Struggling in a Sao Paulo School

In Brazil, a teacher can be a heroine just for being in theclassroom

THIS cool spring morning at the Antonio de Padua Vieira StateElementary School has not begun well for Jandira Maria da Silva.The teacher was late to work because she had to give somemedicine to her baby son before leaving him with her mother forthe day.The principal dismissed Ms. da Silva's class because there wasno substitute, and she won't be paid for the morning shift. Butanother shift, the second of five that study at this school, willcome in at 11 a.m. And even though the principal's decisionbrought da Silva to tears, her lively fourth-grade class (mostare 10 years old, older if they've been held back) will learn ahealthy portion of fractions, Portuguese grammar and reading,science and social studies in the three hours and 20 minutes theyspend with her. "I like to learn with them, and see good results," da Silvasays. "Of 40 students I had last year, 30 [didn't repeat theyear]. This is my compensation." But, she adds, her "salary isn'tenough. You work for eight hours without earning anything.There's very little training, you can't have a family [life]." The 25-year-old teacher earns the equivalent of $160 a monthfor the two shifts she teaches, mere pin money to add to herhusband's wages as a delivery man. More than a third of hersalary goes to pay for night school, where she is finishing atwo-year teaching degree. "I wanted to do the full four-yearcourse, but my husband wants to buy a car, so for the time beingI'll just get the basic course," she says wistfully. The two-year certificate, which qualifies da Silva for afive-percent pay raise, puts her a cut above most elementaryschool teachers here. In 1987, 41 percent of her country's teachers had an educationconsisting of high school with an additional year geared towardteaching, and an internship. Another 37 percent had completed afour-year university degree. But a significant number, 13percent, had not finished primary school themselves. As anywhere, teaching in Brazil involves much more than chalkdust and pop quizzes. But only 18 percent of the children whoentered first grade in 1978 finished eighth grade, only 12percent went on to finish high school, and a mere 6 percent wereh)beginning university in 1989. So a teacher can be a heroine byher very presence in the classroom especially in a school suchas this one, set amid the miserably poor city outskirts. Some students make death threats to teachers who give them lowgrades. Others must be persuaded not to go to the bathroom whenthe school's water pump breaks down, leaving the pipes dry for aslong as a week. There is also drug use and the difficulties ofdealing with students disturbed by family problems. There is nocounselor on staff. Da Silva takes her place in front of the class. She makes sureall her students have pencils, warns them they have to know mathto go to fifth grade, and tells Sidnei, the class troublemaker,to sit straight and open his book. In the classroom, adorned onlywith a ripped hand-drawing of Bart Simpson where a portrait ofGeorge Washington might hang in a United States school, da Silvateaches without fancy tools. The children tread the wooden floorpast smudged glass windows and up to the blackboard to writetheir arithmetic homework. They chorus answers to her questions. When da Silva gives them the declensions of several Portugueseverbs on the blackboard, students copy them down in theirnotebooks to memorize at home. There is no photocopier in theschool, and only one mimeograph machine. Da Silva says she rarelyuses it because there is no one to watch the class while teachersreproduce exercises. And there isn't time for this after school, because the youngteacher must observe other classes for an internship that is partof her night school course, which begins after 7 p.m. and lastsuntil after 11. Her husband waits at their gate for her late atnight, when she comes home to cook lunch for the next day's lunchpail. Weekends are for laundry and house cleaning. DA SILVA also corrects tests and homework at home, butcurricula materials are developed at the beginning of the yearand then adapted as they are used in the classroom. One of 970 state-run schools in the city of Sao Paulo, Antoniode Padua Vieira boasts a single typewriter. The school operates from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., and sees about2,100 students a day, taught by 60 teachers, most of whom worksecond jobs. Even the principal, Jair Scipioni, teaches historyin a junior high from 3 to 9 p.m. Sao Paulo, with a population of 12 million, also has 672municipal schools, which generally pay better teachers' salariesand have more resources. But the overall poor quality of thepublic system, even in Brazil's richest city, is evident in thenumber of private schools in Sao Paulo 928 that supplementit. Private schools are so common in Brazil that the federalgovernment regulates tuition increases. Da Silva's life story is part of the story which led toBrazil's tragic education situation (see related story, left).Her parents lived in the poor northeastern state of Piaui assubsistence farmers. In 1966, her father sold his horses andother meager assets and took a bus to Sao Paulo. He found a jobhere in the wholesale fruit and vegetable market as a truckunloader, and rented a two-room house not far from the schoolwhere she teaches today. His family followed.h) "I went to this school," da Silva says in an interview in theteachers' room. "At that time, we walked here on a path in themiddle of nowhere, and we had to watch out for snakes. Now, it'smuch more dangerous. The mothers have to bring the children toschool, because of the traffic. There have also been rapes andcases of children who had to change shifts because they werebeing followed to school." For her family, becoming a teacher was supposed to be a stepup in the world. Da Silva's own mother still teaches at nightschool, and her sister is studying for a teacher's certificate.She likes her university courses, she says, "because I go out andsee new people and get new ideas. I always liked to study." But after five years of teaching on a pittance of a salary,juggling home, family, and her own education, this young teachersays she is beginning to wear down. "When my mother put me in thehigh school teachers' course, she thought it was great, that Iwould be a professional. But today, she doesn't say anything. Sheand society see the teacher as having any old job, like anythingelse, like sweeping the street."

Second in a series. The first article ran Nov. 4. -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/91/nov/day18/18141.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.