How I Taught English in Brazil And Survived to Tell the Story: Lesson 4

How I Taught English in Brazil 
And Survived to Tell the Story: 
Lesson 4

For someone such as myself—born in Brazil but raised in the
U.S.A.—the impenetrable parlance
of many of the Nordestinos
(people from the Northeast) both intrigues and exasperates me.
being away from Brazil for almost 40 years, the native
culture was now as alien to me as that of Afghanistan’s.


Joe Lopes


In the fourth and final installment of my series about teaching English in Brazil
(, I conclude my discussion regarding the practical side of the profession, and go on to mention 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 at PriceWaterhouse, 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 to Price’s corridors.

"Oi, Sônia, tudo
bem? (Hi Sônia, how are you?) Is Márcio there? I called to confirm our class."

"Márcio is not here, Joe. 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 movie 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 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, Mazzilli, 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, 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 on a receptionist 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 crowds. I 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 relief.

Put It in Writing

The history of the teaching profession is littered with tales of pupils who were either the class pet or on permanent
detention. Indeed, not every student you accept will turn out to be Hermione Granger, or even Harry Potter. 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 "How I Taught English in Brazil: Lesson 2" –

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 student is one of the best ways to do this.

My wife helped me put together a version of my 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-read 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 paper, 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 local businessmen I used to
teach were under the mistaken impression that the written contract was only the beginning of our negotiations—and ergo,
wide-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 parchment—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 distort the finer points of your contract 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
does come to properly defend yourself.

It’s Getting Late

Glancing furtively at the time—an occupational holdover from my Wall Street days—I see that it’s now 12:40 p.m.,
and still no Márcio. I have the receptionist call Sônia, who, I’m told, has just gone out to lunch. I intuitively 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 in yet?"

"Yes, Joe," she replies, "he just called to say that he couldn’t make it to class today. I’m so sorry about that. Sônia
didn’t tell you this?"

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) 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. 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 wait for 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, 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 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 programs. Ah, the good old days! Again, you will learn by experience and decide what is best
for your own particular situation.

Welcome to Chaos

Going back home after not having taught class really irks me, especially since I have yet to get started on this 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 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 conserving
electricity. 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 caught fire. The platform at the Praça da Sé station was filled up in seconds with
passengers from the other arriving and departing subway trains. It was a positively claustrophobic experience that reminded me too
much of New York during rush hour.

Frequent work stoppages and strikes, as well as unplanned delays, demonstrations and detours, are all common
occurrences in the cities, and can happen at most any time. Luckily, I only experienced a few 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 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 bus driver without knowing what exactly was going on.

From my window seat, I could see several
perueiros (private van drivers) staging a 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 suddenly grew more agitated with our bus, and started yelling at the driver
and at various passersby. I decided to leave the bus 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 skin over some dumb disturbance, and I
certainly wasn’t about to risk being without a means to get back, which seemed very likely given the length of time it took to
bring the situation to a semblance of normalcy along Avenida Tiradentes.

When I got home, I tried to contact my student to inform him of the delay and 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 inform 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 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 try to plan on an alternate route 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 is a universally accepted fact of daily urban life, as is crime and violence; in other sleepier towns and villages these problems may not
exist, or be as bad, but there might be other hazards or diversions that take the place of crawling traffic lanes. Keep your eyes
open at all times to avoid any 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 and Cultural Barriers

I get to Santana and immediately mount the long flight of stairs down to street level to transfer to a bus. When I was
a rookie paulistano and still green in the ways of commuting, I used to wait on these interminable queues 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 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, blinks, 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 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 U.S.A.—the impenetrable parlance of many of the
Nordestinos (people from the Northeast) who populate the greater metropolitan area both intrigues and exasperates me. But there
was more than just their accent at work here. After being away from Brazil for almost 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 own 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—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 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 hardhead. 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 hastily retreated 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 happened.

Let this particular incident serve as a notice to any and all male newcomers: 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.

Grand Finale: Tools of the Teaching Trade

When I finally get home, I take a brisk shower to shake off the effects of the subway and bus ride, but wasn’t really
able to relax, not with that HBO movie on my mind. After grabbing another bite to eat, I hunker down with the video 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 HBO movie to PriceWaterhouse 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 teach in-company, you should carry with you a sturdy portable cassette player/recorder, preferably by a
reputable maker. Try to avoid those quickie bargain-basement brands found on the benches of so many
camelôs 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.

The cassette player will be most useful for listening activities that accompany your language books. You’ll probably
need some pointers as to how to develop a decent library of materials and on which learning aids to buy. My own experience
taught me that the Interchange series of books, along with
Focus on Grammar, Business
Objectives, True Stories in the News,
Great Ideas, and any other related workbooks and cassette tapes, 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 tapes? 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 Alameda
Barros, in the Santa Cecília section of the city. As a self-employed language instructor, you can even participate in their
program of discounts (anywhere from 5-10 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 blackboards, whiteboards, chalk, dictionaries,
thesauruses, erasers, folders, highlighters, markers, paper, pens, and pencils, in addition to classroom furniture. These can
be found in stores specializing in school and office appurtenances. One of the best is Unilivros 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 establishment, 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 will teach; but it could save you big bucks later, and spare you a major portion of
your expense outlay, in buying up as many of the books, tapes, learning materials, and videos 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 your colleagues, 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 experience, counsel and advice to keep you going when the going gets tough, which it will
from time to time.

When in doubt, just drop me a note. I’ll be very glad to respond to any questions or concerns you may have about
teaching English as a foreign language in Brazil.

Have fun, stay healthy, keep smiling, and boa


Joe 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 as a foreign language 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 North Carolina
with his family. You can email your comments to 

Copyright © 2003

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