Teaching English and Living in Brazil
The Demand is Great
Article and photos by John Clites
A beach in Paraty, Brazil.
The demand for English teachers in Brazil remains high, and that demand will only increase in the foreseeable future. The need is fueled by a number of factors: flourishing tourism, expanding international trade, and a burgeoning oil and gas industry. The enormous influx of visitors due to the World Cup and the Olympic Games resulted in many new job opportunities and an interest in Brazil to learn English. The largest markets by far for teachers are Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, but a quick web search will reveal opportunities all over the country.
Jobs fall predominantly into one of two categories: teaching for a private storefront school or teaching your own private students. Jobs with corporations and public or private high schools and universities are nearly impossible to obtain. Don’t expect to land a full-time position with the type of benefits you might find back home, in the Middle East, or in the Orient. However, work abounds here, whether you have a certificate and experience or not, so if you have a bit of a knight-errant attitude, Brazil could be the place for you.
Note that Brazil is no longer cheap. The cost of living has increased a good deal in recent years, particularly in Rio, which hosted the Olympics in 2016, and saw a resultant run-up in rents. You shouldn't expect to save a lot during your time here. However, if you optimize your income by teaching private students, and secure reasonably-priced accommodations, you’ll be able to live a very comfortable middle-class life in a truly beautiful and inviting country, and have significant free time to enjoy it. I’ve visited 27 countries and chose to make Brazil my home.
The easiest way to get started teaching in Brazil is to teach for a private language school. These schools are found in every town of any size. There are several franchises, including Wizard, Fisk, CCAA, CNA, Brasas, and Cultura Inglesa. Of these — and this is only my opinion — the first two are on the lower end of the quality of workplace scale, and middle two are decent, and the last two are the best places to work. I think you’ll find my assessments reflected in their respective pay scales as well.
There are also many independent language schools, particularly in the larger towns and cities.
At either franchises or independents, you might teach in a classroom setting. You should expect to teach students of varying ages and abilities. Many schools, particularly the independents, also have private students who seek classes either at home or at the office.
It’s easy to get started with schools if you are a native speaker. You will likely have to take a standardized test of grammar, but this should present little difficulty. No one will ask to see a work permit. (I’ll discuss visas in-depth a bit later.)
Do note that most schools will start you on a trial basis, initially giving you only a couple of classes, or one or two of their private students. So it’s common to work for more than one school, and this practice is accepted.
Most schools, franchise or independent, offer some sort of training — though the quality of that training varies. Expect franchises to have more formal programs. Independents tend to be small — the owner may well be the office manager and teach classes as well — so teaching may amount to “ride along with me today.” However, you should receive some training, plus access to materials, and — importantly — students waiting to be taught.
Pay in Rio these days for private lessons is 60-70 reals per hour. In Sao Paulo 80-100 reals is common (note that the conversion rate at the time of this writing is 3 reals to US$1, but is subject to change, so check before you arrive). Higher hourly pay is possible, and I think that as the Olympics near, we’ll see rates increase, perhaps significantly. However, the language school business is very competitive, and overhead limits what schools can pay. You can always negotiate. I would at least ask for travel expenses, which can significantly enhance your effective earnings.
In smaller towns, you might earn only 15 reals per hour, but then it’s all relative to the cost of your style of living. I’ll address cost of living choices a bit later.
Spanish classes are also very popular here. If you happen to speak Spanish in addition to English, you’ll find yourself in a stronger bargaining position.
This may be the place to note that your dress and how you present yourself are very important here — more so than in much of the U.S. You will be judged on appearance, so bear that in mind. While clean jeans are common in business settings, and it’s OK to wear them to classes sometimes, I wouldn’t show up to an interview in them. There are lots of surfer types in Rio and other coastal towns just wanting to teach enough to support their hobby; present yourself in a professional light, and you’ll stand out.
John teaching Hugo.
My recommendation for most prospective teachers is to start with schools but to begin immediately building your base of private students. The first reason should be obvious: Without the school in the middle, the students can pay a bit less, and you still earn much more — often twice per hour what the schools can pay you. Other benefits include: freedom to accept or reject students, more control over your schedule, and (if you follow my strong recommendation) payment in advance rather than after delivery of classes.
If you want to build up a base of private students and plan to stay put for any length of time, you should invest in some business cards. They are quite cheap here. An average price might be 75 reals for 1000 cards. If you have any special skills or knowledge, highlight them on your card. I have an MBA. I put this on my cards, and indicate that I specialize in business English. These cards work. I have often received calls from prospective students who obtained my card second- or third-hand. So have some nice cards printed up, and pass them out freely, even if the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be a likely candidate.
Once you have a few students, ask for referrals. Word of mouth is the favored means of securing business the world over, but in Brazil a recommendation is far and away the best way to secure work. After a year in Rio, all I had to do if I wanted new students was to spread the word among my existing students. The next week, my cell would start ringing. Brazilians are a very social people and like to be helpful. Leverage those traits.
I only teach private students, and much prefer this arrangement, but there are drawbacks in so doing. First, expect some cancellations, often on short notice. This problem is easy to resolve: Require payment in advance, and stipulate that payment is forfeited if the student cancels the day of the scheduled class. I have found that having simple, printed policies to hand to prospects makes it easier both to explain your policies and also lends them more weight.
The other drawback to teaching private students is that most want classes early in the day (7:00-10:00), at lunchtime, or in the evenings. But you may find that this works out for you. In the late morning I run errands, and most afternoons I go to the gym. So the hours aren’t necessarily a drawback if you are flexible as most freelancers are accustomed.
General Note Regarding Brazilian Students
One of the best things about teaching English in Brazil is the students themselves. Brazilians as a group are warm and friendly and given to laughter. You’ll find that your students sincerely want to learn English, and will respect you. My mother was an English professor in the U.S. her entire adult life, and her last several years working, she bemoaned the decline in students: their knowledge, their attire, their general attitude and lack of respect.
Brazilian students, by contrast, are eager to learn. OK, they can’t always find time to do their homework, but they are polite, eager, and appreciative. It feels really good to hear a student say, “Thank you, teacher” at the end of class.
But it’s more than just manners. My students have helped me tremendously. Beyond providing me with referrals, they helped me to get provisional residency here, and then permanent residency. I’ve been invited to dinners in homes, to birthday parties, even to a wedding. Brazilians are curious and often disarmingly direct. If you are at all approachable, your students will want to know all about you. They will often advise you and want to look after you. It’s sweet.
I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t come to Brazil to be an English teacher. Teaching was for me just a fast and sure way to start making some money here. But I found that I really enjoyed it — in large part because the students here are so wonderful.
Other Types of Work
While teaching private students or for a storefront school are far and away the most common ways here to make a living with English, there are others. And you may want to investigate some others, because you’ll find — again, especially in Rio — that your class hours will fall dramatically from December through February. Summer vacations fall during this period, not to mention Christmas, New Year’s, and Carnival. Brazilians joke that the New Year here starts in March.
So what do you do? Well, this could be a good time for you to travel yourself, either back home or around this beautiful country.
There are also other ways to make money. Besides teaching classes, I have:
- Prepared students for the TOEFL exam
- Prepared students for interviews in English
- Interviewed candidates in English for corporate clients
- Edited articles and papers already in rough English
- Assisted students and professionals to apply for study programs
You could also do something completed unrelated. A woman I know with a background in the business does some small-scale import/export to augment her teaching income in the slow months.
It's difficult to get a work visa unless you have a specialty such as medicine or engineering. Few English teachers get them. Most foreigners teaching English in Brazil do so on tourist visas, which are good for 180 days per year. Technically, teaching on a tourist visa is not condoned by the government, but I have never heard of a single person being ejected for teaching without a work visa.
So what if you overstay your tourist visa? Let's say you arrive March 1st (which is a good time to arrive, just after Carnival, when things get serious). You can stay 180 days on your tourist visa, until the very end of August. But you choose to get going until December 15th before going back home. Then, you will have to pay a fine for overstaying, 8.26 reals (updated) for every day you overstay, but it's capped at 100 days or 826 reals. So the max that you would pay, regardless of how long you overstayed, would be less than US$400. And in this scenario, you could return again the next March 1st. Pay the fine, and all is forgiven.
Iguaçu Falls in Brazil.
Living in Brazil
It’s rare that housing is included in any teaching offer here, with the exception of a few volunteer or earn-your-TEFL-while-you-teach programs. Housing will be your major expense, so give some thought to it, and if possible, do a bit of research before you even leave home.
Renting your own place may be too expensive, and the red tape can be daunting as well, although it’s easier in smaller towns, especially if you can deal directly with the owner. There are other options.
Aparthotels, which cater primarily to business people on extended assignments away from home, can be found in Rio and Sao Paulo. While they aren’t typically cheap, you won’t have to sign a long-term contract, and credit cards are usually accepted. Most I’ve seen have two bedrooms, so if you have or can find a roommate, this is an option to consider.
Many people rent a room or a suite (bedroom with its own bath) in someone else’s house or apartment. If you find folks that you are comfortable with, this can be a great arrangement. See the box at the end of this article for websites.
If you’ve lined up a job before leaving home, or at least arranged an interview with a school, you could ask them for suggestions. I personally know of one woman who was matched with another teacher in this way.
TEFL.com provides average living expenses for many cities, and you can also search the online version of local newspapers for rental costs. At this time in Rio, you should expect to pay 1000-1500 reals per month for a room in Zona Sul — the better section of the city, which includes Ipanema and Copacabana. But if you make 4000-5000 reals and have no car, this is perfectly doable.
Enjoying a feijoada.
To my taste, Brazilian food tends to be basic and a bit bland, but also tends to be fresh, cheap and can be very healthy if you prefer a diet high in fruit and vegetables. While it’s easy to succumb to eating too much rice and beans and fried pastries, you’ll also find a wealth of healthy foods available. Fruits exist here that I never saw back in the States. There seems to be a juice bar on every corner. Farmers’ markets can be found in many towns large and small. In Rio, I could buy enough vegetables at the weekly market to last all week for no more than 14-15 reals.
Por kilo (by-the-kilo) restaurants are a Brazilian institution. The quality of these restaurants varies, but the better ones have a wide selection of foods, including great salads, for reasonable prices. Depending on the restaurant and your appetite, you could pay anywhere between 10-25 reals per meal.
When you are on the go, you can always grab a pastel (pastry). They are ubiquitous here and come in many varieties, most selling for 2.50 reals.
Rio and Sao Paulo both have good metro systems. I suggest finding a place to live not too far from a station, as you’ll likely be traveling around to your students’ homes or places of business.
Buses in Brazil are cheap and will get you almost anyplace you might need to go, although the bus drivers tend to drive as if they are on the NASCAR circuit. Look at it as an adventure.
See the box at the end of this article for useful links.
Brazil has free public health care, and foreigners will be treated. (I’ve used it myself when bitten by a stray dog.) But lines can be long, and the quality of care is hit or miss depending upon your locale. It’s likely you’ll be working in a larger city, where lines will be longer. So you may choose to obtain private health care — which is also available to foreigners.
In Rio, I paid 280 reals per month for a medical plan. In the small town where I now live, I pay 400, due largely to lack of competition. These plans are middle of the road but do protect me in case of emergency. As a side note, I’ve been pleased with my treatment here.
View of Ponto do Criminoso.
If you’ve chosen to teach English abroad, there’s a good chance that you have an adventurous soul. There’s also a good chance then that you’d love Brazil.
Certainly, you’ve seen footage of Carnival many times on TV. But Brazilian culture encompasses so much more. From Oktoberfest in Blumenau to the Festival Literaria Internacional de Paraty (FLIP) here in my little town (Paraty), Brazil really presents an amazing wealth of things to do, many of them free or inexpensive.
Some of the simplest activities are my favorites: meeting my friends at the usual bar, or the usual barraca (shack) on the beach. Walking along the beach. Striking up a conversation with the person who invited you to share his table on the crowded sidewalk.
For the active, there is surfing, hang gliding, parasailing, mountaineering, kayaking — the list goes on and on. And Brazil is a photographer’s dream.
Hang gliding is a great activity
Many ESL teachers choose to work only Monday-Thursday. Most private students will have classes either Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday, leaving you free to spend Friday morning getting organized before heading out to begin the weekend seeking adventure or simply relaxing.
There is plenty of work for you here in Brazil, and — certainly in the larger locales — there are plenty of activities to keep you entertained. The perpetual challenge is to balance the two!
For More Information
The following site lists countries for which Brazil does NOT require a visa: PassportVisasExpress.com.
Note that this is not an official Brazilian government site, but a site for visa services. Better yet, check find your closest Brazilian embassy for the latest information in the COVID pandemic era.
You can also check out selected expatriate websites for Brazil here on Transitions Abroad for more information on organizations that bring together locals and expats or provide information needed by expats, including where to find temporary and permanent accommodations. In addition to much practical information, you can make friends and network on expatriate websites..
Note from the author: "Many
schools these days are now asking for a work visa. I would
suggest trying smaller, independent language schools, who
often are happy to find native speakers. Also, I would encourage
teachers to look for their own private students, with no
school as a middleman. I've never once been asked by a private
student if I had a work visa. Additionally, without the
school as a middleman, the teacher makes a great deal more.
Business cards and strategically placed flyers (at universities,
multinational businesses, etc) also will bring initial students.
Then, ask for referrals! That's the single best way to land
new students. Private students never ask."
Clites is a U.S. citizen who caught the travel bug as a small child. He has visited almost 30 countries, with more to come. John moved to Brazil in 2008, where he teaches English and writes freelance.
John started teaching online in 2012, and now teaches exclusively online, as it provides him great freedom to pick up and go anywhere when the urge overtakes him.
For readers who are interested in following in John's footsteps, he has created a comprehensive online course, “The Ultimate Guide to Teaching English Online!”