How I Taught English in Brazil and Survived to Tell the Story – Lesso

        I Taught English in Brazil 
        and Survived to Tell the Story - 
        Lesson 1

If you are a clock-watcher or a nitpicker and want to be an
English 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 flow. The sheer number of vehicles in the
city can have a truly mind-numbing effect on a person’s sanity.
Joe Lopes


a previous Brazzil article (
about teaching English in Brazil, I mentioned some of the inherent problems
and difficulties I had encountered as a teacher while living and working
in the city of São Paulo, between the years 1996 and 2001.

a result of that article, many people have written to me concerning
my previous experiences with the profession, and have expressed curiosity
as to what teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) is really like
there. Because of this interest, I have decided to begin a series of
pieces that will expand upon my original article and delve into greater
detail about the everyday trials and tribulations, as well as the joys
and highpoints of being an English teacher.


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 Brazil for more than just
a cursory tour of its beautiful beaches.

for those few adventurous souls willing to take the academic plunge,
good, reliable information about how to go about it is hard to come
by, and relatively little data are available either in the country 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.

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.

is written in the form of a journal, with additional commentary and
explanations where appropriate, and will be presented in sequential
installments at regular intervals.

Up Call

what time is it?" I mumble to myself, as my Sony desktop clock-radio
alarm sounds. "Oh, it’s five o’clock. AM. 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 AM, so I have plenty of
time to change, shave, eat a quick breakfast, and get my things together
for the trip to downtown.

leaving, I make sure I have my student folders, my pasta (portfolio
or bag), cassette player and tape, course book, teacher’s manual, subway
ticket, and change for the bus. Oh, and I mustn’t forget to take my
identidade (identification card, also called RNE). Teachers can’t
get past a company’s reception or security desk unless they carry around
their photo I.D. card 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.

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).

City Blues: Stats and Facts

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

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.

there are more than 18,000 buses and lotações (private
vans) on the streets at any given time, but only three subway lines
that serve the city’s 12 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, the subway doesn’t always get you to where
you need to go.

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 drivers.

poor driving habits of 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 and wields 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.

older electric buses, which date from the 1950’s, 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, but are as slow as tree sap.

many private vans that dot the city landscape should also be avoided.
Many are illegal, clandestine operations that carry little or 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 altogether.

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—so my principal
mode of transportation was always the bus and subway, as it will probably
be for most teachers.

sheer number and quantity of these conveyances can have a truly mind-numbing
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.

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 English 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 flow.

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

the Wee Small Hours

I leave
my apartment before the crack of six. Since it’s springtime 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 a few commuters around me, which fills me with a shared feeling
of commiserating with my fellow Paulistas. It can be pretty bleak
out here at times, especially when it’s damp and foggy.

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 unremunerated
hour for lunch.

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
AM, then during lunch hour between noon and 2:00 PM, and finally after
the close of business, usually around 6:00-7:30 PM, and sometimes beyond.

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.

teaching in the many established and accredited English language schools
such as Alumni, Berlitz, Cel-Lep, CNA, Cultura Inglesa, Seven, União
Cultural, Yazigi, and 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).

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 for which I lacked the appropriate pedagogical

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.

Up the Competition

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 storeys
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 English 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.

take a look at some of the advantages most of these schools have 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 packages;

* video
and conversational language labs;

* Internet
chat groups, customized websites, and 24-hour customer service lines;

* cassette
recorders, television monitors, VCRs, and DVD players in every classroom;

* erasable
whiteboards, endless streams of school supplies, and other pertinent

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

have the ability and the luxury to recycle the bulk of their revenue
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 why they are constantly hiring new teachers
at the end of each semester. Meanwhile, they charge the students the
highest possible fees for classes. It’s a workable and surprisingly
successful strategy for the schools.

how does a small, lowly, independent private instructor compete against
such deep-pocketed giants?

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 hi-tech hardware and software in the world cannot possibly
fill, then you would have found the winning combination to your success.

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

forget, as big and as rich as some of these language schools appear
to be, they can be as lumbering as dinosaurs in the fast-paced language
learning market. Change for them can come about more slowly than it
can for you.

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.

your imagination. The proverbial sky is the limit here. Teachers who
think quickly on their feet and bounce back from adversity can do well
in the big city.

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. Get the word out you’re looking for students. Word
of mouth spreads fast 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.

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 targeted and organized manner,
and going for it with all your strength and conviction.

for Fun 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 Estadão
newspaper. Coincidentally, the same ad appeared in the Folha de S.
Paulo daily as well.

sending out résumés or answering classified job advertisements
in Brazil are a waste of time, but once in a while an opportunity does
arise for the enterprising individual that appears to be a legitimate
teaching opportunity. 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.

school I worked for was run by Eleonora, 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 in downtown São Paulo.

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 before. 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 peace of mind.

I was a certified EFL teacher, no one ever asked me for my teaching
certificate, not even Eleonora. 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.

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

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

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

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 will enable you to obtain multiple referrals and job leads, which
can sometimes mean the difference between survival or failure in the

may also open up other job prospects, such as translation work, on-the-spot
consulting, interpreting, one-to-one coaching, and 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.

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

sounds so simple, yet you’d be surprised at how many teachers ignore
it, or worse, dive into realms of jobs they are totally unprepared for,
such as voiceover or recording work, only to realize they jumped in
over their heads. Unless you’ve had some relevant experience in a particular
area, go easy upon entering unfamiliar terrain.

the next installment of this series, I will discuss some of the difficulties
teachers face when conducting in-company classes.


Lopes, a naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, was raised
and educated in New York, where he worked for many years in the
financial sector. In 1996, he became a certified English teacher
and moved to Brazil with his Brazilian wife and two daughters. He
returned to the U.S. in January 2001, and now resides in Raleigh,
North Carolina with his family. You can email your comments to



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