Many people have assumed that I earn a living from teaching English, while it is true that there are foreigners who do just that and there are work opportunities for English teachers in the cities (especially now with the World Cup coming next year and then the Olympics in 2016), I don’t live in a city, have no wish to be commuting to Fortaleza (the nearest city to us) and the majority of Prainha’s population do not have the disposable income to pay what is considered a going rate (or anywhere close to it) for a class. That said, I have tried with varying degrees of success, to teach English here over the years.
I had an adults class, mostly teachers from the village school, who having finished a long day’s teaching, would come back out for an evening class. It didn’t bode well when one lady fell asleep within the first ten minutes and did so in every class from then on. As the weeks went on the class size diminished, the holidays arrived and after the one month break I was not surprised (and somewhat relieved) to be told that those students who remained felt an evening class was too much for them.
Some young people asked me if they could do my housework in return for English lessons, having a daily help is very common in Brazil but not something I am used to, I’m the sort of person who, as long as the house is basically clean, I’m not overly bothered about tidy, yet embarrassed by the mess in my house would clean before any cleaner came.
The classes began and team cleaning got under way as once a week they went like a blitzkrieg through the house (having five girls cleaning one small bathroom always struck me as comical, not sure how they all fitted in) but within a few weeks one girl stopped coming to clean and then class, followed by another until we were down to one, she was one of the best students I’ve ever had and worked so hard but then she was one of the few who understood that to learn a language you have to make an effort.
The school system here does not encourage children to take responsibility for their own learning, to understand that the more they put in, the more they will get out, rather the children seem to think that the teacher should give them the knowledge and they only need to sit in the room to absorb the information by osmosis, while this may be possible to some extent, a bit of effort would certainly speed up the process.
Some time later this young lady moved out of the village and that was the end of that, which highlights another problem.
The village is small and the work opportunities are very limited, sadly many of the more able students leave the village to work or study in the city and very often this seems to happen just as they are beginning to get to grips with learning English. If they have been the motivating force behind a group, then once they leave the rest of the students gradually follow suit. Any break in classes also has a negative effect, if I leave the village for a trip back to England, on my return the class will be greatly diminished. The students are often unwilling to continue the classes during school holidays but when the new term starts, I know that a number of the students will not come back.
I have always felt that these problems could be overcome if English was introduced to the children at a younger age, learning through play (song, dance, art etc) but how to do this? Clearly it would be of no benefit to go into a class of say 5 year olds, teach them once a week for a year and then leave them, English is not introduced as a school subject here until the children are much older so in the meantime they would forget everything they had learned. On the other hand it would also not be fair to teach one year group and work only with them through their schooling, I know some parents would be outraged if their child was not in the chosen class but there is a limit to how much time I can volunteer.
Then there is also a question of resources, the school here do not have enough resources for the subjects they are supposed to be teaching, very little in the way of art work goes on for lack of basic materials, paper and paints etc. Activities that I as a nursery teacher have taken as a given for young children, such as using old toilet roll tubes and empty yogurt pots for modelling, would have some of the parents up in arms, living with a degree of poverty as they do, they would be insulted if it was suggested that their children “play with rubbish”, they are unaware that this form of recycled art brings enormous benefits to the children and (having worked in private English nursery schools I can confidently say) that this creative work is carried out by children of all social classes.
Last year I was speaking to some lovely people from Switzerland, they have come for holidays in Prainha for a number of years and are always keen to do something positive for the people here. We were talking about my dream of teaching a younger age group and they very kindly offered me some financial help to get the resources I would need. I spoke to the head of the school who was delighted with the idea and so, despite my concerns of how we will go on in the future, we settled on a pilot project with me coming in once a week to a class of 5 year olds.
For various reasons it took some time to get the class organised but we finally began lessons in May. The class teacher had warned me before hand that her class was a difficult class but I was unprepared for just how difficult. The first week I expected to be hard, as having me come into the class speaking English was something so completely foreign to the children, but I was taken aback by the behaviour of some of the children.
There are nearly thirty children in the class, one of whom is a registered special needs child, who requires constant attention as he has a medical condition that makes him vulnerable and delicate, even a moderate blow could have severe consequences for him. If I was his parent I would not be happy to have him in that class, there are at least six boys who are (in the teachers words) neglected and / or have no parental control, their constant fighting and general disregard for any rules but their own, make it dangerous for the special needs child and impossible for any teaching to be done. The level of disruption causes the other children to misbehave and the noise level is incredible, the teacher says she is carrying out nothing more than crowd control as even fun activities end in disaster, paint gets thrown over other children, work gets ripped to pieces simply for the fun of seeing how upset the owner becomes and punching and kicking each other is a constant.
Normally here this age group would be split between two classes but I understand that this year all the children were placed together because the Prefeitor was unwilling to pay for two teachers, the number of children being one short of the required amount for two terms. The teacher has no other help and when she asked for her line manager (someone who is not at the school) to come and see what the class was like, she was told that it would be better if she went to the line managers house for instruction in some behavioural control techniques. We are half way through the school year (the school year starts in January) and as of yet the line manager has never been into the class. I have been given training in and used behavioural control techniques, I know they can work but I wasn’t required to be teaching the rest of the class at the same time, nor was I working with such a large number of unruly children. The teacher has had years of experience and frankly I think her line managers attitude is insulting and completely missing the point, which is that there needs to be an upward adjustment in the adult to child ratio.
The class was exhausting but by the end of term I could see that we had made some progress, the teacher likes me coming in because between us we can achieve a level of normality and a number of the children are obviously keen, it was such a joy to hear children calling out to me “Hello Claire, Blue Fish, Red Flower, Bye Bye!” The teacher and I have agreed to give it another go next term.