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Teaching English in Brazil (by Henrick Oprea)

Brazil is a wonderful country, well known for its hospitable inhabitants, samba, its amazing football squad, and a couple of other traits which make it a great place to spend your vacations in. Most foreigners I’ve talked to would like to visit Rio de Janeiro or the Northeast of the country, famous for its beaches. I’m not fortunate to teach in any of these cities, or anywhere near the beach. I live in Brasília, the capital of Brazil, which is located in the centre of the country. Just so you know, if I want to go to the beach, I need to travel more than 1.000 kilometres. It’s a country with continental dimensions, and being a language teacher in such a place can be difficult at times. But, what do I mean by that?

Before I get to that point, I should tell you about the two mainstream ways of English language teaching in Brasília: in regular schools and in language institutes. In a Brazilian regular school, teachers face 45 – 50 students sitting in orderly rows waiting for your lecture. Not very communicative, huh?! As a matter of fact, many English teachers in regular schools here can’t speak the language they teach. The language is taught in Brazilian Portuguese, and the focus is on grammar and superficial reading comprehension. In addition to that, many of the students study English at language institutes, so the teacher ends up having students from all different levels in the same classroom, from those who have never studied English in the classroom to those who are proficient speakers, and this teacher has to teach them “all” about the verb BE. Been there, done that.

Language institutes abound in Brasília. You can find a language institute everywhere you look, and the fact that language institutes fall under the same classification of knitting lessons, or craftsmanship courses means that they are not considered education – at least not by the Ministry of Education. Consequently, you can find language institutes that claim to teach all there’s to be taught in as few as 8 months, and others that say it’ll take you 8 years to finish your studies. Hence, an English language teacher can pretty much pick and choose where and with what methodology he or she wants to work. I’d rather tell you a bit about my current situation.

I’ve taught in regular schools and in quite a few language institutes, and I currently run my own language institute. Just like many other language institutes in Brasília, our classrooms are much smaller – about 15 students per class, and the goal of the course is to enable learners to effectively function in English. All skills are integrated, and students are encouraged to use the language productively rather than just being able to understand it. In terms of professional development, teachers from many of the language institutes are usually interested in professional growth, and even though Brasília isn’t usually the venue for major conferences, few seminars are held from time to time. Some publishers also fly in some important people from the world of ELT, but that doesn’t happen as often as it does in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. But this is enough about the context, I suppose.

Coming back to the question I asked in the introduction, teaching English in a country as big as Brazil, and one in which you can travel for more than 2.000 kilometres without having to speak another language has its drawbacks, and the one of these is showing people the real importance of learning at least one foreign language (perhaps the hardest thing teachers have to do). Even after the advent of the Internet and everything that globalization has brought about, many students still fail to see the usefulness of English in their lives (and being able to drive for two days without having to speak another language seems to make a strong case for those who think learning a foreign language is irrelevant). It’s not uncommon for parents to talk to teachers and ask for help in convincing their kids that learning English is important to their future. However, many of these parents are not truly convinced of its importance either.

To our advantage, most well-off teenagers are online all the time, and because of that they are in touch with English all the time. This means you can try to show them the reality of English as a lingua franca by making use of their own reality. You can show them that they’ll need English to play the latest videogame, to read an online article or to get in touch with their friends from abroad. Lots and lots of arguments, but isn’t this the same thing that our parents used to tell us? Have we forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager and all you want is being part of your own tribe. A student of mine once told me he wouldn’t even care about learning how to use twitter, or how to blog, for instance, simply because his friends were not into it. As for the videogames, it seems they’d rather talk to one another and get to the next level through trial and error than try to understand what is written on the screen. It actually reminds me a bit of what adults do with manuals.

I’m sure the situation I described isn’t unique to my teaching situation. And even though there are difficulties, this is what teachers do: we overcome difficulties, we try to find innovative ways to engage our learners and to make sure we’re trying our best to prepare them for life. Teaching English in Brazil, in most cases, requires a good deal of creativity and willpower. But it’s all worth it when you see your students progressing and telling you they can now understand what the people in movies and songs are saying – their main sources of “interaction” with the target language.

Henrick Oprea is a teacher, teacher trainer and Director of studies at Atlantic Idiomas, Brasília, Brazil. He’s been teaching English for about 13 years and is currently taking his MA in TEFL/TESL from the University of Birmingham. As any good Brazilian, he’s a football fan and supports Vasco da Gama, the best football team in the world (or so he thinks). He’s also a blogger and you can read his thoughts on his blog. You can also find him on twitter.

* A million thanks to Barbara, for inviting me to write this guest post. It is my very first one.

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32 Comments

  1. Barbara says:

    Thanks, Henrick, for sharing about your experiences in Brazil! It’s easy to forget just how massive a country you have.

    Sounds like foreign language teachers in Brazil have the same problem as foreign language teachers in the US–convincing students that a second language will improve their lives. I guess that’s actually a problem for many of us, even in smaller countries. Even in Japan, while most students say that they believe it’s important to learn a second language (for travel, for example) they actually get along OK with Japanese. They go on tours with other Japanese tourists, and know that shopkeepers in tourist areas will speak at least rudimentary Japanese.

    One of my personal regrets is that I missed out on visiting Brazil for a series of teaching workshops (through OUP) because of moving back to Japan. I remember being quite surprised when the organizers told me I’d best plan on allowing 2 weeks for the tour, simply because it would take that long to travel around Brazil. I hope I get another chance to visit one day!

    1. Hi Barbara,

      You should definitely come to Brazil if you have the chance again. And if you come to Brasília, perhaps we can meet in person.

      Isn’t it astounding that some people still fail to see the benefits and the importance of learning a second language? I guess it only hits us when we miss an opportunity on account of the lack of knowledge of a second language.

      Thanks once again,

      Henrick

      1. Barbara says:

        I’ll keep my fingers crossed! Now that I’ve met quite a few teachers from South America, I’d be even more excited to visit!

  2. Marisa Pavan says:

    Dear Henrick,

    What you have described that happens in Brazil is similar to what happens in my country, Argentina. And we deal with your same difficulties.
    It’s our passion for teaching the language what helps us in the struggle.
    Regards,
    Marisa

    1. Hi Marisa,

      I couldn’t agree more. Real teachers are passionate about what they do. If it weren’t for that, we wouldn’t be in the profession for long.

      Cheers,

      Henrick

  3. Julie Manczenko says:

    Well, if you believe few seminars are held in BsB, you should see how it goes here in Rio. I’ve been to two in the past year and not because I did not have time but because there were only two! If you check the regular seminar calendar you will see Rio is not the regular route. It makes me wonder…

    1. Hi Julie,

      First of all, great to hear from you again! :)
      I’m really shocked to hear that. From all the calendars of events I get from bookstores (SBS and Disal) and publishers, I always see places like Rio, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre as the main venues for events. Gee, thanks for the update. That’s also made me wonder…

  4. Ivan Crespo says:

    Hi Henrick.

    I’m also an English School owner in Brazil and I completely understand what you’re talking about. The language taught in regular schools in Brazil is not an actual language, like you said, it’s just grammatical structures and a bit of reading. In my opinion, the biggest problem is, this kind of teaching does not motivate ss to go further. They feel blocked to learn real English, and give up in the middle of the studies.

    It’s said, but that’s our reality. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    Take Care,

    Ivan

    1. Hi Ivan,

      I second that. Students may certainly get the wrong impression of what studying a foreign language is like in a more holistic way. How long will it be until things change? Personally, I don’t think the current system will endure much longer. Hopefully, parents and children will put some pressure on schools to change the way English is taught. I’ve always had problems with the fact that kids study English in a regular school for about 7 years and still can’t take part in a conversation.

      Thanks for your comments.

      Cheers,

      Henrick

  5. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by theteacherjames: RT @ShellTerrell: Teaching English in Brazil (by Henrick Oprea) http://bit.ly/cpzwtm via @barbsaka…

  6. Nice post Henrick, and very well observed in terms of how some teens and young adults are very online-oriented, and others just seem to live in their own little clique which seems removed from those media we would expect them to inhabit.

    One thing which might be motivational to students in your class is to find interviews — in English — of Brazilian superstars living abroad from the worlds of football or Formula One, and show students how you can’t really consider yourself a “modern, international Brazilian” unless you can communicate in English like Kaka, Ronaldinho, or Rubens Barrichello. Anyway, it’s a fascinating country; and I really look forward to visiting it for the first time when I come to speak at the BRAZ-TESOL conference in July. Will you be there?

    1. Hi Paul,

      Thank you for the comments. I do believe we’re living a transition age in which technology is still too intrusive to be used by all, but already very user-friendly and accessible for many people to want to make use of new gadgets and online tools more often. Tough place to be in, I’d say.

      Thank you for your suggestion! I’ll definitely have a go at using such videos with my students. It certainly is a way to have more people interested and motivated to learn the language.

      Unfortunately, I’m still not sure whether I’ll be going to São Paulo for the BRAZ-TESOL conference. We’re opening a new branch in Brasília and this means I’ll be having to much work too do in the middle of the year. But if I do go (and I really want to), I’ll definitely look you up. Oh, and if by any chance you come to Brasília any time, I can arrange to show you around. There are some interesting sights to see, and some delicious food and drinks to try. :)

  7. Risa Garcia says:

    Henrick .. I just stumbled upon this site .. and happily so. I have just received my TESOL/TEFL certification and plan to be in Brasil before the end of the year. I have read so many negative things .. which I did not let deter me .. and am happy to see something much more positive. Students seem to be the same everywhere! MUITO OBRIGADA!

    1. Hi Risa,

      Yes, apparently students will always be students. If teachers understand this, it’ll be so much simpler to walk into the classroom and teach them a lesson (no puns intended). :)
      Where exactly in Brasil (I liked it that you used the S and not the Z) are you coming?
      And on a more personal note: De nada! Fico feliz que tenha te ajudado! If you feel like talking about Brasil, do not hesitate to get in touch. :)

  8. Hello Henrick!

    Great post which reminded to all of us how similar students’ mentality is worldwide! I am an EFL teacher in Greece and I can see that a great many aspects of EFL teaching in Brazil are identical to the situation in Greece: here, it is equally hard to convince students about the benefits of learning the international language of communication (recession makes it even harder since it seems to intimidate teenagers a lot more). Add to that the variety of levels existing in a single state schools’ class and you can imagine what teachers in private schools, like me, have to face as soon as a troubled teeanager steps in te classroom! ‘Difficult’ students are not always the case, of course, so we could say that they are the ‘spice’ of our lesson! :)

    It was nice having the chance to read what is going on in a country so far away from mine and realizing once again how similar we can all be! A big thanks to you and Barbara for that!

    Christina

    1. Hi Christina,

      I guess the song is right, huh?! Its a small world after all! :)

      I’ll reply likewise. It’s comforting to see we’re not stranded on a desert island when it comes to teenagers interests and initial intrinsic motivation. Fortunately, as they progress and realise they can actually learn, their interest grows.

      Thank you for sharing a bit about another aspect of the recession – we only get to hear the political / economical things in Brazil, and it’s easy to misinterpret or fail to assess all the intricacies of the situation.

      And you definitely nailed it when you said ‘difficult’ students are the spice of our lessons! I couldn’t agree more!

      Thanks for your comments.

      Henrick

  9. Hi Henrick,
    This is a very accurate description of what our language education is like. Congratulations on that! Although you focused on Brasília, São Paulo is not very different from that, people think in SP things are a lot better, but they’re not.

    You raised a very important issue when you mention how language institutes are overlooked by the Ministry of Education. This not only creates a huge gap between institutes as you mentioned, but also between teachers. It’s embarrasing that we still accept illegal native-speakers immigrants without zero knowledge of language pedagogy to teach English here, just because they “know” the language. There should be a stricter control I believe, and also more incentives for Brazilians to become better teachers.

    I’ve written a piece about how it is in Sao Paulo, http://tiny.cc/fmliy. I’m not proud of what I wrote there but that’s how I saw it from where I stand.

    Teaching is a lonely profession that relies too much on intrinsic motivation, that’s somehow harmful in the long run. But we’re strong! : )

    1. Hi Willy,

      Thanks for your comment. Im not sure whether it’s comforting or not to hear that what’s true in Brasília is also true in São Paulo.

      I do believe that the fact that the Ministry of Education overlooks the situation of language institutes plays a major role in what happens in our country. If, as you weel pointed out, control were stricter, we probably wouldn’t be seeing the situation going down the drain. And to think I’ve had a conversation with a fellow teacher (who happened to be a native speaker) about 8 years ago in which he expressed his concern about the quality and the level of the English language that we would wind up having in Brazil. What he said was that Brazilians would soon start speaking poor English if nothing was done, and I do agree with him. It’s increasingly harder to find teachers already.

      And I also agree with your last thought. We’re strong. And true educators are in this because of the bigger picture – we know we make a difference in people’s lives, which is why we don’t give up and try to change things.

      Cheers,

      Henrick

  10. […] to the Village since that post, so I guess I can at least include my thanks to them. Thank you Henrick Oprea, Melania Paduraru, Kathy Kampa Vilina and Chuck […]

  11. Brendan says:

    Hi Henrick,

    I came across your very informative piece while searching for infomation about teaching English in Brazil. I also very much enjoyed reading your blog at your site and it is clear that with your background you would be able to offer some excellent advice.
    I would very much like to teach EFL at the university level in Brazil. I have been teaching EFL as a tenured faculty member at a university in Taiwan for the last 16 years. I’ve found that it’s really difficult to get accurate and up-to-date information about comparable jobs in Brazil; in fact, I’ve yet to come across any such job openings since coming back.

    In any event, I was wondering if you could possibly provide some answers to a few questions I have.

    I have heard that it’s difficult for foreigners to get university teaching jobs, especially someone with only a M.A. Do you have any information about this? How about colleges? Do you know if there would be any opportunities for someone with my background at a college or even high school?
    Anything you can tell me would be greatly appreciated. And if you know any people who you think would be good for me to talk to please let me know.

    Thank you very much for your attention to my questions. I look forward to hearing from you.

    Sincerely,

    Brendan

    1. Hi Brendan,

      I guess it’s not going to be that easy for me to help you out, unfortunately. I know that in order for you to get a position in a federal university you need to pass an examination. I remember I had two teachers from abroad when I was at University – one from Wales and another one from the USA. It is possible, though, for Brazilians to get a job at a University with just an MA.

      There are also many private owned colleges that have their own rules when it comes to recruitment. That, I think, will have to go on an individual basis. One thing you have to have, though, is a VISA or a work permit before anything else.

      It’s also possible for you to look for jobs in private schools, but I think this will be slightly harder. Most schools teach using the Grammar Translation “method”, and classes are taught in L1 – not usually easy for NNESTs.

      Finally, there’s also the private language institutes. Even though lots of them aren’t serious places and I’m pretty sure some places might even hire you regardless of a work permit, there are some serious institutions that will certainly value a teacher with an MA and the experience you have.

      I’ll try to get in touch with some people I know to see if I can get further information for you. If you have any more queries, feel free to post that on my blog.

      Cheers,

      Henrick

  12. Nicola says:

    Dear Henrick,

    Your post is both interesting and inspiring – I am glad I cam across this link, if only by chance! I, similarly to Brendan (but on a much smaller scale), have been teaching English in a school in Taiwan for the last year. I have recently, however, begun looking into teaching roles in Brazil – I am hoping to arrive in Feb 2011, as I am keen to see some more of this wonderful world.

    I am hoping to base myself in Rio. I was hoping you might have some general advice though? I am a 22-year-old female, and after reading up on Brazil I can’t help but feel a little nervous about how things might be a different from East Asia. In your opinion, how easy will I find it to land work in Brazil once I arrive, and is safety likely to be an issue?

    Your advice would be much appreciated. Many thanks.

  13. […] Teaching English in Brazil (by Henrick Oprea) […]

  14. David says:

    Hi Henrick,

    I found your post, as well as many of the replies left by readers, to be both insightful and useful.

    I am an English/History trained teacher living and teaching in Sydney, Australia, with a Masters in Teaching from the University of Sydney (a prestigious university…in case it would make a difference in making me more employable). I plan on moving to Brazil to live with my girlfriend in Curitiba in early December, and hopefully am able to find a job teaching English early 2010. I have a few questions regarding my situation, and I’m sure you will be able to help me.

    1. Having an advanced degree in English and teaching (masters, 5-year trained), what would be the more appropriate and beneficial area of education for me to apply my efforts in finding a job? You mentioned two main streams – the public school system, and language institutes. What would be an appropriate place to start looking?

    2. What about private schools or the equivalent? I have heard (I seem to be ‘hearing’ a lot, and not getting many definitive answers) that American businessmen based in Brazil move their families to Brazil to be closer to them, and that there are schools more or less designed to cater specifically for this demographic. Is there any validity to this?

    3. To teach in either of the two main education streams (schools and institutes), and given my training as mentioned earlier, are there any other qualifications that I will need to teach English? If so, what are they?

    4. I plan on teaching in Curitiba. Are there any contacts that you have there that would be interested in my skill-set?

    Thanks for your time, Henrick. If there is any thing else outside of my queries that you think I would benefit from knowing, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

    Regards,

    David

  15. Jeff says:

    Thanks for the great article Henrick. I have been teaching English at a large public school in Thailand for 2 years, 12 to 18 year olds, 50 kids per class. It’s chaotic but I really enjoy it. For me one of the more difficult aspects is deciding which kids in a class I should focus on. Do I help the 5 kids who need the most help but are the least likely to ever use English in their lives, or do I focus on the 5 outstanding kids who are really motivated and obviously study English on their own and possibly don’t need my help because they are obviously on a life long path of learning, or do I teach to the 40 kids in the middle who seem a bit ambivalent but will probably use English in varying degrees in their interactions with tourism, technology and media? I suppose I go back and forth but this problem gnaws at me daily…
    I’ve just recently started looking at online articles about teaching in Brazil and yours is the first one to mention teaching at a regular school with large classes. I imagine such opportunities exist in Rio and Sao Paulo, as well, but the focus seems to be on large and small language schools and private lessons…I have some friends in Rio and I’d like to teach at a regular shool there…
    Thanks again for the info.

  16. What a fascinating description!
    Hadn’t really given much thought to the advantage of living in such a small country where you can’t much of anywhere at all without needing English!

  17. Debora says:

    Hi Henrick,
    I just read your post and everyone’s comments. I’m so encouraged that I might have a way to connect with others in Brasil who are teaching English.

    I have been a university librarian in the U.S. for over 30 years and am taking early retirement and moving to Curitiba with my husband in a couple of weeks. I was born to American parents in Sao Paulo and grew up going to Brazilian schools while being home schooled by my mom (before homeschooling was all the rage) who used the Calvert Correspondence Course for our lessons in English (I am the oldest of 5 children, so my mom had quite a challenge keeping us all on track with English/American schooling early on.) So, in my younger years I was literally “in school” from 7 in the morning until 5pm everyday. Later we came to the States for my 9th grade (high school) and when we went back to Brasil, I finished high school at the American school (Graded) in Sao Paulo. Then at the age of 18, I came back to the States to go to college. I got a Bachelor’s degree in Education with a Spanish and a Library Science concentration. Upon graduation, I taught middle school Spanish and was the school’s librarian. I decided I didn’t like teaching–at least not those particular kids, in a rural community. I then moved back close to where my parents were (they had now returned to the States for a one year furlough, and I applied for a Civil Service job in a University Library. At that library I thrived doing library work and met my mentor who encouraged me to get my master’s degree in library science. Upon completing my master’s in Library Science I went on to be a university librarian at a number of universities and colleges. I am now taking early retirement from my last appointment, which has lasted 14 years in Florida. My husband is retired and has long wanted to move to Brasil, so, we are taking the plunge. I have gotten TESOL certification and I retire from my university library faculty position on Friday of next week. We are moving to Curitiba, having made several trips there over the last few years and are getting very excited about the prospects. Without any instigation on my part, the young man who will be our banker in Brasil, asked me on our last trip if I would consider giving him private English lessons. We took taxis a lot while we were in Curitiba in 2012 & 2013, and in various conversations I had with the “taxistas,” they indicated that there was a decided level of interest in having conversational English classes to prepare for the influx of English speakers who would be arriving for the Olympics in 2016 (it’s obviously too late for the World Cup, of course, which, by the way, we have tickets for one of the games in Curitiba. ☺) I also plan to visit some of the schools in the city and would be interested in meeting others who are now teaching English in Curitiba.

    We will arrive toward the end of May of 2014 and as soon as we are able to get settled, I will be looking to start private English lessons there to supplement our retirement income. I’m so glad to have gleaned quite a bit of information just from your post and the replies you have received.

    I’m trying to find out where the next BRAZ-TESOL conference will be as I am interested in attending and beginning to “learn the ropes” from others who teach English in Brasil. I did see that in 2013 there was the 2nd edition of The Image Conference: Film, Video, Images and Gaming in Engiish Language Teaching that took place at Cultura Inglesa in Brasilia—did you attend that conference? Sounds fascinating!! I’ve signed up for that newsletter, checked out their blog (although the 2014 info is yet to be announced) and look forward to the information. I plan to contact the Curitiba Chapter of BRAZ-TESOL and, in so doing, hopefully, start networking locally.

    I notice that no one has posted a response to your blog post since 2011, but I’m hoping you are still open to responding to my post about where the next BRAZ-TESOL conference will be—hope you might have some inside information because you are on the planning committee (I’m guessing ☺.) Perhaps my reply will prompt others who might have some encouraging words to respond to the information I have shared.

    Thanks,
    Debora

  18. Akin says:

    Hi Debora,

    You can find Henrick on WordPress at: hoprea.wordpress.com/aboutme/.

    I was going to send him a message on here too, but I learnt from your mistake (no pun intended).

    I’m planning to relocate to Brazil too and teaching English has always been a favourite pastime of mine; especially since I lived briefly in the United Kingdom a little while back.

    Their appears to be so much vibrancy and positive energy, quite unlike what I’ve come to understand as the norm, in teaching English in Brazil. I think it might have to do with the boisterous and happy-go-lucky nature of the average Brazilian (I stand to be corrected). I look forward to sharing this environment with you and other teachers in the next few months, with the utmost enthusiasm.

    See you real soon.

    Warmest regards,
    Akin

  19. Akin says:

    I plan to reside in Sao Paulo

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