Teach for Brazil…or Wherever You May Find Yourself

Michael Stivers - Brazil

December 6, 2010

I don’t have a word for what my body and mind were doing the night before I started my apprenticeship. I suppose you could call it a healthy tremor. A couple days previous two other Fellows, Meg Healy, Laura Rohrer and I were told we would have the task of starting an English Language Program at a community center. This is exactly what I had wanted to be doing instead of college.

In my senior year of high school I had three different teaching internships. I taught at both the elementary and secondary levels. I wrote and performed lesson plans, handled discipline, chaperoned field trips, even ran the English Language Arts portion for a class of third-graders. I felt well versed in the field and more than ready to start offering a skill to these underprivileged kids (the community center is located in a very poor area of Salvador). My task was huge, but possible I thought.

I don’t like the word but my first week at the center was pretty close to a failure. Not only did my lesson plans end up running backwards, upside down, and inside out from how I intended but some days I literally could not run them. Because there was no adult present, the center was locked. This happened twice. It felt like my emotional self just took a punch to the gut. I thought I was a good teacher and I had always enjoyed it. Yet I spent the majority of this week frustrated.

On Friday I was talking to Josinan, the son of Joselito Crispim who created and currently runs the center. I was venting a little about my struggles and we were discussing plans for the near future. Sort of an impromptu comment from seventeen year old Josinan was:

“Would you talk about sex with your friends?”

“Well yeah I suppose so (I was already lost).

“Would you talk about sex with these kids?”

“No I probably wouldn’t.”

“These kids still don’t know who you are. You need to be their friend first.”

It all clicked so nicely at that exact moment. This past week I had doubts about my skill in classroom (or the cement patio outside the building). I hadn’t experienced these doubts in New York. In fact I was almost always happy with my performance as were my advisors but at that moment my doubts were wiped clean.

Joselito and Josinan bandage up a child of Bagunçaço.

I was and still am a good teacher, but I’m a good teacher in New York. I developed skills and tendencies suited to the students I stood in front of. These students could sit down for forty straight minutes and just write about an assigned topic. I had no idea how to teach kids who weren’t getting three meals a day. I had no idea that I should focus on developing a relationship with my students first. In the States this is actually a boldly defined boundary I wasn’t to cross.

The idea that I still don’t know Brazil is a little annoying. But it’s kind of stimulating at the same time. It means that I have a lot to learn. It means that it’s so radically different than the States that even in more than two months I don’t have a full grasp on it. The name of the center is Bagunçaço. It literally translates to “large mess.” I still think my task is possible. If I’m to be successful, I might have to do just as much learning as my students. I still wouldn’t talk about sex with them. So I don’t think I can call them my friends. Not just yet.

Michael Stivers