Lessons from Brazil: False Assumptions

Recently I took a trip to Brazil as part of a Global Learners Fellowship. We visited a handful of schools in both Sao Paulo in Rio de Janeiro. In addition, we visited some other Non-Governmental Agencies, Volunteer Organizations as well as some typical tourist sites. I plan on writing a series of posts about the things that I saw and experienced and the reflections from all of it. It really was one of those experiences that will take several weeks, months, and even years to fully processed and unpack. Naturally, I took a ton of pictures and videos. Here is just a short video I put together as a one-minute highlight reel.

False Assumptions

When I left for Brazil I had a lot of preconceived notions about what I was going to experience and witness while in the country and in their schools. To be honest, I had a pretty stereotypical American attitude that there was going to be very little I was going to learn about how to do my job as a teacher better. I figured I would have fun, meet a ton of great people, but not really find anything great to bring back to my classroom. I knew the goal of our trip was to open our eyes to global competency and give us a unique perspective on just that. However, I was incredibly skeptical that I was truly going to be inspired to change my teaching based on anything I was going to see in a Brazilian school.

On the insanely long plane ride to Sao Paulo, another Fellow and I were talking about why we were even going to Brazil. Why were we not heading to Helsinki? Clearly we would learn more there. Then we began to think that maybe we were coming as the messiahs to preach the good word of American education to the people of Brazil. How colonial of us. J Frankly, we were more excited about seeing the cable car from Moonraker up on Sugar Loaf Mountain than visiting the sure to be uninspiring schools of Brazil.

Yet on our very first school visit to Humboldt High School in Sao Paulo my preconceived notions were shattered in just a matter of seconds. Where I thought I would see depressing and sad state of affairs, I encountered passion and enthusiasm unlike anything I had ever seen. The students at this school showed a level of passion for being in school that I have never witnessed in any school I have ever attended or taught in. I saw the kids that had a love for learning and literally craved it is we see Americans crave fast food. Now I must put a disclaimer here that the school we visited was sort of a pilot school that I will explain in a future post. Essentially it was a public school that did receive a level of financial support from a business partnership.

There was no sense of entitlement that we often face in American school. In fact it was quite the opposite. The kids we spoke with felt that they were genuinely lucky and truly blessed to be in school and to learn as a way to improve their lives. It was like nothing I have ever seen or witnessed or felt before. Here I was, this arrogant American teacher who thought that I had it all figured out. How wrong I was. What I wouldn’t give to have just one of those students come to my school and share their genuine love for learning with my students and teachers. Words can simply not express the experience.

One might ask why were they so enthusiastic and passion about learning? Obviously, they had Classroom Dojo to facilitate their behaviors and make sure they were getting stickers and badges to motivate them. Or maybe they were using the flipped classroom model and these kids were going home and being inspired by watching YouTube videos and coming in and having lively discussions. Some of you are thinking it's because their teachers were held to such a high level of accountability with test scores that they just naturally had this lively, loving, and supportive learning environment. You might assume that they had a one to one technology environment with every kid having a MacBook Air or an iPad or wearing a pair of Google Glass. You can probably picture the walls filled with student work and motivational posters with people climbing high rock walls in mountaintops.

To be honest none of that was there. It was just a bunch of kids that wanted to learn and a bunch of teachers that wanted to teach them. It’s just that simple. They had created such a community that it just worked. A great example of this community was when we ate lunch. I am a lunchroom supervisor and often spend my lunch periods eating while standing and roaming around redirecting and disciplining kids to pick up after themselves. Yet in this school there were no supervisors anywhere in the lunchroom area. It was just kids eating and in some cases teachers sitting with them as well. You could feel the community and respect the kids and staff had for each other and their school.

My initial takeaway from this visit was how they were able to do so much by way of motivating students and creating a community of learning with so little. You could see in every teacher and student we spoke with a genuine love for each other and passion for making theirs lives better. This was not about improving tests scores, which is a reality for them, but it was about improving lives. Their sense of community and passion was something I will never forget and will remember with jealousy.

I moved forward from that first school visit with a new outlook and tossed all of my false assumptions out the door. From that point on I embraced the idea that I had a lot to learn and planned on soaking it all up. 

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