Faculty in Focus: James Forster, High School Mathematics Teacher

The Graded Gazette

What do you love about working at Graded? 

Graded is a very friendly place, and there is a strong bond that exists between faculty and students. It is also a place that is always looking to innovate and improve the final product delivered to students and parents. This goal resonates with me, as I, too, am always looking for ways to make my teaching clearer, more interesting, and more dynamic. 

The other thing that is instantly noticeable is the beauty of the campus. The wide corridors, plants, and number of seating areas add greatly to the overall atmosphere. My previous school, in Pinheiros, could probably fit into the area of our main soccer pitch, so I was blown away by the extensive space when I first came to work here. Furthermore, the available resources, classroom space, number of support staff, and general organization at Graded are far superior to anything that I have seen at any other school.

You never planned to become a teacher, yet here you are. How did that happen? 

When I was at school and university, I would have laughed at the suggestion that I would become a teacher.  I actually had no idea what I wanted to do, though, at the time, spending time with teenagers would not have been at the top of my list. 

When I graduated with a math degree, I had no other real plans. All of my friends had applied to postgraduate courses, so I decided to enroll in a teacher training program. That decision rested primarily on two factors: I wanted to keep busy until I figured out what I really wanted to do, and at the time, in England, there was a monetary bonus given to anyone enrolling in such a course to become a math teacher.

The training course was pretty theoretical, except for those awkward moments when I actually had to stand in front of the students and deliver a lesson. Once I completed the program, I realized I had nothing else planned, so I took a job at a local school in Leicester, UK. I don’t think that I ever made the decision to become a teacher. It is more like something that gradually crept into my consciousness over a number of years.

What were the greatest challenges you faced during your first years in the classroom?

My first school in Leicester was in a rough part of the city. Our scores were well below the average national level. I taught math to grades 6 to 10 and science to grades 6 and 7.

Without a doubt, the biggest challenge I faced was managing the behavior of my students, which was appalling. A big part of the problem was that I was only 22 years old, so I was just a bit older than many of the students. My lessons were chaotic (to say the least), and I arrived home exhausted every day. I really could have given up and quit my job then with a clear conscience, but I stayed at the school for three years, probably out of sheer stubbornness; I did not want to leave my job feeling as if I had failed. 

During that time, I learned the importance of lesson planning, classroom routine, consistency, and teacher-student relationships. What I learned in my first three years there has influenced my teaching style right to the present day. 

Mr. Forster discusses an assignment with students.

Your first experience working abroad was at Sandford International School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. What intrigued you about living and working in Ethiopia?

I got the job in Ethiopia straight after my first post in Leicester. When I arrived, I knew very little about the country apart from the famine that took place in the 1980s. My family and friends thought that I was pretty crazy to move there, though I was looking forward to a bit of an adventure in a new and mysterious land.

The school there was a mixture of archaic and modern; although they had some up-to-date computers and ICT equipment, the walls of several buildings were made of painted mud, and cows were used to cut the grass on the field! The students, mostly Ethiopian, were extremely dedicated and keen to learn for the sake of learning, which made working at the school a pleasure. I also began to realize that I wasn’t such a terrible teacher after all and that I might actually enjoy a career in the classroom.

I was also able to visit many parts of the country. Ethiopia has stunning landscapes, including two sets of mountain ranges and a series of lakes that mark the start of the Great Rift Valley. Its unique history and culture made my two years there a wonderful learning experience. I would recommend the country to anyone looking for a place that is off the beaten path.

After two years in Ethiopia, you returned to the UK. Eventually, you decided to move abroad again—this time to Brazil. What attracted you to life abroad, and why did you choose São Paulo? 

Back in 1999, I had a few different options, though I was really excited about the opportunity to live in São Paulo. I had traveled to the city in 1994 as a tourist, just a couple of weeks after Brazil's World Cup victory. The whole country was jubilant; it was as if I had arrived at a giant, country-wide party. There were Brazilian flags everywhere on the streets, many of the roads were painted yellow and green, and everyone was beaming. I was keen to live there for a couple of years before returning to the UK (or so I thought).

I was very interested in learning Portuguese, since I had always enjoyed learning foreign languages at school. As a tourist in Brazil, I had been able to pick up a bit of the language, so when I moved here, I made learning Portuguese a very high priority. I spoke to locals as much as I could, even when I didn’t really have the skills to communicate what I wanted to say. I would frequently enter situations that demanded a much higher level of the language than I had at the time. After blustering my way through a conversation, I would then go back to my apartment, get out my dictionary, and work out what I should have said instead.

While teaching a high school math class, Mr. Forster writes a formula on the board.

Since moving to São Paulo in 1999, you have learned Portuguese and started a family with a Brazilian. Tell us about your experience as a foreigner in Brazil.

My experience in Brazil has been a marvelous journey. I feel blessed that I have had the chance to meet so many people, visit so many interesting places, and experience so many amazing events.

I met my wife, Elayne, while I was a teacher at St. Paul’s School. At the time, she was working as a secretary, though she is multi-talented and now works as a substitute lower school teacher and assistant. We then moved to St. Nicholas School, where we worked for several years before coming to Graded. At home, we generally speak in Portuguese, though our children, Yasmin (grade 8) and Alex (grade 6), talk almost exclusively to one another in English. 

What I love about living in Brazil is that I feel that I belong to many different groups of people, some who are Portuguese speakers and some who are English speakers. There is my wife’s family and my Brazilian friends, and also my friends here at Graded and expats that I have met from working at other schools. I particularly enjoy living in Pinheiros and love to go to the older parts of the city, such as Centro and Avenida Paulista, which I usually visit using public transport. Not even once in more than 20 years have I felt anything other than extremely welcomed by Brazilians. They are always extremely friendly and often fascinated by my English-ness—even if I am frequently called alemão (German).

Mr. Forster and his family pose near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.

As an avid chess player, you run the High School Chess Club. What captivates you about the game? 

I see chess as a bit of an extension of my love of math due to the importance of having to calculate, predict, and use logical reasoning. Furthermore, it is a dynamic and beautiful game that requires speed of thought, creativity, and improvisation. A match can be played in a few minutes or take several hours to complete. My favorite form of playing is blitz, where both players have 10 minutes or less to complete all of their moves. 

I started playing chess seriously when I was about 18 years old and went on to represent my university as well as two counties in England. I enjoy studying classic games and also playing online on chess.com. I find it incredible that I can play a quick game against someone from another continent, and then a machine that is better than the world champion can analyze the game in a matter of seconds.

We hear you’re a huge São Paulo Futebol Clube fan! What else do you do in your free time? 

I really enjoy watching live soccer matches, both in Brazil and in the UK. The atmosphere in the stadium and the closeness of the action always beats watching the games on television, and I enjoy meeting up with friends in the stands as well. I support São Paulo Futebol Clube and Leicester, though I am not fanatical as such. I try to get to Morumbi Stadium every few weeks and get up on the arquibanca amarela (yellow stand), though it depends on my other commitments.

I also love going to the beach with my family. We all bodyboard a little and love swimming. Our favorite place to stay is in São Lourenço, near Riviera, because it is still only semi-developed, unlike some of the other places along the litoral norte (northern coast of São Paulo state). We also enjoy going on walks in the Mata Atlântica rainforest and often take guided hikes to waterfalls and lakes.

Mr. Forster attends a São Paulo Futebol Clube soccer match with his son.

After more than two decades in Brazil, how do you stay connected to your roots? What aspects of your English identity do you hold onto in your family?

Every June/July, my family travels back to South London to stay with my mother. Her apartment is about 40m2, so it is pretty cramped! But we always have a great time, playing lots of board games with my brother and visiting the sites in the center of London. Although I love living in Brazil, there is always something special about going back to the place where you grew up. It is also important that my children understand something of their English heritage, particularly if, in the future, they choose to attend university there.

I also make a point of staying in touch with old buddies in the UK. Every trip home, my family and I drive around the country, staying for a few days in each place while catching up with friends. Several of them have already visited me in Brazil, so they have some idea of what I am talking about when I describe what is happening here.