Interview with an American ESL Teacher in Brazil

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There’s multiple ways to get a job as an ESL teacher abroad. The truth is, a lot of these available jobs are found through unconventional methods.

Today we’ll learn about one unconventional way to work abroad as an ESL teach from Danielle of the blog Danielle in Brazil. Danielle writes about teaching English and living in a small town in Brazil with her husband.

I won’t spoil the details of her journey to Brazil, but I guarantee it’ll make you look at ESL jobs abroad differently.

Austin: How long have you been in Brazil?

Danielle: 2 years as of last Saturday.

A: What brought you to Brazil?

D: Well, love! I was an English teacher in the US. I was working at an international English school in California. I met a student named Alexandre who was studying abroad from Brazil.

The rest of the story is pretty cheesy: we fell in love, but he had to go back to Brazil. We stayed in touch, and he convinced me to try out my teaching life in Brazil (with him, of course!). My original plan was to stay for three months and see what I thought. Obviously, I thought well of the place, because I’m still here!

Brazilian visa laws allow tourists to stay for only 6 months at a time, so after 6 months we got married at a Brazilian cartório (the equivalent of an American city hall marriage) so I could stay long-term. (That’s why I call him my “husfriend”… not quite a husband, not quite a boyfriend!) So now I live here and I’m still teaching English.

A: Where in Brazil do you live?

D: I live in the state of Sao Paulo, very far inland. (In Portuguese, the region is described as “the interior”.) I avoid saying the specific city because it’s so small and I’m one of the only foreigners in a pretty wide radius. Let’s just say it’s the cultural equivalent of Kansas.

A: How do you maintain an income?

D: I teach English at a school a bit, and I also do occasional translations for medical journals. But the bulk of my income comes from teaching private English classes out of my apartment to individuals and small groups.

A: What’s your previous travel experience?

D: Before moving to Brazil and traveling around this country, I hadn’t traveled much. I’m only 24, and I was too busy working to pay for college to travel much. I visited a few states in the US, Mexico quite a few times (including a wonderful trip to Guadalajara with a dear childhood friend), and I also went to Spain while I was getting my Bachelor’s.

A: What’s your average day like?

D: Since I teach adults, most of them need classes after work (so in the evenings). I usually teach from about 2pm-9pm. In the mornings, I sleep in, go to the gym, make a big lunch for myself and Alexandre, and run whatever errands I have. The husfriend’s in charge of dinner, which I usually eat pretty late.

A: How do you keep in touch with family and friends?

We’re big fans of Skype and Google Talk. My grandparents also pay for an international calling plan so they can use the real phone once in a while. But I give them most of my little life updates through my blog.

A: What’s the best and worst thing financially about Brazil?

D: A big benefit about living in a small town surrounded by farms is that our cost of living is relatively cheap (my bills are only about 11% of my teaching income now), and important things, like food, health insurance, and rent are very, very inexpensive.

But partly because the value of Brazilian currency (the Real) is relatively low, partly because of strict import tax laws, and partly because of the lack of a big middle class, any kind of “luxury” things (i.e. not essential for living), like restaurants, home appliances, electronics and especially travel are VERY expensive. So it’s frustrating after growing up in the US, and is pretty limiting (especially the travel aspect). But it’s also forced me to be less of a Consumer with a capital C and to appreciate what’s important.

A: What bills do you have? What is the cost of living?

D: My bills are pretty minimal. Alexandre and I split the bills 50/50. I pay half of the rent, electricity, phone/internet, food, and a Brazilian bill called condomínio. It’s kind of like HOA dues, except every renter pays it. I personally think it’s a rip off, but that’s another story.I only have a pre-pay cell phone, and I hardly ever use the thing.

Alexandre has a car, but he doesn’t have a loan on it or anything. So our agreement is that I don’t pay for repairs (only gas), but he gets priority if we both want to use it. But this is never a problem because we both live within walking distance of most things that we need, namely work (and most of my work is from home).

My bills come to about 450 reais (about 250 dollars) a month, which is very cheap, even for this country.

A: Have you sent money home? If so, was it easy/difficult?

D: I’ve needed to deposit money into my American bank account a couple of times. It’s difficult because I can’t open a bank account here. I can’t open a bank account here because I work under the table at the school. I work under the table because I need a Brazilian ID, and I still haven’t mine, a year and a half after applying for it.

I had to deposit the money in Alexandre’s account, and then he paid for a wire transfer to my bank – which also charged me a fee for receiving a wire transfer. There is a bank in Brazil – Santander – that allows for cheap wire transfers is both accounts are in my name. So once I get my ID, I can register at the school where I work, or I can register as self-employed – teaching from home -, and then I can receive the Brazilian equivalent of W-2s, and open a bank account.

A: Who would you recommend the job to?

D: I moved to Brazil with a BA in Linguistics and half of a Master’s in Applied Linguistics / Teaching ESL, but without any connections. So I had experience, but I had to start from the ground up. I applied to schools where I work, and they had no problem hiring me under the table. Once I started networking and meeting more people here, I was able to build up my base of private students.

If you want to teach English in Brazil specifically, you have to have a lot of initiative. There is definitely a demand for you – trained or not, though at least a TESL certificate will make you better -, but Brazil isn’t big on programs like JET that hold your hand and place you somewhere.

In fact, any kind of teaching program that you find here is going to be convenient and will give you a good experience in Brazil, but it’s really going to rip you off salary-wise. So if you’re doing it for the money and not just for a working vacation in Brazil, I wouldn’t go through them.

I think I’ve been able to be successful as an English teacher here for a few different reasons:

1. I’m a native speaker living in an area without any other native speakers.

2. I have training in linguistics and teaching ESL, as well as teaching experience.

3. My “husfriend” is from the country, so I just moved in with him and didn’t have to figure out housing on my own in a foreign country. He’s also been a huge help logistically, like negotiating with students when my Portuguese was still basic and recommending me to everyone ever (friends, co-workers, the dentist…). Oh, we also don’t live with his parents, which is pretty rare in Brazil. It’s a big plus, in my American opinion.

4. He’s also cool with me teaching from home, and having strangers troop through the house all afternoon and evening.

5. I speak Portuguese (now).

5. I was patient– when you start out at an English school, you’ll hardly be making anything, and you have to have a pretty crappy schedule (early morning, late at night, Saturdays). You might also have to work at 2 different schools to garner enough hours to pay your bills.

I also didn’t speak Portuguese when I moved here (though I was fluent in Spanish, so I picked it up pretty quickly). There are also a lot of cultural differences that I had to learn the hard way.

It took me about a year to really get on my feet here financially (by “on my feet”, I mean making enough to actually save money and have some vacations once in a while and to be able to have only 1 class a week at a school).

So teaching in Brazil for your career is best if you’re patient, flexible, if you have some money saved up, and especially if you already have some connections in Brazil that can help you with renting a place and all that.

A: What do you enjoy the most about Brazil? What’s something you will never forget?

D: I enjoy the slow-paced life of my small town. I like that every region has its own unique culture and traditions, so domestic travel kind of feels like going to another country. (So far, we’ve been to Sao Paulo, Curitiba, Foz do Iguaçu, Serra da Canastra, and Salvador.)

Another thing that I really enjoy is all the natural phenomena, like crazy birds and flowers and bugs. Work-wise, I really enjoy talking to my students and hearing about their lives and interests. I’ll never forget… the sudden monsoon thunderstorms in the afternoon. They never stop being awesome.

A: What are some resources for people who are interested in what you’re doing? Websites, etc.?

D: Well if someone wants to teach in Brazil without going through a program, they first have to decide WHERE in Brazil they want to live, and go from there.

The big chain schools are called Fisk, Cultura Inglesa, Yazigi, and Wizard. Most big cities (and even small towns) have at least one branch. But each city also has its own mom and pop English schools that may be worth looking into (they’re kind of hit or miss).

If you don’t have any teaching experience or training and would like some, a good and respectable certification program is Oxford Seminars. You can get more details here: http://www.oxfordseminars.com/

There’s a very good website with lists of ESL jobs organized by continent and by country. It gets updated frequently, offers a mailing list, and includes jobs in Brazil: http://www.eslemployment.com/

I actually found a great job teaching English in Mexico through that site, but ended up turning it down to go to grad school.

If you just want to work in Brazil specifically, there’s a website with a lot of listings for jobs that require English speakers (not necessarily teaching): http://www.learn4good.com/jobs/language/english/list/country/brazil/

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A huge thanks to Danielle for this fascinating look at her life in South America.

Make sure to check out Danielle in Brazil to follow her journey. Also, make sure to check out her blog posts about getting started as an ESL teacher and teaching private English classes.

If you have any questions for Danielle, leave a comment below and she’ll answer your question!

Photos: Danielle

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