As requested, I’m going to spend some time talking about what it’s like teaching at Fisk. As some of you may know, Fisk is one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, language schools in Brazil. There are franchises everywhere (hence even in Itacoatiara), with over 900 in Brazil and another 150 or so in other South American countries and even in Japan. There is instruction in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and these days they are doing a booming business prepping people for the tourism explosion that will be FIFA World Cup 2014. All things considered, I was a little concerned about the quality of instruction and the expectations of teachers and students with this particular school. I did my research before arriving, and what I found was that the quality of life for a teacher is entirely dependent on the care given by the franchise owner. Here in Amazonas, Mr. Henrique manages all the schools with careful attention to detail, a passion for the language and its varying cultures, and consideration for the staff.
That being said, the ‘franchise’ aspect of the school definitely shows its true colours – pun intended. The branding is everywhere, from uniforms to student supplies to text books, and the company also sponsors Corinthians, one of the Brazilian soccer teams. Even when off-duty, teachers are expected to wear Fisk t-shirts to any school related function (something I have neatly avoided thus far; last time I just carried it around with me). It is highly recognizable here in Brazil; you might even call it the McDonald’s of language schools. And, like the fast-food chain, it is highly effective because the president came up with a system that satisfies customers, then streamlined it into efficiency.
There are two book series Fisk students may enrol into. The first is designed for kids, mainly in their pre-teens, called the Teens series. The books are called (in order) Teenstation, Teens 2, Teens 3, Teens 4, and Teens 5. I only have Teens 4 on my roster, so I can’t speak for all the books, but I have found the material to be very simplistic and somewhat lacking in explanations for grammar points. However being that I have experience, it does provide a reasonable base for my lesson, which is largely oral and makes use of the whiteboard for explanations. My biggest challenge with this level is that the kids are only 11-14, so I have a hard time holding their attention. Even if I were speaking Portuguese I would have this problem, but the fact that they have to try so much harder to participate makes paying attention even less desirable. Additionally, at this age the kids are there because their parents pay for them to take lessons, and not because it is something they have chosen. Therefore, teaching out of the book would be not only boring but nearly impossible, as they can barely complete one exercise without constant prodding after each question. I try to make each lesson as engaging as possible, so we play games, challenge each other, and move around whenever the lesson allows.
Most students finish the Teens levels around 13 or 14 years old, right when they start developing an attention span. They then move onto the “adult” series, the titles of which are themed around the life cycle of a bird. The books are (from lowest to highest): Breaking Free, Spreading Wings, Aiming at the Sky, Flying High Expanding Horizons, Wings of Freedom, and Focus on Fisk. If the student completed the Teens series they may begin the adult series at a higher level, but if they are new students they have their level assessed and may begin with Breaking Free. A student may also skip a level if they improve their English outside of Fisk; for instance, a student who does an exchange to another country might skip to a more advanced level. The normal route is to take each book in order for one semester (August-December or February-June), then take a test at the end of the semester. Students must score 7/10 or higher to pass, and if they fail they repeat the level. Students in Focus have a much more challenging and comprehensive test, so they get a number of practice opportunities throughout the semester; they also have to do a final project that includes written work and an oral presentation.
I teach almost every book of the adult series, with the exception of Breaking Free (although I have flipped through it helping Eli). I am only a fifth of the way into the books so far, so I can only talk about the material we have covered. However, I can say that I like teaching from these books. The standard layout of a chapter, or “lesson,” is as follows: theme introduction and vocabulary activity; receptive skill activity; grammar point; grammar practice; productive skill activity; receptive skill activity; more vocabulary; more grammar; vocabulary review; homework and review. The chapter themes integrate the grammar points quite well, and are usually relevant and sensible. The only problem I have discovered is when a theme is not relevant to the audience, and then I spend two whole lessons trying to teach them something they will never use and don’t understand even in Portuguese. The grammar points have been level-appropriate and easy to teach, although I sometimes find that the amount of attention given to a point is not reflective of the difficulty level or common usage. For instance, sometimes there is only a passing reference in the book for something that takes me 15-20 minutes to explain on the board, and then there is no practice to follow. In one book there was a page and a half dedicated to the usage of “have + got,” a structure that Canadian English doesn’t even use. Of course I taught it, but I stressed to my students that it was not important, just something to notice when talking to different native speakers. Overall though, I have had few problems just opening the book in class and deriving a lesson on the spot (don’t tell anyone I do this haha).
The main reason teaching these levels is so easy is that each has a Teacher’s Edition. These books have the same pagination and layout as the students’ books, with the addition of instructional bubbles and answers written in different colours. More complex instructions or variations on activities are written in the supplemental instruction manual in the front or back. It is so easy that anybody with half as much English as a native speaker and some personality could teach the class…and they do. It is common for advanced students who have shown an interest in further development to be hired by the schools to teach the beginner levels. And remember that many students reach the advanced level by mid-to-late teens; thus, several of the teachers I have spoken with began teaching at Fisk around 17 years old, before they had even finished all the books! I found this pretty incredible at first, given the five years of post-secondary and one year of experience I had coming into this job as an “intern.” However given that we are in the Amazon and that there are few fluent English speakers and even fewer native speakers to be had, it does make sense that the system is a bit incestuous. But, like most inbreeding, there are problems that arise from bad habits being passed from teacher to student. The greatest bane of my teaching so far has been students in intermediate or even advanced levels who don’t understand verbal instructions in English. These students were done a disservice by past teachers who probably spoke 70% Portuguese in their classes, and they therefore never learned to actually hear the words they were learning. Granted that instructions are the hardest thing for any language teacher, but when a student doesn’t understand simple questions at an intermediate-advanced level, there is a major disconnect. I also don’t like feeling like the bad guy when I reprimand them for asking each other to translate each time I open my mouth. It isn’t their fault that they don’t understand, but it is their fault for refusing to try, and these are the habits that I have been battling since the first class.
All in all, Fisk is very similar to the private language school where I taught in Toronto, and presumably much like any other established language institute; nevertheless, it has a quality that I look for in every school that makes the experience of students and teachers substantially more enjoyable: it has a sense of community. From top to bottom, the people who work there care about each other and the quality of work they produce. They enjoy coming to work, they socialize in and out of the school, and they build lifelong relationships with those people they see daily or weekly. I have been very fortunate that I have found community spirit in each of the three schools where I’ve taught, and I am always thrilled to discover it in a new place. Yet I am not really that surprised to find it here; after all, Brazilians are warm, welcoming, friendly people. They build community wherever they go, which is a quality I recognized early on when I first taught them in Toronto more than a year ago. This is a big part of the reason I chose to come to Brazil, and I am glad that my gamble has been paying out.