Tag Archives: English

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 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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