Experiences of a Dutchman living in Belo Horizonte, since December 2004, from month to month.
April 2007, part one: First experiences at a public high school in Belo Horizonte, and the first English classes.
Early March, I was called by Myra’s brother, Thiago. He wanted to see me as soon as possible to work out a new idea. In fact, he already had worked out his idea, but he still wanted to hear my opinion. Through some connections, he had been able to contact the vice-principal of a public school in Belo Horizonte, not far from the federal university where I was staying during weekdays. With the help of this vice-principal, an appointment was made of the principal of the Escola Estadual, a school run by the state of Minas Gerais. We went to this appointment, and Thiago explained his plan to the principal and the vice-principal. She appeared to be interested and listed carefully to Thiago’s plan. His plan was to teach additional English classes to small student groups. The classes would be taught by both Thiago and me, at night. Thiago’s Plan Two was also worked out in great detail: when the students have followed some free classes, these students would be granted discount when the decided to continue the classes at Thiago’s language school. A very smart plan.
The public school was located at a corner of a large neighborhood, next to a so-called clube: a large leisure area. You must be member of the clube, in order to enjoy performing sports, swimming, partying, barbecues, etcetera. Such clubes are highly popular among the Brazilian upper middle class people. The school didn’t have such accommodations, and they weren’t allowed to use them at the clube. But the school had a simple indoor sports hall for physical education. The class rooms were about the same size as I have experienced them in the Netherlands, for about thirty to forty students. The wooden chairs, with a small writing pad at one side, as I have seen then at the Dutch universities, were quite outdated. The wooden tables with metal frames had been ‘decorated’ with numerous scratches. The students were running and jumping through the classroom and chatted loudly with each other. Even with the arrival of the teacher, they didn’t stop running, jumping and shouting. Only when the teacher gave a sign to them to be quiet, the classroom went silent. The students sat down. Some straight, others lazily lying down, with their skinny legs stretched. No one got annoyed with them. These were my very first impressions of a classroom with Brazilian middle class students.
The students wore a uniform. It was not the type of uniform that I have seen in Belgium, or in the United Kingdom, or even in Australia. Both boys and girls wore a gray T-shirt with the name and the emblem of the school printed on it. And all wore blue sports pants. most of them used flip flops or sneakers, some girls used sandals. Almost all girls wore their long hairs loose on their shoulders, or tied in a bun, ponytail, or braids. Some girls used some make-up and almost all girl’s nails were neatly polished in bright colors. Almost all boys had short hair, some of them used a lot of gel to keep their hairs in some crazy hair style. There was no one with a shaven or bald head. One afternoon, Thiago and I visited all classrooms. We had created some strategy to catch their attention: I would start to greet the students in English. With my gringo appearance, this would induce some shock effect. No one would be immediately able to understand that I was greeting them in English, but they might think of some extraterrestrial language. Thiago would then take the initiative and silence the students when he explained them that I was using a very simple English expression. The students had their mouths shut. They seemed to be ashamed that they didn’t know English at all. That’s was our intention.
Thiago distributed enrollment lists, on which students would write their names when they were interested to start basic English classes with us. We created groups of twenty students, and they would receive classes from us, after their regular classes at the school, after six pm. The students aren’t at school all day, but they can opt from two different time schedules. The early birds start at seven in the morning, until noon. The second group start from one pm to six pm. The older students and adults have their classes from six to ten-thirty. Very intensive days for the high school teachers, and their also don’t receive high salaries. At six pm, the firs students of the first group entered the classroom. They sat down in silence, and waited for our show. In the first weeks, Thiago and I would teach the classes together, as a kind of double presentation. The students were forced to keep their attention from one teacher to the other. This method seemed to sort effect.
Thiago and I opted for a method with was with a lot of interaction. We invited students to come in front, we joked with them when needed, but in a respectful way. It wasn’t our intention to create some shame for them, but instead to overcome their shyness. Brazilian-born, Thiago was very skillful in that, and I quickly copied this method. The first English classes were very simple: colors, clothes, family members. We played hangman, which amused many students. Thiago went on with social interaction, and gave them some work to do: they had to bring a sheet of white paper, matches, color pencils and glue for the next class. They had to create a house with the matches. Both teenage and adult students (the oldest student was 62!) started their work. They first hesitated, but they quickly became enthusiastic. With this kind of creative expression, they learned the colors, and the elements of the house in English. IT was also interesting – for us – that their creations roughly showed some of their psychological identity.
The first classes in the first weeks were given by Thiago and me, together. This form of double presentation was really nice to do. The student were very enthusiastic about this approach and eagerly participated with us. Two weeks later, we started to give classes separately. For me, it was the very first time to teach alone, and at that time, my skills in Portuguese were not fluent at all. Some students initially commented and complained about that, but soon they accepted and respected me as their English teacher. For me personally, the most interesting group was the so-called EJA group: adults who didn’t have the chance to finish high school as teenage age, and now took the opportunity to follow the missing classes after their work time They were better motivated than the teenagers, who were obliged to attend school. The adults had a broad range of professions: nurse, administrator, musician, kindergarten teacher, forklift driver. One of these students was participating in the local elections for the city council. He wasn’t elected.
The students started to know me as Adriano, since my Dutch given name ‘Antoine’ was too complicated for them to pronounce. But soon I was called ‘professor’. Not because of my education level (at that time I was finishing my PhD), but because of the fact that ‘professor’ in Portuguese had the meaning of ‘teacher’. Even in the streets I was called ‘professor’, even today. When I had obtained my PhD degree, some students started to call me ‘doutor’, doctor. Since the recognition of my doctorate in Brazil, I am allowed to use ‘doutor’. Doctor in the Netherlands, doutor in Brazil. And professor for my (former) students.
By Adriano Antoine Robbesom