How I Taught English in Brazil And Survived to Tell the Story: Lesson 2

How I Taught English in Brazil 
And Survived to Tell the Story: 
Lesson 2

    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 is best translated as the ability to
    overcome seemingly
    insurmountable odds by "thinking outside the box."


    Joe Lopes


    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, 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, and all
    of them spew 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 can handle at 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 forego 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, 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, and sometimes more. You may find that your classes are somewhat longer when you teach at a
    corporation—the average duration is an hour and a half—than when you have them at home. In that case, add on an extra
    thirty 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
    1st 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. 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 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
    be aware, is in perpetual flux. For now, things have stabilized somewhat and the currency under the Lula
    presidency has recovered a little of its former buying power. But like most things in Brazil, the leading economic indicators
    cannot 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 early
    1998, 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 1998-99. 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 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 students 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 a 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: to take time off to recharge one’s
    batteries, and to be compensated for it.

    On the flip side, there are federal, state and municipal employees who have not had any adjustments to
    their wages in almost a decade. Unemployment in the country, especially in São Paulo and the other large cities,
    remains cripplingly high. There will be plenty of student cancellations for you to deal with—and many of them
    permanently—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 Lúcia 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 another minute or two, a few stragglers finally come forth to fill up the classroom, which is really more of a
    conference area.

    It’s been a veritable battle around here to find a decent place to hold a class. Recent remodeling and
    expansion at PriceWaterhouse have displaced the only remaining offices available for teaching purposes. This means that
    there are days when I have to play a regular round of Russian roulette 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 Mila, one of my students, an office miraculously materializes on another
    floor, only now we’re down to sixty of the original ninety minutes allotted for teaching. 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. Mila runs off down the hall to fetch the key.

    After what seems an eternity she returns with the
    bombeiro (fire marshal), who fumbles for a few minutes
    with the keys on his gigantic 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 very interested in
    class work. We decide, instead, to spend the next fifteen minutes talking about the weekend, the current political
    climate, the latest films to hit the local cinema, and other topical subjects before moving on to the lesson. As this is an
    intermediate class, we’re able to discuss a much wider variety 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, Alessandra, an 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 would put down on their timesheets 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 of 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 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 a 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 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
    corporate shuffle." Acquiring and mastering this enviable technique can definitely help to smooth over some of life’s more
    effortful patches when they occur.

    Even still, it cannot be considered a perfect solution to this most perplexing problem, a classic 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 private
    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 nibble of that delicious French bread.

    Coffee class, as I came to call it, 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 lips; 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 you 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 spare change. Be sure not to overlook it.

    And be cognizant of your surroundings. Looking for a place to sit near a Praça da República, an Avenida
    São João, or a 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-bye, gang," I tell them, over the din of morning greetings and bits of hallway conversation, "and see
    you on Wednesday. Oops, I almost forgot. Please sign the attendance sheet on your way out. Thanks a lot."

    "Bye, Joe, see you later," they intone in unison.

    Most of the students I taught in-company were pleasant, eager, and unfailingly polite, and many were 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 poorer 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 corporate-class conscious Brazil. They can manifest themselves in both intricate
    and disarming ways, such as, in how your students speak, dress 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 and 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 could 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
    students begin to express blatantly belittling opinions of their working-class brethren, while other less stable members
    exhibit definite paranoid-schizophrenic tendencies.

    One of my students, Tânia, was a manager who loved to take up class time with her personal pet peeves,
    and force everyone to look at her huge album of photographs from her many European trips. Another manager,
    Letícia, was absolutely convinced her superiors were watching her every move, and was in a perpetual frazzle over
    some callous complaint the senior partner had made about her work. One time she broke down in abject resignation
    and tears 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 young auditor of
    about 30, he missed over half of 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, though, 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 to doing their homework. They are much too busy
    worrying about their careers to be able to keep up with lessons. 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 back, opening his mouth widely, and emitting a long, protracted and
    very loud 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 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; and that if he continued to gape in that animalistic fashion, she would
    personally escort him from the room.

    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 Luiz Antonio, who promptly quit coming to her class soon after that
    exchange, and then went so far as to file a formal complaint with the head of the language school against my colleague.

    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 them back to the main
    reason why they are taking class in the first place: to learn English, not to receive ad hoc psychoanalysis or handholding.

    In the third installment of this series, I will look at some of the more practical aspects of the profession, as
    well as review the other types of jobs that are available to English teachers.


    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 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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