Reflections from Brazil

In a previous post, I mentioned my trip to Brazil last summer as part of the Teachers for Global Classrooms (TGC) Program. Last month I traveled to DC for a culminating symposium for TGC participants. It gave me a chance to reflect on my experience abroad.

I arrived to Brazil with an essential question that I had developed as part of my fellowship: 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 various structures 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, 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 any other 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 was shocked to learn that nearly every English teacher I met worked in three, four, or sometimes five different schools. This occurs for a couple of reasons. First, 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.

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. In most of Brazil, English teachers in are never grounded in a single building long enough to build professional relationships and share ideas and resources.

The challenges that these teachers face 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 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 more likely that they will use it in their lives. The teachers also complained about the low-quality 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 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 work in three or more schools. And while teacher salaries in the United States should be higher, we are proportionally much better off than Brazilian teachers.

I left Brazil with more questions than I had when I arrived. I want to know more about teacher preparation in Brazil. What does the student teaching experience look like? Is there sufficient collaboration between cooperating teachers and student teachers?

I also want to learn more about efforts in Brazil to teach globally. Aside from an emphasis on world languages, what else is happening in Brazilian schools to embed global competencies in the curriculum?

The biggest question I have, though, is what are the realities of the teaching profession on a national scale? I spent five days in Brasilia and eight days in Teresina. I saw enormous differences between the capital and Piaui state, especially with the amount of funding and support that schools receive. But there are twenty-six states in Brazil and I didn’t leave the country with a deep understanding of the system as a whole. Fortunately, there is a way to resolve my lingering curiosity: I will just have to go back.

As we continue to look for ways to transform our education system in the United States, we should take time to learn from other nations’ successes (and mistakes). What about you? Have you gathered any inspiring ideas lately from visiting schools abroad?