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Jon Marks

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Teaching in Italy

I first taught in Italy back in 1989. It was only my second teaching job, following on from a brief contract in Spain. I was working for a chain who seemed to value the contribution of teachers significantly below that of the coffee machine in the office, I was living in a sleazy pensione because I couldnít afford to pay the deposit on an apartment, and towards the end of the month I was literally broke, reduced to walking through busy restaurants towards the end of the lunchtime session and palming uneaten food. And of course, you know what Iím going to say next. It was one of the best times of my life. I was in Rome, every day seemed an adventure, and I had a totally brilliant time.

Iíve been living and working in Italy off and on ever since then. I wish I could say that nowadays you can enjoy the life of an EFL teacher in Italy without being ripped off by a parsimonious employer, but unfortunately little has changed in that respect. The allure of Italian climate, architecture and lifestyle mean that schools can and do get away with paying whatís basically a subsistence allowance. Itís no longer usual for totally inexperienced teachers to be able to get a job here, but a teacher with one or two years experience and the CELTA can expect to earn around 10 euros an hour for a 25 hour week. Without some additional funds to draw on, itís hard to make ends meet on that kind of salary, especially at the beginning of the contract. One problem is cultural. Most Italians live rent free with their parents until they get married, typically these days in their mid-thirties. This means that the kind of service industry jobs commonly done by younger people are paid at rates which are more pocket money than a living wage. The problem of low pay is most acute in the famous cities where thereís always a fresh influx of prospective teachers: Rome, Milan, Bologna, Verona.

Standards in schools are mostly not too bad. There will usually be an adequate range of resources and equipment. Adolescent students will usually seem models of good behaviour in comparison with some, and adult students will usually be friendly and easy-going. The main dissatisfaction for most teachers, after the pay, is the split timetable. Itís not uncommon to be expected to teach an hour first thing in the morning, two hours in the middle of the afternoon, and another three in the evening. Each stint may also be in a different location, and you may be lent a rusting Fiat Panda of questionable road-worthiness to get between your classes.

One of the absolute joys, especially in the centre and south of the country and away from major tourist sites, is being adopted as a sort of mascot by the locals. Itís easy to become a kind of local celebrity, continuously greeted and kissed by both men and women as you stroll though the jammed Saturday evening passeggiata.

Another great pleasure can be spending weekends visiting a seemingly endless selection of historic towns, mountains, lakes, beaches or whatever else it is that makes the region youíre in wonderful. Many restaurants seem over-priced and unexciting, but on a good day, eating out can be a sublime experience too.

As a long-term plan, working solely in a Italian language school isnít really a viable proposition. Most people who stay create a mixed portfolio based on some combination of language school work, private lessons, UCLES examining and anything else that seems like a good idea, including non-ELT related activities. Starting a language school can be recipe for great success, but setting one up requires an enormous amount of effort (Italian bureaucracy is legendary), some financial capital and reasonably fluent Italian. Whatever the basis for earning a living, you have to take into account the fact that pretty much everything to do with education stops for three months in the summer.

In summary, my tip for having a positive experience: go somewhere youíve never heard of. In a tourist city youíll have had your fill of architectural glories after a few weeks, and will continue to feel like an outsider, largely ignored by locals who feel besieged by foreign tourists. In a town with few obvious lures for visitors, thereís a good chance that every evening will seem like a party. Try and save up a bit of cash before you go, and treat it as an extended working holiday. And learn some Italian too, of course. Itís very easy to pick up Italiano Maccheronico Ė ďmaccheroni ItalianĒ, the baby-simple error-ridden form of the language thatís often spoken by foreigners, and tolerated with indulgent amusement by the locals.