When I arrived to Brazil, my essential question was how does the structure of the Brazilian education system impact the teaching profession? In general, I found that the status of the teaching profession in Brazil struggles to rise due to low pay and challenging working conditions. These obstacles are held in place by structures of time and space that limit professional growth. This seems to be especially true for English teachers.
I knew that I would be spending time in a language school in my host city, but I did not understand what was really meant by language school until our group visited a Centro Cultural Linguistico (CCL) in Brasilia. Public language schools provide free supplementary language classes to students. In Brazil, students attend their regular comprehensive schools in the morning (7-12), afternoon (12-5), or evening (5-10). Those who extend their language learning to a CCL will study English, Spanish, French, or Portuguese in one of the three sessions in which they are not in school. They attend one three-hour class or two ninety-minute classes per week. This would be a revolutionary idea in the United States. Our society tends to resist learning languages more than anywhere in the world. I found it so refreshing to be among students and teachers who share my passion and sense of urgency for learning how to communicate with people who speak a different language.
I spent eight days at a CCL in Teresina. There were advantages and disadvantages to my placement. I was able to meet a large number of students because they only came to class once a week. Every day I interacted with two or three new groups of students. Unfortunately, it was difficult to form strong bonds with the students when I only saw them for an hour. But I got to know the teachers, especially the English teachers, very well. I was disappointed that I was unable to spend time in comprehensive high schools in Teresina. I had hoped to be able to compare my experiences between English classes in language schools and in the high schools. If I were to start the experience over again, I would insist on following the teachers to the different schools in which they teach to develop a deeper understanding of the differences between schools.
I was shocked to learn that most of the English teachers that I met teach in three, four, or sometimes five different schools. This occurs for a couple of reasons. First, the salaries are so low that teachers need to combine jobs to make a living. Second, English is only offered once a week in comprehensive schools, which does not add up to enough sections of classes to create a full time position. And it certainly isn’t enough time for students to learn a language. One impact of constantly moving around from school to school, from early in the morning to late at night, is that no time is left to collaborate with colleagues. English teachers in most of Brazil are simply never grounded in a single building long enough to build professional relationships and share ideas and resources with each other.
The challenges that English teachers in Brazil face in their jobs were most clearly revealed on one of our last days in Teresina. Our host teacher arranged a meeting with English teachers from all over the city. We met in a school auditorium with about fifty teachers who do not teach in language schools. We talked for two hours about the many challenges that English teachers in Teresina face every day. They mentioned widespread student apathy in English classes in the public schools. They said that students often prefer to study Spanish because they feel that it is much more likely that they will use it in their lives. (Students in the language schools choose to be there and are thus much more self-motivated). They also complained about the low quality of the government textbooks. They are forced to teach with a grammar-focused approach. They know that this is not effective, but do not have the resources or the needed professional development to change the curriculum. (The language schools choose their own textbooks and teach with a communicative approach).
The teachers we spoke with that morning were thirsty for opportunities to improve their practice. New teachers receive no mentors and there is not a system of evaluation in place that encourages professional growth. I shared with them that many teachers in the United States share similar frustrations with our education system. Mandated curriculum that doesn’t meet the needs of students, minimal time to collaborate with colleagues, ineffective evaluation systems that overemphasize standardized test scores, and student apathy can be found across our country. In addition, in both Brazil and the United States, if you ask high school students what they want to be when they are older teaching is far from the top of the list. But, there are some significant differences between the problems that teachers in our two countries face. Teachers in the United States do not typically teach in three or more schools. And while teacher salaries in the United States should be higher, proportionally, we are much better off than Brazilian teachers.