, tongue-in-cheek tome in which she discusses Brazil’s precarious preparations for the upcoming 2014 World Cup.

Brazilians are trying hard to get ready to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Despite having a big territory rich with natural scenery, Brazil is not accustomed to many international visitors. The World Tourism Organization, which ranks tourist spending in different countries, puts it 39th on the list, behind much smaller countries like Lebanon, Croatia and Malaysia. Next year, the government expects tourism spending in Brazil to grow by 55 percent, thanks largely to the World Cup.

But as that time draws near, the general feeling among my compatriots is one of disbelief, as if somebody was expecting to see a turtle fly or explain the Schrödinger equation. The prevailing feeling is captured by the expression “Imagina na Copa …” — Imagine during the Cup — spoken every time we see a 112-mile-long traffic jam, an overcrowded airport or the rising prices of hotels and flights. If things are already bad, imagine what they’ll be like during the World Cup.

Such pre-tournament pessimism is common. Last year the British were skeptical about the Olympics, which turned out to be O.K. So were the South Africans, who, after the last World Cup, celebrated the fact that “Armageddon did not happen,” in the words of the Africa correspondent for The Guardian, David Smith: “No one died. No one was stabbed, no one was kidnapped and no one took a wrong turn into the clutches of a gang of garrotters.”

But Brazilians are especially apocalyptic in our expectations. We belong to a country where corruption costs $28.7 billion to $47.7 billion a year, according to an estimate from the Industrial Federation of São Paulo State; that’s between 1.4 percent and 2.3 percent of the gross domestic product in 2010. We have poor infrastructure and serious social inequity. We worry about violence from drug trafficking and organized crime — last month, one gang from São Paulo threatened to unleash “a World Cup of terror” if the government didn’t agree to its demands.

And yet Brazilians are doing what we can to welcome tourists.
There’s a school teaching English on almost every corner, seeming as common as bakeries, hair salons and evangelical churches. The Brazilian Association of Franchising estimates that there are a total of 6,088 franchises of 77 language schools with names like Wizard, Yes! and Wise Up. Some schools guarantee that a student will learn English in 18 months, six months, eight weeks and, yes, 24 hours. The Ministry of Tourism has created a program to increase access to English classes called Hello, Tourist!

Nevertheless, the Education First English Proficiency Index places Brazil at No. 46 of 54 countries. Even some of the official efforts to further English translations of public signs are clumsy; six months ago, a giant football stadium in Salvador, in northeastern Brazil, opened with exit gates marked “Entrace” — both mislabeled and misspelled. On the streets of the capital, Brasília, a sign pointing to “Setor Hoteleiro Norte” (Northern Hotel Sector) had the translation, “Southern Hotel Sector.”

In the great tradition of Brazilians making fun of ourselves, this set off a fad of nonsensical English translations of Brazilian locations on social networks. One of my favorite translations: “Santos Dumont the True Airplane Inventor and Not The Wright Brothers Avenue” (for Avenida Santos Dumont). More than an effort to communicate, these inside jokes are a way of strengthening our bonds against outsiders.

Shortly before the 2008 Olympic Games, in Beijing, the world was presented with a new language: Chinglish. A blend of Chinese and English, the term was commonly applied to ungrammatical or nonsensical English in local contexts.

One particularity of Chinglish is its straightforwardness, as in examples like: “Deformed man toilet” and “Keep it carefully to avoid gangster.” It’s a way to ignore Western euphemisms when talking about sensitive topics. As Oliver Lutz Radtke, the author of “Chinglish: Found in Translation,” puts it, “Chinglish is right in your face.”

Brazinglish, on the other hand, is very casual and reckless, and often chooses to go literal just to avoid making the effort to explain better. The results are word-by-word translations with an unintelligible (or quite strange) content, sometimes nothing more than playing with sounds. Imagine, for instance, translating “Manhattan” (Man-hat-tan) to “Guy with an embrowning cap, as by exposure to the rays of the sun.”

Some great examples can be seen in restaurant menus. To Americanize some foods, we could write “Barbie Kill Sauce” instead of “Barbecue Sauce.” Trying to explain some typical food to foreigners, we often create nonsensical expression such as: “Meat of the Sun with Friend Potato” (Carne de Sol com Batatas Fritas), “Crazy Meat” (Carne Louca), “Sleeve Juice” (Suco de Manga), “Chicken to the Bird” (Frango à Passarinho) and “Against the Brazilian Steak” (Contra-filé à Brasileira).

Brazilians have also adopted plenty of English words, though we often change the meaning in the process. We have begun using “outdoor” to designate a billboard, and “folder” instead of brochure. Claire Rigby, the editor of Time Out São Paulo, has written about these curious words. “We speak roughly half English and half Portuguese in the office — and then descend into a world of hybrid language,” she writes.

Brazinglish can be poetic, but it’s not nearly so lyrical as Chinglish. Some of the best known phrases in Chinglish are substitutes for a well-known sign in parks: “Little grass has life, please watch your step,” “Show your tender heart by leaving the green leaves untouched” and “Show mercy to the slender grass.”

Brazilians are so nervous about what will happen when tourists descend for the World Cup, we’re practically wishing we could call it all off. Perhaps we can plant a new sign at our stadiums. It would be a perfect translation, and it would be placed in the middle of the soccer field: “Keep off the grass.”

Copyright © 2013 by INTERNATIONAL NEW YORK TIMES

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

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Centro (Downtown) Sao Paulo (hostels247.com)
Centro (Downtown) Sao Paulo (hostels247.com)

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.

“Hello, Sônia?”

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

Sample Contract
Sample Contract

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!

Receptionists await
Receptionists await

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!

Subway delays (raillynews.com)
Subway delays (raillynews.com)

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

"All aboard!"
“All aboard!”

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

Interior of Livraria Cultura on Avenida Paulista (Divulgacao)
Interior of Livraria Cultura on Avenida Paulista (Divulgacao)

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

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

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

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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

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