A Brazilian government decision to raise the national minimum wage for the country's teachers has sparked a national debate about how their work is valued.
“Most teachers in Brazil have two jobs. We need to work overtime to have a good salary,” said Amelia Enrietti in an interview via Skype. Enrietti says she has been teaching in private and public schools in Brazil for 25 years. She also works with Teachers Without Borders, a non-profit organization which connects and supports teachers internationally through different projects.
“Only one teacher’s salary would not be enough to support a family,” she said.
Since 2008, the Brazilian government has been steadily increasing the minimum wage for teachers. At the end of February, the Ministry of Education announced a 22 percent increase for 2012. But that's still not enough, say teachers and their advocates.
Teachers earn 60 percent of what other similarly educated people earn, said Priscila Cruz, executive director of Todos Pela Educacao -- Everyone For Education -- a movement financed by private initiatives intended to reinforce the importance of public education in the country.
In 2011, Todos Pela Educacao started an advertising campaign with the slogan, “A good teacher is a good start,” promoting the idea that teachers lay the groundwork for success in life.
“We cannot have a healthy society with this huge gap between our economic growth and our education," Cruz said in a phone interview.
Brazil is the sixth-largest economy in the world, and one of the fastest growing.
Aloizio Mercadante, Brazil's Minister of Education, recognized during a presentation of the new minimum salary that teachers should be valued and well paid.
Not all of the Brazilian states have the budget to pay this minimum monthly salary of 1,451 Brazilian reals -- about $820. In a country where, the cost of living Web site numbeo.com states, a one-bedroom city apartment rents for around 1,000 reals, that minimum salary doesn't go far.
In Brazil, states and municipalities are responsible for the schools and pay teachers. Media reports say teachers in some states went on strike in mid-March to demand the national minimum wage from their state governments.
But low salaries aren't the only problem they face. Enrietti said she wishes there was more respect for teachers in the country.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development conducted a survey of teachers in 24 countries. The “Teaching and Learning International Survey” 2008 revealed that job satisfaction in Brazil was significantly below the international norm.
“Only 15 percent of teachers felt they would be rewarded for improving the quality of their work or for being innovative in their teaching," Michael Davidson, an official with the organization, said in a phone interview. "That’s quite a shocking statistic and well below the average."
“There seems to be something missing in the incentives and rewards aspect in teacher policy in Brazil,” Davidson said.
The poor standing of teachers in society and few career opportunities have an impact on the recruitment of new teachers.
“The good students in high school want to be doctors, lawyers or engineers but not public school teachers,” Cruz said.
Enrietti said she decided to be an English teacher when she was 15 years old because her teacher encouraged her to learn. But her own students tell her they would never want to follow her footsteps partly because of the conditions they see in the classroom.
Enrietti, who teaches in the state of Sao Paulo, said she had about 35 students in one class but only because the classrooms aren't big enough for more. She said there were schools with 40-45 students in a class. The high number of students affects the quality of teaching. Enrietti speaks Portuguese during English class.
“If I had 20 students in a class we would speak English in the classroom because I would have time to listen to all of them, but with 35 it is almost impossible," she said.
Enrietti said she has problems with her voice and has to visit a therapist twice a month because trying to keep the students quiet strains her vocal chords.
With grim prospects like this, many decide against pursuing a career in education. There are fewer and fewer applicants for university courses to become a teacher in Brazil, said Vinicius Nobre, a teacher trainer and president of BRAZ-TESOL, which claims to be Brazil's largest association of English teachers.
“I’m afraid the government has been doing very little to encourage students to become teachers at all,” he said in a phone interview.
Some schools had to hire people who weren't qualified as English teachers because there was a lack of teachers, he added.
“The biggest challenge that we have in the country nowadays is finding the people who have the qualifications both in terms of methodology and proficiency in the language to actually teach,” he said.
English is a requirement in Brazil’s schools. With the growing economy and two upcoming international events, the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, the importance for young Brazilians to be able to speak the language is increasing.
English isn't the only field where Brazilian education could improve. The OECD is evaluating the scholastic performance of 15-year-olds in different countries, testing students’ abilities in reading, math and science every three years since 2000. The latest results from 2009 show that Brazil was below average in all three fields.
Brazil has set goals to achieve the educational level of developed countries by 2022 and has introduced new standards for student assessment. It has also increased the money spent on students’ education by 120 percent from 2000-08.
But these measures don’t necessarily help the teachers. Nobre says the country should be focusing more on those who teach.
Enrietti said she had been very "demotivated" because of many decisions made in the education system in Brazil in the past decades.
“At some point I wished I hadn’t decided to be a teacher," she said.