Wednesday, July 15, 2009

More Tips for Teaching (Including Private Classes)

So one frustrated October day, I wrote a blog entry with all of the lessons I'd learned in my 6 months of working and teaching English in Brazil. I didn't know it would become a popular search result on Google, and by far my most popular entry! (I personally think I have some better ones, but I can see why this one would be accessed so often.)

Anyway, I wrote that a long time ago. So I've decided to write some more tips and things that I've learned. I hope I can help more.

1. Re: "The hiring season." Many people have asked about this concept here in Brazil, and I've also read about it in other blogs, but I haven't felt like there's any kind of hiring season at all. Yes, it's true that many Brazilians choose to take their vacation(s) during July and/or December-January, but in the end, I don't think this affects the chances of you getting hired or not. Teachers come and go constantly, mostly because students come and go. There is a high turnover of both. Some schools choose to close for all or part of these vacation months, and some don't. Some schools close for the week of Carnival, and others don't. Classes with kids tend to have longer breaks. In my personal experience, I say to be wary of schools that close for big chunks in the year. That usually means the owner himself is lazy (or an evil manipulative bastard, but I digress). It's really bad for business to close for more than a week or two. People don't come back!

So the point is, come when you want to. There will always be work.

2. Re: Degrees that you need to teach. Again, I don't own a school, so I don't know if they have any rules about the types of degrees that applicants need. However, I'm almost positive that most schools will be more flexible because you're a native speaker.

Out of the 5 schools I've applied to (and received a call back from), 3 required an English test, and only 1 of these tests included questions about teaching theories and complicated grammar terms. The other tests were just questions like: "which is correct? a) I didn't went b) I didn't go c) I no went d) I no goed."

You usually don't need to speak Portuguese to teach, but it'll improve your chances of getting hired, and it'll make you a better teacher. Same goes for teaching experience.

In the end, schools are going to want to use you to their advantage. For example, if you don't speak Portuguese, they may not ask you to teach basic classes, but you could still be helpful in advanced conversation classes.

In this blog, I have always been a big proponent of teacher hopefuls getting some kind of training first (via an Oxford teaching certificate, at least). That's just because I think that if you do a job, you should do it well. But unfortunately, you'll see that most of the schools here have very low standards for their teachers, whether they're Brazilian or American/British. Teachers here teach the wrong things. Constantly. They lie when they don't know the right answer. They're too lazy to look things up that they don't know. They avoid answering students' questions and sometimes blatantly ignore the student (usually because THEY themselves don't know the answer). Students end up speaking a Portuguese English that you'll have to spend hours un-teaching. IT IS SO FRUSTRATING, but it works in your favor if you're not trained. In your interview, just play up the not-completely-correct but all-too-common belief that, just because you're a native speaker, you are a FAR superior teacher.

(I do welcome any comments on this debate, because I can't make up my mind. Is someone a better teacher of a language just because they are a native speaker?)


I had really bad experiences with private classes in the beginning, but I've gotten a lot better. So much better, in fact, that I'm going to be down to only 1 or 2 classes at the school in the coming semester. :)

But it took a lot of mistakes to get to that point. Here's what I learned...

1. If you give Brazilians an inch, they take a mile. (Or, as they say in Portuguese, if you offer a hand, they want the whole arm. Or something.) This is not to say that Americans are perfectly respectful and fair in business and that Brazilians are evil and cutthroat. (Though some days, it feels like that.) I'm trying to say that you have to offer only exactly what you want to give, and nothing else. Stick to your guns. Brazilians really love to bargain and haggle, so if you're not good at it (like me), try to get better. Don't make exceptions for people. It's just the Brazilian way of business. Brazilians are proud to call themselves "opportunistic." (Yes, I've heard this word used many times.)

1. If you give a discounted price for one student who really begs you for it, he'll still ask you for it to be 5 reais cheaper. And then he'll tell his friends what your discounted price is. And when they come to you for classes, they'll demand the discounted price. So decide the price for your classes, and stick to it.
2. A student has class at 4:00pm. He arrives at 4:15. You try to be nice and allow the class to go to 5:15. From that day on, the student will come at whatever time he wants and expect class to be one hour long.
3. You schedule a class with a student from 6:00-8:00pm. You write it down. He doesn't. He shows up at 7:00 and insists that you said 7:00-9:00. You try to be nice and allow the class to be from 7:00-9:00, just this once. Again, from that day on, the student will be totally inconsistent and unfair with his schedule and will put your word against his. So watch the students write down the time. And then confirm it with them. Or, better yet....

2. Make a contract. My contract was, by far, the turning point in terms of the success of my private classes. I'm convinced that it's 50% psychological. But it also protects you... again, not so much legally, but psychologically!

In my opinion, the 2 most important parts of the contract are:
1. The students have to pay you up front.
2. The students have to give you 24 hours to cancel a class.

3. Don't let students pay later. I know this can be harsh. A student comes to class and insists that he forgot his cash and wants to just pay you for both classes next week. Don't allow it. A student asks if he can pay you for all of the classes at the end of the month. Don't allow it. My very first private student asked that. "Can I pay at the end of the month?" I said "sure" because, well, because I'm me. And what happened at the end of the month? He disappeared.

After that, I was strict about getting paid for a class before I taught it. I had one girl who was paying month by month. She was my student for 6 months, and always paid at the beginning. Then she told me that she would be moving away and that the 7th month would be her last. She said how she was so busy and her money situation was so complicated with the move and could she pay at the end of the month? I figured, "well, she's paid on time for 6 months, we've gotten to know each other pretty well, we've built a nice rapport, I can trust her." So I said "okay." And.... you guessed it. She didn't come to her last 2 classes. And then she moved away. (See what I mean about giving an inch?)

4. Charge what you're worth. The price of your classes really depends on the city you're in. But call schools and get an idea of their prices. (Call a few... They vary! In my city, the schools charge between 60 and 500 reais a month.) Ask teachers at your school what they charge for private classes. Ask friends what they think is an honestly good price for your region. If you go to the students' house (i.e., they don't come to you), charge more. If the student is asking for really specific lessons (e.g. vocabulary for his pilot training course and test), charge more. You're going to have to spend a lot of time preparing all that.

Like I said, it's common to haggle here. As a result, people usually ask a higher price because they're expecting you to haggle. My personal strategy is to offer exactly what I want to charge, and then tell them to take it or leave it. I charge a really fair price and I know that they're not going to get my quality of classes for a cheaper prices. So I start off on an honest and direct foot, and also, I don't have to haggle. I do offer a discount if 2 students want class at the same time, but I make sure they're the same level!

Another issue that you can decide on is whether or not to charge different prices for different people. This is SO common here. Every school has some kind of coordinator/marketing person who meets with the students for the first time. They don't say a price until they know the student's job. If the student has a well-paying job, they ALWAYS charge more. I personally think that's ridiculous, but it's the norm here. Doctors pay more for English classes than their secretaries do, even though they're receiving the same service. You decide your own take on that.

5. Prepare material that you can use with other students. Even if you have a book to use, you'll inevitably spend time making your own stuff (worksheets, activities, conversation questions, etc). Make the topics and directions general enough that you can use them with any student and with both group or individual classes. It'll save you time in the future. Reduce reuse recycle!

Also, book-wise, my favorite book to teach with is Cambridge's Touchstone series. (It's on Amazon, plus the Cambridge website.) I recommend buying one teacher version and one student version, and then 2 copies of the workbook. And then you lend out the student version and a workbook for students to copy. (Yeah, I know, copyright laws, blahblahblah, this is Brazil, remember?) I don't do this, of course... I'm just saying that you could...ahem.

6. Be patient. Your biggest number of clients will come by word of mouth. And you look desperate if you always ask your students to recommend you to their friends. Your classes have to speak for themselves. If a student likes your classes, he'll tell his friend. And they'll tell their friends. Etc. It takes time to build up a solid group of students.

I guess that's it for now. If you're teaching here in Brazil, please leave your thoughts as comments! :)

Good luck!


  1. Loved it!

    Very interesting about the price difference. It's not fair in that people are getting the same thing for difference prices, but it is fair in that they could each potentially be spending the same % of their income for the same product. They're paying what they believe is a worthwhile amount of time and money.

    Also in response to your native speaker question, I think it comes down to what we talked about the other day with that video you sent me. You can have amazing teachers teaching an L2, or horrible teachers teaching their L1 (i.e. several of my Spanish teachers in high school AND college). It really depends on HOW you teach.


  2. Thanks for sharing. Looks like you got a lot of real-world experience to help develop your policy and contract...I haven't moved to Brazil yet {Fall} and not completely sure if I plan to teach, but I have an interest and am glad to have stumbled upon your site.

    Please feel free to visit my site for {US & International} giveaways, new every Friday...feel free to tell your friends too!

  3. I agree with Jamie. Native speaker does not necessarily equal better teacher. Examples: Beto grew up speaking Spanish, but he can't answer my questions. My Spanish teacher is not a native speaker, and she's great at teaching Spanish (she reminds me of you, even her hair and glasses:).

    Your tips make me feel ready to teach English in Brazil :).

  4. I taught English as a Foreign Language when i served in the Peace Corps in Brazil 40 years ago. I taught in a ginásio that had been established in my town just a few years before I arrived, so I had students just out of elementary school and some who were adults who had never had the opportunity before. (Ages 12 to 44.) I knew that many students might be able to acquire better jobs if they knew English, so I took my teaching seriously, but I also tried to make it fun by teaching English lyrics to popular songs and how to count by playing a card game in English. I also found that I learned a lot. For example, a student asked me the difference between 'much' and 'many.' I, of course, used the words correctly, but I had to think about it. Then I suddenly realized 'much' is singular and 'many' plural. It seems so obvious, but I never thought about it before.

    One reason it helps to know Portuguese is that you can teach students to guess at words. For example, anything that ends in 'mente' in Portuguese might be a similar work ending in 'ly' in English. realment = really, rapidamente = rapidly, absolutamente = absolutely. I used this technique in reverse all the time. If I wanted to say probably, I would say in Portuguese, "Is there a word probablemente" ---which was incorrect, but close enough to 'provavelmente' that the Brazilian would correct me --and I had learned a new word. Many English words ending in 'ent' end in 'ente' in Portuguese. differente = different , etc. These little rules that I learned when mastering Portuguese were invaluable in teaching English.

    Now, I have forgotten a lot of Portuguese ---especially the verb conjugations, so I rely on a lot, but still, I am constantly learning new words and remembering old ones when i use that site.

    My biggest fear was that my students would have few opportunities in that small town even after completing high school. In May 2009 I was finally able to contact some of my former students to find out what they were doing now. I was amazed at what some of them had accomplished. You can find my post about that here:
    Alegria! Alegria! Part 2

  5. Excellent article and right on the button. I've been teaching in São Paulo now for 10 years and I wish I had read this when I arrived :) My students pay at the end of the month. I guess I've just been lucky. I hate, hate, hate dealing with the money part. Having a contract, I believe, helps keep the student to their agreement. I hadn't though of putting the cancellation period into it. That is a good idea.

  6. i live in a small town, and i have had nothing but good experiences with the private classes.. never had a problem collecting, and in fact a few times needed to advance payment and they did so no probs.. with a handful of exceptions, most of my clients are either couple who will be travelling to an english speaking country for a holiday or a frantic parent whose child is on the verge of failing.. i handle the private classes during the morning and at night, afternoons i work at a private (non-chain/franchise) english school.. for me the worst are the parents whose child is failing, they wait for the last minute, then they think it is the teachers fault when their child fails

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