How I Taught English in Brazil and Survived to Tell the Story: Lesson 3

How I Taught English in Brazil and Survived to Tell the Story: Lesson 3

    Many newcomers to Brazil are completely unaware of the so-called
    service and use hidden
    charges. You will become an expert on
    them, I assure you, once you have been a frequent utility,
    and computer user. Your lifestyle may need to
    be "readjusted" as a result of them as well.



    In the third installment of my series on teaching English in Brazil
    (, I cover some
    of the more practical aspects of the teaching profession, as well as look at the other types of jobs that are available to teachers.

    Weather Patterns: Dress for Success

    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 of my 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 C, or close to
    84o F. 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 forty-five 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 on. 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, and abetted by several delightful glasses of
    bottled water, I went to bed to sleep off my debilitating dehydration. From then on, I religiously set my Sony clock radio-alarm
    to the all-news station and listened closely 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 baldpated 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—right in the middle of our conversation. It was a fairly embarrassing moment for me, to say the least.

    The next time I went out in that sweltering heat, I made certain 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 the big city, I would usually wear 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 normal 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.

    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 erstwhile English teachers. And a few of the
    younger males 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 moustache 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, Ana Helena, used to
    wear a super low-cut blouse over skin-tight stretch pants that left nothing to the imagination. Another friend, Hilda, 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 supersensitive 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 English 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

    As the subway car pulls up to Santana station, I peer out of my window for a speedy 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 crazy. 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 rainstorm.

    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 pour 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 mentioned—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 my trip back home. By the time I reached my apartment, I was the spitting image of a very cold and very wet street
    rat—even with my trusty umbrella.

    Residents of the major cities all face this terrible problem 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 downpours.

    Because of this, teachers are strongly cautioned 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 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 holiday, but you can’t always count on the seasons to obey your carefully
    worked-out schedule.

    Illness can sometimes be the result of too much exposure to bad weather, or too dramatic a fluctuation in the
    temperature, or too many hands shook during an influenza outbreak. Sooner or later, it may even require a 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 or teaching associates can probably guide
    you better along this well-beaten path than I could.

    As a self-employed professional, however, be prepared to pay mile-high premiums for your children and spouse,
    unless your language school has acceptable 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, for your own peace of mind.

    Mid-Morning Utility Break

    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 (where I teach)
    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, Mazzilli.
    Would you please be a dear and help me out of this dilemma?"

    "Sure, Flora," I grunt in acknowledgement. "No problem. 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 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 life.

    As an example of what I mean, transcribing an hour program such as
    Great Chefs of the South 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 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 would go through the roof every time my electronic devices were kept on for longer periods
    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 so-called 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 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 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 that 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 dialogue in its entirety.

    If my noontime student cancels his class that will give me the six hours I need 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 documents are all part-and-parcel of the 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? 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 seem 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 of R$ 240 reais per month (around US$ 100, according to the latest exchange
    rates, and subject to fluctuation), and you will have a much better appreciation for the pitiful wage 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
    variety of English-related tasks or work assignments.

    When cash gets tight, as it always does in 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 teachers.

    I once received a call from a business entity called Save Speed Back Enterprises, Ltd., a private São Paulo-based
    firm that specializes in emergency medical treatment to business people and their families.

    I thought to myself, "What in the world could they want with me?" 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 translation services
    to translate some flyers, brochures, and nursing course descriptions into English.

    This was a lucky break for me, because I really needed the extra money 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
    (translations)—or versões (versions)—of books, brochures, pamphlets, newspaper and magazine articles, business proposals, legal
    contracts, correspondence, letters, memoranda, and other types of 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 language. 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 income simply because of this seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

    After all, that’s what Brazilian wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, relatives, colleagues, and acquaintances are
    for. They can 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

    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 and it’s Vera, a lawyer friend of mine, who dabbles
    as an English teacher on the side.

    Lately, because of the turbulence in the economy, Vera’s law practice has been sliding, so she’s been doing more
    translating and teaching work as financial stopgaps. I take the call, knowing that Vera 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 the 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 Vera while I was attending a gathering of teaching colleagues at a mutual friend’s house. She earned her
    Master’s degree in Linguistics from Pontifícia Universidade Católica (Pontifical Catholic University, or PUC), taught English as
    a Foreign Language at União Cultural, and is currently working on her post-graduate thesis in Comparative Law from
    Sanford University in Birmingham, Alabama. As a non-native speaker, though, there are moments when she is simply unable to
    grasp the inherent subtleties of the English language. At those times, she requires the assistance of a competent legal advisor.

    Since I happened to have a paralegal degree from New York University, I was more than qualified to help Vera 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 Vera’s law studies group, I was even able to teach several courses of my own originality and design, which were
    taught in English (with a smattering of Portuguese), and tailored to the tastes of lawyers, law students, 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 and metallurgy, agriculture and crop science, biotechnology and engineering, Internet and computer
    technology, and marketing and research.

    Take a Card, Any Card

    Your business card can be your entry ticket to many potential teaching opportunities or assignments, both temporary
    and permanent.

    Be sure to have your pertinent contact information (including name, home address, home telephone number, cell
    phone number, pager, email address, and Internet website) 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.

    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 students to remember you by. And have it printed on your business card, too. It can be anything within
    reason that tells your 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—very 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 (i.e. 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 Carnaval time, when most
    companies and their employees seem ready and willing to get down to the serious business of learning English.

    In the fourth and final installment of my
    series, I will complete my discussion about the practical side of teaching, as
    well as talk about the cultural and language problems English teachers may
    encounter from time to time.


    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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