Category Archives: Teaching

School’s out for summer

I’ve never been the most assertive person. I had a hard enough time maintaining some semblance of authority when I taught high school math, that had I really stopped to think about it first, the prospect of teaching English to adults would have been pretty daunting. Luckily, after a week of cliff-notes English grammar with Sam, I was thrown into it without any time for reflection. In fact, if memory serves, my deepest reflection at the time was probably the astounding realization that regardless of purported destination, all three 847P buses pass through Vila Madalena, and why the heck did I first need to walk the entire length of Faria Lima to find that out? But I digress…

Ok, so they’re not all perfect—one of my students sent me this picture, ten minutes after class (in Berrini, of course) should have started, saying he couldn’t make it because he had to hang out with his new dog

After I figured out how to get to my classes without first extensively researching and googlemapping each route the night before, I realized maybe the time had come to focus on the content of the classes themselves. Checking in with myself thus, I was disappointed to find I wasn’t doing a very good job. The two-hour long, back-to-back classes every day made it difficult to attain even the oft-cited first year teacher bare minimum of staying a week ahead of the students. Every day I found myself frantically skimming each class’s textbook in the hour ahead of time and mentally sketching out a lesson plan through the book’s various parts. And inevitably on the days I felt least prepared, I would hear a knock at the door 20 minutes before the start of class and in would breeze Rafael or Luciano, so enthusiastically escorting my similarly over-zealous student that it seemed he was instead bringing me the long-lost puppy I didn’t even know I had, never mind had lost. Didn’t my students know they were supposed to be late or not show up at all?! Seriously, why did I have to get the good ones?!

Gaining visitor access for an In Company class

Many seasoned expats caution against the mentality that just because you speak English you can teach it. While I never questioned them for a second—I have enough experience teaching to know that being an effective educator is challenging enough even without trying to teach material you yourself never actually learned—but I will admit to just a teensy bit of hubris. I’ve always liked writing and even presenting. I particularly enjoy the challenge of exploring different ways of framing or, in the case of editing, reframing an idea. Add to this a little bit of teaching experience, and I thought maybe, just maybe, I would have an easier go of it than those other hapless expats. And yet, there I was, on one of my last days of classes, facing my waterloo: an extremely confident middle-aged man questioning me publically on a grammar point about which I was not absolutely confident. I tried to answer him assertively, but my confidence began to waver as he tapped away, consulting his smartphone. “I mean. Maybe, it’s different in England?” I concluded, backpedaling.

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The five people you meet in TEFL

Yes, folks, that’s Avril Lavigne in your English textbook

The first story isn’t really mine to tell. I am not TEFL-certified to teach English even though Sam’s school technically requires it. From what Sam was saying, however, TEFL classes and English teaching abroad attract some real whackos with weird stories. This makes sense; the certification process is quick, there is often very little teacher accountability, and you can do it on the side to illegally earn money while fully committing to partying your face off. Sam said the school has tried out several teachers who she was afraid to leave alone in the classroom—it’s good to know I’ve edged out some fierce competition! Her strangest story though was about a man who, though too scary to leave alone in a classroom with students, was helping the school/company with some Portuguese to English translations. When Sam didn’t hear from him a week after a translation was due, she started to wonder what had happened. If nothing else, he had been successfully meeting his deadlines. Unable to contact the man, Sam ended up doing the translation herself before finding out weeks later that the man had been stabbed to death by his girlfriend.

I am sorry to report though that the teachers I’ve met here have been disappointingly normal. Maybe this is because there are only three of us at Sam’s school, and the Callan school has predominantly Brazilian teachers who are using it as their after-school job. In fact, with the exception of Joao, from Portugal, almost all of the international teachers at the Callan school live here because of a Brazilian significant other. Actually, Joao might be here for a Brazilian SO too; it’s just that no one’s ever bothered to find out. They’re too busy poking fun at his Portuguese: “did you understand what Joao said, Cat? No? That’s ok, no one can understand what he’s saying. He speaks totally wrong.”

Sam (in back) with her/our students and their English souvenir

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Mama said there’d be days like this

A few weeks ago, Stela made the apt observation that my blog doesn’t include much of “o ruim” with “o bom.” And it’s true that I have been focusing almost exclusively on the good parts of life here when of course I’ve certainly had my fair share of frustration and loneliness. I knew going into this experience, however, that I would have to keep a positive attitude, be open to new experiences and making lots of mistakes (apparently I just ordered hard-boiled eggs—the only kind of eggs I don’t like), and most of all, cede control over a number the things in my life. This last may have been the easiest, since, as my dad would put it, in my PhD program, there was a train going and, when I left, I hadn’t been conducting it for a long time. Overall, my frustrations here have not necessarily been specific to Brazil either but more to things that could happen anywhere or in any major city. Still, without further ado, in honor of my first month here, Stela, here are my personal ups and downs of life in Sao Paulo.

O Bom

The people here are the friendliest you’ll ever meet, especially in a city with 20 million busy, hardworking people. Every single person I have stopped in the street for directions has patiently tried to understand my Portuguese and to give me directions at a pace I can understand. Bus drivers are happy to tell me when we’re approaching my stop. In fact, any time I try to surreptitiously open a map on a bus, someone nearby will ask me if I need help. Whether I’m walking down the street or waiting for my pupils on the 20th floor of an office building, everyone who walks by will smile at me and the secretary and anyone else who happens to be in the vicinity, saying, “Bom dia! Tudo bem?” This is in stark contrast with most cities, where people think I’m strange for smiling, never mind saying “good morning” to people I don’t know.

Maisa and Tammy in Parque Villa-Lobos

That people in general are extremely friendly here does not take away from the fact that I am incredibly lucky to have the friends I have here. My roommates are always checking in on me to make sure things are ok and that I don’t need anything. When my credit card was cloned two weeks in (at this point I’m thinking Wellsfargo doesn’t know how to find Brazil…), they offered to chip in so that I wouldn’t have money problems. When my roommates went to their hometown to vote last weekend, they invited me to come along. I of course know many very kind and thoughtful Americans as well, but we, as a people, tend to be less immediately open and trusting and warm with new people. Heck, I still haven’t figured out a great way to pay Maisa and Bruna rent (I will!!!), but they were offering to lend me money!

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The first rule of Callan method

Michele’s school is very international!

The first rule of the Callan method is to buy into the Callan method. However, when I watched the Callan videos Michele sent me before I started, I was highly skeptical. There is no creativity, no freedom of thought or personality. How can students learn English this way, never mind possibly enjoy class? Clearly employing this method was going to be a serious challenge for me. Still, I liked Michele, the owner of the school, and the prospect of starting a job immediately was pretty appealing. Plus, really, what do I know about teaching or learning a language; I keep starting new ones before mastering the old. And furthermore, there was just something comforting that first day about walking into the school’s office with it’s team of friendly teachers and office assistants, its appealing decorations and the familiar admonishment to “leave the area better than you found it”—of course at that point, it also possible I was just relieved to have internet access…

And my impression of the Callan method changed on my one day of training. After going through the lesson structure and idealogy, Michele used the Callan method to give me a mini Portuguese lesson, and I was shocked to find that, perhaps I’m just devoid of all original thought, but, for me, it was actually kinda fun! Even though it seems silly and almost condescending, trying to keep up with the teacher is like a game, and with the constant inevitability of being cold-called in a class size of, at most, six students, you certainly never run the risk of falling asleep!

From observing other teachers’ classes I have also learned that it is altogether possible for a student to show personality and even share opinions. Callan takes no prisoners in terms of asking personal, sometimes even intrusive questions, and I’ve been surprised by how much the simple questions can reveal about a student as well as Brazilian culture. For example, in a beginning stage, there is a line of questioning about “your mother’s name; your father’s name; your father’s wife’s name; and so on.” and several times it has become apparent that Dad has divorced Mom for a co-worker or secretary. After an awkward pause, we usually continue rapidly through the lesson. My cultural education on many topics, such as politics, is far from dependent on my Callan method students, but it was still interesting to hear a student respond to a guided question that he thinks politicians from other countries are better and that politicians in Brazil are bad because they do not account for the money they spend. A very simple Callan method question was capable of eliciting a student response that accurately represents the widespread feeling of political disillusionment.

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From 9 to 5 (and then some)

Living in Brazil on a tourist visa doesn’t leave many “viable” options for work, but of course with jeitinho, there’s always a way. Most Americans work under the table as either English teachers or nannies. Luckily for me, although less so for my younger brother, I’ve always been a teacher. In first grade William was forced to do third grade math. In second, he was learning NH history and state symbols in strict accord with the state 4th grade social studies learning standards. Actually, as my mom reminded me, if he hadn’t scheduled “recess” so often, he probably would have finished calculus by 10th grade instead of 11th (slacker)! Although English was probably my favorite subject in middle school, my high school teachers piqued my interest in math and science, and, aside from the occasional informal edit for a friend, my love of writing and English has, since then, been indefinitely set aside.

While teaching English as a foreign language is certainly different from my childhood goal of teaching middle school “Language Arts” (“Isn’t LA a city?” my dad would ask. “Why can’t the school in this town just call it English like everywhere else?”), it has been an interesting opportunity to revisit the idea, and I feel somewhat better-equipped than a lot of expats who move here and just need any job to survive in an extremely expensive city. Also, after working in the lab, mashing up and culturing mouse/bird spleens almost every day for the past 5 years, I’m realizing how much I miss working with students, trying to see the material through their eyes, sharing their excitement when something clicks, and helping them work through their frustration when it doesn’t.

About a month ago, I responded to a posting on an expat social network forum searching for native speakers to teach English. Based on the information I gleaned from my perusal of Brazil expat blogs, I didn’t really expect to receive a response to my e-mail inquiry since most schools apparently prefer to meet potential teachers in person. I was therefore IMG_1879surprised when Michele’s request for a skype interview showed up in my inbox the following day. Despite my distance from Sampa at the time and my lack of English teaching experience, Michele seemed excited both that I speak American English (yes, I do have mad skillz), and that I have some experience with and am passionate about teaching and therefore, unlike many expats, would not just be doing it to make money. She said it’s tough on both the school and the students when expats on tourist visas leave after working for three months, and maybe I could try to get married to a Brazilian so I might qualify for a permanent visa? Aside from making me feel uncomfortable for the obvious personal reasons, these words also made me feel guilty, because teaching English is not my dream, and I’m still hoping to slide over to teaching science or math at an international school.

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