Retired English Teacher Travels to Brazil with Colorado-Minas Gerais Partners

Mary Henkin

Last summer, Colorado-Minas Gerais Partners launched “Improve Your English,” a teacher exchange program for English teaches in Colorado and Brazil. Improve Your English initially brought four Brazilian middle school English teachers to Greeley, CO, where they lived with homestays and took classes at a local community college. This past summer, it was Colorado's turn to send one American English teacher to Diamantina, Brazil. The chapter had just the candidate.

Ruth Warner learned about Partners of the Americas (Partners) a year and a half ago from her neighbor, fellow book club member, and Colorado chapter member. Partners immediately sparked Warner’s interest, and she soon joined. The retired high school English teacher has vast travel, study abroad and teaching abroad experience, as well as a passion for the unknown. Earlier in her teaching career, Warner taught German, French and Russian in the U.S., as well as English in Russian and India. However, other than a brief visit to Ecuador, South America remained unknown. When the opportunity to teach English in Diamantina arose, Warner was eager for the adventure.

Warner traveled to Diamantina with an open mind and a list of questions. “I wasn’t sure what the university expected of me or exactly who my students would be.  Would I have to give exams?  Would I have to give grades?  How much English would these students know before coming to my class? There were a lot of unknowns,” Warner said.

Warner was stationed at a local university for one month, in a classroom with students whose ages ranged from 19 - 38. Her first day teaching, Warner soon learned that her students’ English speaking abilities varied greatly across the board. Those studying to be English teachers had no issues understanding her, and were “extremely motivated, interested and talented.” Others struggled greatly with introducing themselves in English, including one boy who “gave his name, then got up and walked out.” Warner never saw that student again.

Through the ups and downs, Warner remained positive. She worked hard to be flexible and build relationships with her students. And she clearly came to mean just as much to them, as they do to her. “The city of Diamantina is rather small, so I frequently ran into students in cafés, downtown, or other places,” Warner said. “They were always excited to see me, gave me hugs and kisses (the traditional Brazilian greeting), introduced me to friends, and wanted to practice their English. They invited me to attend concerts at local bars where they were playing or singing, and were thrilled when I actually attended. It was very refreshing.”

The informality between teacher and student was another surprise to Warner, and something she came to cherish. Warner’s passion for teaching truly comes from connecting with her students – “hearing their stories, listening to their aspirations, watching them learn, seeing them get excited about understanding something, or helping them work through difficulties.”

And this time around, Warner was a volunteer teacher. Which she learned meant not worrying about meetings, grades and other usual teaching responsibilities. With her new found free time, when Warner wasn’t exploring Diamantina, she was enrolled in Portuguese language classes.

Warned learned a tremendous amount about both Brazil’s language and culture during her time in Diamantina. She hopes this is not the end of her experience. “I am now very interested in Brazil, and would like to return and continue my studies in Portuguese,” Warner said.