'It's less about money, more about lifestyle'

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Teaching English in Italy is an attractive option for both backpackers and those looking for full-time employment, but it can be difficult to find work. We spoke with the managing director of a corporate language school for some advice.

Are you looking for a job as an English-language teacher in Italy but unsure where to start? As part of our JobTalk series, The Local spoke with Alex Taylor, the Irish founder of TJ Taylor, a language school that specializes in corporate training and language courses for managers and professionals.

Is now a good time to be teaching in Italy considering the current economic climate?

Yes, though with a twist. There are fewer corporate positions than three or four years ago, but there’s been an explosion of positions working with children and young learners.

What kind of teaching positions are there?

There are two types of market depending on the quality of the teacher and their long-term prospects.

Most schools here are agencies, probably around 75-80 percent, which means their teachers are paid based on the number of hours they teach and the school takes a percentage of their hourly rate. This is a popular option for backpackers and casual teachers. There aren’t many advantages – it’s possible, however, to be much more flexible in your commitment and in the number of hours you work, so if a teacher’s here for only a few weeks or months, that’s the normal route. It’s also normal in Italy to find work in two or three agency schools for the first year or so while you’re finding your feet.  

Other schools have salaried teachers, so there’s a very different focus and working environment, and they tend to attract the more professional and career teachers. These positions tend to be more stable, with a salary and other benefits, as well as various options for training and career progress.

Is it easy to find work in Italian state schools?

There’s a reason why most secondary school positions are filled by agencies. This is because they know the people and the procedure, and these posts tend to be subject to a tendering process that takes place every two to four years. Trust me: you’re not going to get anywhere near a tender document unless your Italian is perfect and you know the system.  

What qualifications do you need?

The type of qualifications you have can make a big difference. A TEFL qualification (for teaching English as a foreign language) won’t necessarily get you a job. The problem is that it’s just a generic name for any English-language teaching certificate. It could mean that you’ve simply done a week-long e-learning course - or that you’ve spent months being taught in the classroom.

As far as specific TEFL qualifications go, there are two big names which really stand out on someone’s CV. The first is CELTA, the branded TEFL course accredited by the University of Cambridge which is the best course to do if you want to work in Italy. The Trinity course is also good, but less recognized in Italy. There are lots of other less well-known courses run by reputable companies - but CELTA wins, hands down.

What about people who don’t have enough money to get a TEFL qualification?

One route that’s quite popular with people who don’t have enough money for a gold-standard TEFL course is to work for what is known as a method school. In these places, there’s a very strict methodology and the material is all set out for you. After working for this type of school for a year or two, you’ll probably know enough to get a more serious teaching job.

What kind of qualities do you need to have to be a good English teacher?

I’d put it this way: would you as a student feel you were getting good value if the person in front of you didn’t know anything about how best to learn a language?

As native English speakers, we often grow up without learning anything about grammar, which can make it difficult to teach our own language. It’s possible, however, to pick up the rules of grammar week by week and learn during the process. If you just blindly follow a textbook, then you won’t be a good teacher.

If you understand grammar, possess good emotional intelligence and have the ability to plan lessons and manage a classroom, then you have what it takes to become a good teacher. Good teachers learn from their students. So if you don’t love learning yourself, then you haven’t chosen the right career.

What do you look for in the teachers that you recruit?

We have quite rigorous criteria, so we require a minimum of two years of corporate language-training experience. But we also take on some people who only have three or four years of corporate experience plus a level three or four language-teaching qualification. Some of our teachers have a PGCE postgraduate teaching qualification.

Is it possible to make a living in Italy through private language teaching?

Unless you know how the system works, have the right contacts or simply have luck through word of mouth, you’ll find it hard at the start to survive on private teaching alone.

However, a good proportion of teachers who work for an agency school get about 20-30 percent of their income through taking on private pupils. This work can fluctuate from month to month. In the summer, you’ll have very little income from private work, and lots of cancellations.

Some experienced teachers eventually give up their work in a language school altogether, getting sufficient private work through their reputation and connections. But this kind of career definitely needs to be built up over time. It also takes a certain mentality: you have to be good at managing your workload and finding new pupils.   

Whatever kind of English-language teaching you do in Italy, however, you’re never going to make a lot of money. Still, for most teachers, it’s less about the financial reward and more about the lifestyle and making connections.

Where can you find jobs?

First: job boards. There are lots of these around – most of them international, such as on the TEFL website and the ESL website. These are fantastic for countries like China, which is desperately recruiting trainers, and for small towns in Italy where they may have difficulty attracting teachers.

In bigger cities, such as Milan, I recommend looking at the local press - such as Easy Milano, which publishes a PDF version of its listings every fortnight.

But my best tip would be to look on the websites of industry associations, such as Federlingue and IATEFL, and their members’ job listings.

Should you expect to get holiday pay?

If you’re working full time, then you should get holiday pay. If you work for an agency school, you learn to hate holidays because you have no income. Not only do most things close down for three weeks during August but the majority of lessons will be either cancelled or suspended for two or three weeks after that. You just have to throw your hands up in the air. Also beware of il ponte, or a long weekend. By default, no teachers work on these days.

What about travel expenses?

Ten or 15 years ago, it was very common for a language school to pay for your travel expenses because they could claim them against tax. Nowadays it’s very rare - especially in Milan.  

What’s the minimum and maximum salary for a teaching job in Italy?

One of the problems with language schools here is that there’s no state regulation so there’s no minimum salary. It all depends on the type of contract that you have. If you’re working for an agency, then you’re going to be paid by the hour – and last time we did a survey of what teachers were getting, it was between €10-€20 minimum with a maximum of €25 per hour.

Do you need to be able to speak Italian?

Italian is not that important unless you’re working for a secondary school or in the university sector. I know teachers who have spent ten years here without being able to speak Italian. It’s more important to have a good knowledge of Italian if you work in a very small town or in an Italian secondary school, for example. On our website we offer a guide of common Italian words that a new teacher will need to know.

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Alex Taylor is the Managing Director of TJ Taylor. You can visit the company’s website here.




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