By Joe Lopes
In a previous piece for another publication, I mentioned some of the inherent problems and difficulties I encountered as a teacher while living and working in the city of São Paulo between the years 1996 and 2001.

As a result of that article, many people have written to me concerning my past experiences with the profession, and have expressed curiosity as to what teaching English as a Foreign Language, or EFL, is really like there.

Because of this interest, I have decided to begin a series of pieces that expand upon my original article and delve into greater detail about the everyday trials and tribulations as well as the joys and highpoints of being an English teacher in Brazil.

By most accounts, teaching appears to be the preferred, most widely accepted-and fundamentally easiest-method of obtaining work for most foreigners and native speakers of English, who come to Brazilian shores for more than just a cursory tour of its beautiful beaches.

Unfortunately, for those adventurous souls willing to take the academic plunge, good, reliable information about how to go about doing it is hard to come by, and relatively little data are available either in the country itself or abroad. Even a film such as Bruno Barreto’s Bossa Nova (1999), which paints teachers of English in a romantic but highly fictionalized framework, tends to distort the true image of the profession.

This series, then, is my attempt at an all-purpose guide for budding pedagogues. Its aim is to elaborate on the teaching of English as it is practiced today in South America’s largest city, and to place the teaching profession in its proper professional context.

It is written in the form of a journal, with additional commentary and explanations where appropriate.

Wake Up Call

Jeez, what time is it?” I mumble to myself, as my Sony desktop clock-radio alarm sounds. “Oh, it’s 5 o’clock a.m. Time to get up.”

I struggle to rise out of bed and rid my eyes of the sandman’s residue. It’s Monday morning, mid-March, and I get ready for my first class of the week.

I usually leave the apartment at a little before 6:00 a.m., so I have plenty of time to change, shave, eat a quick breakfast, and get my things together for the trip to downtown.

Before leaving, I make sure I have my student folders, my pasta (portfolio or bag), cassette player and tape, course book, teacher’s manual, subway ticket, and spare change for the bus. Oh, and I mustn’t forget to take my identidade (identification card, also called RNE). Teachers can’t get past a company’s reception or security desk unless they carry around their photo I.D. at all times.

I used to take an authenticated copy with me, which is good enough for this purpose. You really don’t want to have the original on you anyway, as it might get lost or stolen. It would then be a veritable nightmare to get replaced.

This is just one of those little quirks of Brazilian big city life you have to learn to deal with-and get used to-as a teacher in the Big Abacaxi (pineapple).

Big City Blues: Stats and Facts

When I first started teaching English in São Paulo, I was simply astounded at how huge this major city is-and how long it takes to get anywhere.

It’s not so much the physical distances between the North, South, East and West Zones that test your patience and endurance, but rather the disorganized and improperly maintained public transportation system, which most teachers are forced to use in order to traverse this massive metropolis.

Incredibly, there are more than 18,000 buses and lotaes (private vans) on the streets at any given time, but only three full subway lines that serve the city’s 15 million or so inhabitants. The lines crisscross São Paulo in a more or less well-planned pattern, and the subway system itself, called the Metr, is fast, clean and reliable, but due to its limited reach doesn’t always get you to where you need to go.

That’s when you’re forced to use the city buses, which have acquired a near legendary reputation for poor service among its many riders. In all honesty, the numbering system used to identify each bus by its street route is actually quite sophisticated and efficient. It’s the physical state of the buses themselves that’s the most harrowing thing about them, along with their kamikaze-style “pilots.”

The poor driving habits of Brazilian bus drivers are matched only by the rudeness of the cobrador (change-maker), a pitiable fellow who sits all day behind a turnstile-like device while wielding a misplaced power over anyone who deigns to pass through his metallic domain; strangely, for a change-maker, he never seems to have any change, even when you need it the most.

The older electric buses, which date back from the 1950s, are so worn and dilapidated they look like they were ridden by the Flintstones and are as tick-infested as a starving mongrel. They’re also privy to multiple breakdowns, so steer clear of them at all costs. The sleekly built newer models are a pure joy to ride in, but are as slow as tree sap.

The private vans that dot the city landscape should also be avoided, except as a last resort. Many are illegal or clandestine operations that carry little to no insurance coverage for their passengers, and are run by persons of dubious competence. Use them sparingly, if at all. The same goes double for the city’s trains, which appear to be from another era entirely.

In addition to buses and vans, over three million automobiles clog the city’s main roads during the day, not counting the innumerable taxicabs, motorcycles and delivery trucks that seem to be everywhere at once. I didn’t own a vehicle when I lived in São Paulo-why add to the already elevated pollution and noise levels, I thought-so my principle mode of transportation was always the subway and bus, as it will probably be for most English teachers.

The sheer number and quantity of these conveyances can have a truly mind-boggling effect on a person’s sanity, and they exact an equally heavy toll on the city’s streets and highways, which are persistently pock-marked with gaping potholes of immense proportions.

This aspect of the teaching profession, as well as the endless traffic jams and choking exhaust emissions, can be exceedingly trying at times. If you are a clock-watcher or a nitpicker and want to be an EFL teacher in São Paulo, my advice would be to put away that timepiece, give yourself plenty of leeway to get to where you want to be, and go with the proverbial flow.

Otherwise, you will have a very tough time dealing with the situation, especially when there’s little that can be done about it.

Copyright 2006 by Josmar F. Lopes

A naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, Joe Lopes was raised and educated in New York City, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his wife and daughters. In 2001, he returned to the U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his family. You can email your comments to

To read previous articles by Joe Lopes click below:

A German Ring in the Brazilian Rainforest Part 2
A German Ring in the Brazilian Rainforest Part 1
“Down in Brazil,” with Michael Franks Part 3
“Down in Brazil,” with Michael Franks Part 2
“Down in Brazil,” with Michael Franks Part 1
Brazil: A Candid Talk with Gerald Thomas
Getting to the “bottom” of Brazil’s Gerald Thomas
A Brazilian Diva Torn Between Europe and Brazil
The Enraged Genius of Brazil’s Maestro Neschling
A German Ring in the Brazilian Rainforest
Brazil’s Musical Polyglots: What Was That You Were Singing?
Did Bossa Nova Kill Opera in Brazil?

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply