Claudia has snatched a plate of chocolate chip cookies I have just made out of my hand and is posing for a picture in the kitchen of her family home. She laughs and says, “I worked so hard on these. Let me know if you’d like me to teach you.”
These cookies (along with the effort and adjustments it took to make them) have come to symbolize the warm, creative hilarity I encountered as I spent a week with Claudia Borges, our TGC host teacher, and Emanulle Chagas, her friend and colleague at Centro de Midias . For more about the work they do, read iBrazil. The purpose of this blog, however, is to honor the beautiful and expansive human spirit contained inside these two seemingly diminutive women. While Claudia’s house may smell like recently baked chocolate chip cookies, Emanuelle’s car smells like a pet store. That’s because her trunk is filled with buckets of dry dog food, cat food, pet dishes, and even one of those ridiculous lamp shade dog collars.
Believe it or not, this is not even the quirkiest discovery we made in our week long encounter with this teacher whose friends all affectionately call her “Manu.” Manu is the second half of this two person duo that plans and teaches English lessons to thousands of Brazilian middle school students via satellite. While Claudia and Emanuelle are visibly easy to distinguish, there are remarkable parallels between what inspired these two women to start teaching and what allows them to inspire their students to learn.
Claudia is one of the few Brazilians who was able to get into college without the benefit of a private school education. When I ask her how she succeeded when so many other public school students fall behind, she talks about all of the additional studying and tutoring she had during weekends. And when I meet her mother, another advantage becomes clear. Claudia comes by teaching honestly. Her mother was a teacher, too, and as I sit at her family’s dining room table, I have a deep philosophical conversation about educational policy with her mother…in translation, of course. Just like Claudia herself, the family compound in which I sit is larger than it initially appears. It is common for Brazilians to live with their families until they marry and, even then, they may continue to live with their family or that of their spouse. In the case of Claudia’s family, her mother, father, sister, brother-in-law, two nephews, and one niece all live in the same house. Her mother’s nicknamed “the engineer” because once she retired she took on the task of expanding and subdividing Claudia’s childhood home into a space that has room for everyone (including a neighbor’s dog that was rescued from a lonely life of isolation next door and now lives up on their covered rooftop patio.) One essential and symbolic house addition was a family library where everyone’s books are crammed together into a tiny room that will, no doubt, be expanded by “the engineer” sometime in the near future.
Manu also lives with her parents but has three dogs and three cats to Claudia’s inconsequential one. When I asked how her family feels about this charitable impulse, she waves her hand and says, “My family supports me in this.” Her family roots are a typical Brazilian tangle of indigenous and European mixing and mingling. Her European ancestors came to the Amazon during the Rubber Boom of the late 19th early 20th century and stayed even after the rubber bubble burst. As we toured the Teatro Amazonas, a lingering reminder of the Rubber Barron’s success and excess, she launches into a fascinating explanation of the rubber boom, bio-piracy, and the subsequent poverty that followed. Her extended family still lives in Paraintins, a city 12 hours away by boat; she visits them once a year during the famous Festival de Parintins. Our car ride with her symbolizes the wonderful transcultural reality that seems to characterize this Brazilian generation. Caprichoso, the blue bull from the folk festival, hangs on her rearview mirror, traditional indigenous music plays on her CD player, and as she yells at the Garbage truck in front of her, while explaining to us, “This is Manaus, baby. Sit back and enjoy the ride.”
It is easy to understand how these two women could inspire young people even from hundreds of miles away. I was curious to know what had inspired them to join a profession of overeducated, underpaid idealists.
For Claudia, the answer was easy. She saw her mother’s love of her students, the joy she took from planning lessons, and the satisfaction she received from her work. Claudia finds the same joy in teaching and says her favorite thing about young people is their creativity and that they are always surprising us with things we don’t expect.
For Manu, a slightly less typical reason for becoming a teacher: the Backstreet Boys. Like so many other Brazilians, she taught herself English by riding the wave of pop culture the US exports abroad. Song lyrics, teen magazines, and a crush on Justin Timberlake inspired Manu to become an English teacher…along with the fact that her mother is a teacher, too.
Both women see that there are some improvements being made in education by the Brazilian government, but think it is happening to slowly. The economic boom is outpacing educational reforms. “Invest in Education!” Claudia commissions the Brazilian government. Her ideas include improving educational foundations in primary school and incentivizing people to go into teaching. Manu agrees. She suggests, “It doesn’t have to be more money. It could be Masters courses or other trainings.”
It is clear that both of these women believe deeply in the power of education, but is also easy to see that this is not a profession without sacrifice. We lost count how many additional jobs (called in Portuguese “Bicos”) both women had to work in order to earn a livable wage. Additionally, Manu is getting a law degree. When I ask her why, she confesses that she loves teaching, but she doesn’t get paid enough and so is exploring other options.
As we were whisked around Manaus by these two women, as they chatted and teased one another, as they argued over which bull was going to when the upcoming Parintins Festival, all of the educational policy debates seemed an over-complication of a simple truth: people learn best about the world from people who live best in the world. These women are not simply great teachers, they are humanitarians. “It’s not worth studying if you can’t contribute to the lives of other people,” espouses Claudia. “Teaching can help change our reality,” Emanuelle says with conviction. “We try to make our students ‘glocal’ citizens, but it is difficult.” She then suggests with a grin, “Maybe if the US sent us more Barbara’s and Emily’s for every public school. That would be nice.”
Brazilian education will be elevated if you can persuade people like Claudia, Manu, and, frankly, myself to stay in the classroom. With the right teachers, meaningful learning happens even when you are stuck behind a garbage truck, when you are arguing about your favorite team, and when you are adjusting a recipe to make American chocolate chip cookies in the Amazon. It’s as simple as that.