‘The job can come as a shock’: What teaching English in Italy is really like
Moving to Italy involves jumping through no small amount of hoops, and one of the biggest questions is how to find employment that will allow you to support yourself financially.
Contrary to popular belief, there are also plenty of ways to work in Italy without having yet mastered the language for those who haven’t had Italian lessons yet.
One popular choice is teaching English as a foreign language.
Speaking English at a native level is highly valued in Italy, which is often known for relatively poor English language skills – repeatedly ranking among the worst in the EU on this front.
But if you’re hoping to dive in without any experience or qualifications, be aware that there can be more to teaching English abroad than some people imagine.
We spoke to several teachers of English as a foreign language in Italy to find out exactly what you should expect if you’re planning to teach in Italy.
‘The key’ to moving to Italy
Teaching English was just the ticket for Katrina Miller from Northern Ireland, who fell in love with Italy after a holiday to Puglia, the region known as the heel of the ‘boot’ in the south.
While on a solo holiday, she found herself wandering down charming streets when she had a life-changing realisation.
“It suddenly struck me, like a voice was saying, ‘this is where you’re meant to be’,” says Katrina.
“I immediately thought, how could I move to Italy? I don’t speak the language and what job would I do? Rationale kicked in for a moment before I told myself I’d deal with it,” she says. “I had no plan, no idea, but I just knew I had to move to Puglia.”
After returning from her holiday, she put her dreams into a practical plan.
She said she googled ‘how to live in Italy’ and joined Facebook groups for people who had moved to the area.
After some research and returning to Puglia “to check it wasn’t a holiday romance”, she discovered teaching English could be a good first step.
The sunny southern Italian region of Puglia may be charming, but how easy is it to live in? Photo: Bogdan Dada/Unsplash
As she’d been a lecturer in beauty therapy in the UK, Katrina believed she could transfer her skills to teaching English relatively smoothly.
But as she quickly realised, even though this route was “the key” to moving to Italy, the job can come as “a shock”.
She found a job in a private language school after calling around in search of employment and doing some teacher training online.
“The job itself does challenge you, as teaching can be mentally stressful. I sometimes teach 3pm to 9pm back-to-back with a quick turnaround of students,” she says.
“Italians love to focus on learning English grammar, too, which you may take for granted as a native speaker, but you need to learn to teach it well to do the job effectively,” she added.
Although this is something that can be overcome in time, Katrina notes that what doesn’t ever seem to change is the Italian work culture.
“It’s a different world. You don’t always get a contract, which isn’t very secure,” she says.
“We don’t get holiday pay or sick pay. If a student cancels the day before, you don’t get paid. So I don’t know what income I’ll get every month,” she adds.
Photo: Anna Monaco/AFP
A job with ‘shades of grey’
The insecurity is a point echoed by Sarah Taylor from York in England, who has taught TEFL in Italy at various times in different locations, from Conegliano near Venice, to Sicily.
She has worked under determinato contracts, which are fixed term and form part of an overall business culture that has “loads of shades of grey,” according to Sarah.
“Fairness is non-existent. Employers can lie a lot and you have to be direct and assertive,” she says.
It’s a reality check for a country Sarah describes as “a honey pot for dreamers” and a place where she loves to be.
“I felt like I was living again. I was staying in a fisherman’s cottage when I was in Sicily and I could hear the waves crashing and smell the sea while I used to write under the moonlight. It was a dream,” she says.
Although this sounds idyllic, Sarah warns against getting too romantic about the idea of teaching English in Italy.
“You have to be prepared for the reality or you’ll get really hurt,” she says.
That goes beyond unstable working contracts. There’s also the matter of working hours, which may seem reasonable at first glance, as the teachers we spoke to had contracts of between 16-25 hours per week.
However, Sarah notes that you may have to be available from 8am-10pm on some days, meaning that you can spend a large portion of your day travelling between your accommodation and the school.
To that end, it’s also important to have a financial back-up, she advised.
Katrina agreed, saying she had to live off her savings when an initial offer of a summer camp job fell through at the last minute, soon after moving to Italy.
Can you find job security while teaching English?
But it’s not the same picture for all English teachers in Italy.
Scott Balaam lives near Florence and has had a vastly different experience.
He too found a position with a private language school and is so content with his role that he struggles to find many negatives – though he acknowledges that his situation is not the norm.
“I’m in a lucky position. I got what I wanted and my line managers explained everything really clearly. Touch wood, I’ve had no bad surprises so far,” he says.
After an initial period of being on a fixed-term contract, Scott received an indeterminato contract after one year with the company – a permanent position with benefits.
“This is very rare in the industry. It’s refreshing to be on a contract like this and have paid holiday and security,” he added.
As for the wage, Scott admits it’s “not fantastic”, but “it’s a liveable wage locally”.
The salary varies from school to school and region to region, but on average, teachers can expect to earn around €1,000 – €1,500 per month.
However, what the job lacks in remuneration, the quality of life overall balances it out, according to Scott.
“What I have now is nothing compared to the life I had in the UK and Ireland. Yes, I earn far, far less and it’s true that you have to be able to pay your bills, but I still have a better work-life balance,” he says.
“Now I have time to go for a walk around Florence, take in the sights or go to the Uffizi art gallery. Even our dogs have a better quality of life now. We’re there to give them more attention and time,” he adds.
Despite the glowing review of his own working conditions, Scott urged others to keep their eyes open with regards to salary and working conditions.
All the teachers we spoke to advised to do research on schools and to be prepared to negotiate, especially if you’re experienced.
It’s also worth investigating the place you could move to and work out whether it’s right for you, recommends Katrina.
“Do a reconnaissance mission if possible to see where you’re coming to and see if you like it, or you could get a surprise,” she says.
Italy easily enchants holidaymakers, but you’ll need to be prepared for the reality of everyday life in the country. Photo: Brigitte HAGEMANN/AFP
The qualifications you need
Knowing which qualifications to get can be confusing, as there are many teacher training providers on the market.
It can affect the salary you can bargain for too, so choosing where to invest is a key consideration, according to Scott, who has worked in education management for around twenty years.
“It’s worth spending money and time on either the TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) or CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) qualification, as these are the two main ones most recognised throughout the world,” he says.
“Some online qualifications mean you don’t get any classroom experience, which wouldn’t be accepted by some schools.”
He also warns that some online training courses can be “clever”, in that they sell you a programme that won’t help you when trying to find an English teaching job.
“If in doubt, check that the course is recognised by the British Council,” he says.
In his experience, these well-known qualifications can cost around £1,500 to complete so “it might not be worth it if you just want to do it for a year.”
However, if this is potentially a longer-term career prospect, “it’s definitely worth investing in,” he adds.
Sarah also did a CELTA-accredited course and following completion, put her CV online. Shortly afterwards, she was called up and offered a job in Italy.
How important is it to be able to speak Italian?
So once you’ve got the certificate to prove you can teach English, do you need to speak Italian?
“The purpose of the job is that you don’t speak Italian and you immerse your students in English,” says Scott.
He admits his level of Italian is “very poor”, but on a day-to-day basis he only needs English for his job, so his Italian skills have taken a back seat.
He does regret not having prioritised learning Italian, though, especially as he’s been working in Italy on and off for years – but he’s now making an effort to learn the language more.
The teachers we spoke to all agreed on this.
“Try to learn the language before you come to integrate into the culture here. It’s also useful for everyday life, such as opening a bank account or going to the doctor,” says Katrina.
For Sarah, an intermediate level is recommended for this purpose.
“It breaks down barriers and you’ll get treated like a foreigner if you don’t speak Italian,” she says. “I love the language and I think it’s rude not to learn it, but it depends on your personal attitude.”
Language misunderstandings can actually be a pro of the job, as Katrina said her students’ pronunciation mistakes – just like our gaffes when learning Italian – make them all laugh good-naturedly, making it a fun, interactive job.
The perks of being a TEFL teacher
Reality checks aside, teaching English in Italy comes with its advantages.
During the pandemic, these teachers were among the first to get vaccinated in Italy, as the government prioritised this group – something they felt was a privilege amid reports of many foreign residents unable to get their Covid shot.
There’s also a feeling of hope, as they believe there may be increasing demand for their services.
They reason Brexit could potentially make it more difficult for the same amount of English teachers to come to Italy as before, and they also pointed to Italy’s tourism sector as a source of work.
“People in Puglia will have to learn more English as it’s getting more and more touristy: real estate, cafés, bars and hotels all need to speak English. I have students who have a lot of English-speaking clients and they need to be able to speak to them,” says Katrina.
Teaching English in Italy can also be a springboard to other opportunities, as Scott notes many possible career paths come from it, such as working in schools and universities or creating educational content for publishers.
And it sometimes comes down to the bonus of simply being able to live in Italy.
“It’s not for everyone, but I love it here. I fell in love with the country and since coming on holiday, all I wanted to know was, ‘how can I make my dream come true’?” says Katrina.
“The honeymoon period is now over and I still want to stay,” she says, adding, “My heart would break and I would pine for Italy if I left. I followed my heart, it was love.”
Find out more about the residency and visa requirements you may face when moving to Italy for work here.
Read more about working in Italy here.