Teaching in Rome Abroad as a British Council Assistant

 Sorry for the hiatus! Finally back from Italy and my year abroad and will be posting more regularly.

This post originally appeared on the well-travelled postcard run, run by Virginia, a modern languages graduate. Check out her blog for all things related to Spain, using your languages and living abroad!

My biggest regret of university was never having studied abroad and so after graduation I looked for ways to travel and live abroad for extended periods of time. During summer I took the Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) as a means to work abroad, but was a bit hesitant to jump into a full-time job teaching English without a lot of experience. The British Council language assistant job appealed to me, but having not studied languages formally I was ineligible to apply for certain countries.

settit 1

By chance, I met someone in Rome doing the British Council’s Comenius Assistantship, where you can spend between three and ten months working abroad as a language assistant anywhere in Europe and some European territories further afield for French. No specific degree is required, only the interest in becoming a teacher and gaining teaching experience and you are given a grant to cover the cost of flights, apartments and daily expenses.

In January 2013, I sent in my application and was placed in a public school in Rome by April 2013. The assistantship requires you to work 12-16 hours per week and to spend some time teaching your native language. At my school, half of my lessons are spent teaching English, with the other half teaching English through other subjects such as mechanics, history, engineering and mathematics. Comenius would be a a great option for undergraduates who study more than one language and want to divide their year abroad, as you can choose to spend between three months or one whole academic year abroad, whilst the British Council Language Assistantship, on the other hand is compulsory for the whole school year. The best part of Comenius is the fact that you’re working, earning money and independent, but you’re still learning in an assistant language teaching role, so it could be the best of both worlds for those who want to study and work during their year abroad.

settit 2

Onto the job itself, I’ve got to say it’s a lot of fun! The teachers are supportive and friendly, the staff room is always full of Italian desserts and the students are lovely. I work in a boys’ technical college teaching 17-21 year olds and aiding with science and engineering subjects. Having studied English Literature at University, I thought I’d be out of my depth, but I’ve been lucky to find such a welcoming school and great staff. From the beginning it’s important to establish your exact role in the school, as you will always be teaching alongside qualified teachers, but being the language assistant means you can make the lessons more fun, interactive and relevant to the students.

The British Council provide you with a grant to study the language of your country, and for me, learning Italian has been one of the best bits of living here! Languages have always fascinated me and last year I spent 10 weeks volunteering in El Salvador learning Spanish, which gave me a good base for Italian. It’s taken me a while, but I can now translate virtually all of what my students are saying (even the rude things!) and working in a school has been excellent listening practice for my Italian. I also do a lot of language exchanges with Italians, read Italian books, listen to music and spend a lot of time with Italian friends. I haven’t signed up yet for language lessons, but all of the above activities I’ve found to be more than sufficient to reach a B1-B2 level. I started off as a beginner and have found that through determination and immersion I’ve been able to pull my level up, without studying Italian formally above A1 level. Even though I teach English for over 12 hours a week, I’ve found that this hasn’t been a hindrance to picking up Italian and it won’t be for you either as you’ll have around 100 hours left over per week to dedicate to your foreign language!

settit 4

Working 12-16 hours a week means I have plenty of free time and so I give private English lessons to Italian students, spend a lot of time learning Italian, volunteering and doing other things. I also have Fridays off so have been able to use these to visit Venice during Carnival, Padova, Verona, Assisi, Naples and lots of other beautiful Italian cities. This weekend I’m off to Florence to enjoy the gelato festival and throughout the year there are also a lot of feste which will give you more time off to travel. I’ve tried to find a downside to this job to give a balanced view… but I can’t think of one! I was placed in Rome as I specifically requested it, but obviously some will be placed in smaller towns and villages. The loneliness and lack of young people have been a negative for some assistants placed in rural towns, so this is a possible downside. Technically you can be placed anywhere in your chosen countries, though you can specifiy whether you would prefer to be placed in a big city.

My Comenius Assistantship is coming to a close now and after this I will be working for ACLE at their English summer camps in Italy, where I will be staying with Italian families and travelling around the country gaining more teaching experience and improving my Italian. I have had the most incredible year as a Comenius Assistant in Rome and would heavily recommend it to all of you lovely third year abroaders!


Girl About Rome


Soooo D-Day finally arrived and as of 17/09/2013, I am a Roman resident! I’ve got a job starting next week, an amazing flat and the beginnings of a social life!  My first day was terrific and I was greeted by three other friendly housemates who made me lunch as soon as I got there and I’m able to inflict my poor Italian on them :D. I’ve already tried to move to Rome before and it didn’t work out, so here’s hoping this one sticks!

I’ll be working as a language assistant for the British Council in Piazza Navona and this blog will focus a lot more on updates from the city of Rome, Italy and the Italian way of life, as told by yours truly.


Do I need the CELTA to teach?

299918_4963619882303_820107179_nHere are some uses for £1000:

  • A month-long epic adventure backpacking through Mexico
  • Half of a Peugot 407
  • 2 iPhones
  • 3 Michael Kor’s watches (one for me right?)

Here is one other use of £1000 for the graduate who wants to teach English abroad:

  • A CELTA qualification

Just paying for the CELTA is no guarantee of you being able to pass the course. So not only are you handing over 1000 g’s for a course you may not even pass, but there’s also no guarantee of a job at the end. Many may question whether they should demolish their savings with the CELTA or go “cheap as chips” with the weekend TEFL courses. The answer?

It’s up to you.

I know of people who’ve succeeded in landing jobs with weekend courses and done pretty well out of it, it all depends on how you use your skills, whether you’re based in the country you’re hoping to teach in, the time of year…there are so many variables. The one constant though, is that there will always be a need for native English speakers to teach. The qualifications you’ll need are really dependent on the length of time you want to teach, your current financial situation, your previous work experience and where you want to teach.

I’ll be writing another post on where in the world you can teach and what you’ll need but I’ll be mentioning stuff in brief here.

The CELTA is fantastic as a starting point for teaching; it equips you with the skills and knowledge to teach English, but that’s just what it is. A starting point. The CELTA is a crash course on English grammar, TEFL teaching techniques, language acquisition techniques and teaching practice all rolled into one. It is internationally respected and accepted and provides you with a reference from your course tutors afterward to prospective employers. In the last few days of the course, the TEFL jobmarket will be superficially covered and some help may be given with finding jobs. Though this is more likely to happen at the “upmarket” CELTA schools, like International House, who charge over £1500 (three iPhones) for the course. Even at the end of the course, the CELTA powers-that-be remind you that although you have passed, you will still need extensive training and support upon employment.

If you only have a degree and the CELTA (and about £25,000 worth of student debt!) with no other teaching or TEFL experience, than it might be prudent to pursue jobs in your local area, gaining TEFL experience before casting your net abroad. TEFL summer schools and other teaching roles might be helpful to future employers, as well as experience with children. Getting extra experience is recommended if you’re planning to teach in Western Europe, as the “sexier” countries (Spain, Italy, France) can be harder to find work if you’re planning to move to the capitals. Rural areas will always yield more results and you may have a better chance of securing work in countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Georgia without experience (and without the CELTA).

So whilst the CELTA won’t guarantee you a job, it definitely gives you more bargaining power and better options.

The only problem with weekend TEFL courses is their theoretical nature. Many will be computer-based and won’t involve any physical teaching to students, whereas the CELTA aims to be a practical course with a minimum of six hours teaching and 120 input hours. It all depends as to whether you can afford the time to take a one month break and the fees, but its not always necessary. If you’re Caucasian (sad but true) and have a degree, then a TEFL weekend course will set you up better in countries like south east Asia over western Europe. Countries such as South Korea, China, Japan and Thailand have so many opportunities for new teachers with no experience and are great locations for first-timers.

Or you could do neither and apply for one of the British Council Language schemes or the JET scheme.

Why I quit my teaching job in Rome


After completing the CELTA in August 2012, I set about finding a teaching job in Rome, Italy. I love Europe and I’m a capital city kinda gal and couldn’t imagine being based anywhere else in Italy and this made my job hunt  harder, as there’s more people available to teach English in the big cities. Be wary when searching for teaching jobs in western Europe, as they’re harder to crack for newbs without much experience and even harder for non-EU newbs with no teaching experience. As a minimum, you’ll need the CELTA and most prefer you to have one to two years teaching experience, but outside the capital you’ll have more options and schools will be more likely to take on teachers with no experience.

I’d received two interviews and started working for a TEFL agency in Rome, who could only offer me one month of half-time work-barely enough to cover rent. A lot of factors combined to make me leave Rome, but teaching itself wasn’t one of them. The class I taught was great, but the agency was terrible. As a newly qualified teacher, the CELTA stipulates that all qualifiers need additional training to develop as teachers; my school gave me a vague topic (hospitality) and no teaching materials. I’d had no prior experience (besides four weeks on the CELTA) and there wasn’t even so much as a textbook, syllabus or any advice given! So due to my inexperience and newness, it took me two hours to plan my two hour lessons.  I was only working part-time, but with the amount of planning (and I didn’t even know if my lessons worked well or adhered to the syllabus), this turned into a full-time job on half-pay. La dolce vita indeed!

On top of this my flat was a two hour commute from work. I’d let an elderly relative ask around to find me a flat in Rome, but in hindsight this was a mistake and I should have researched the neighbourhoods myself. It had poor transport links and so was impossible to get anywhere outside of the very centre of Rome. My route to school involved one slow 45-minute tram and then 2 buses in the countryside, amounting to two hours. The schools I was assigned to also happened to be 2 hours away. To top things off, I was living with a few immigrants to Italy, so wasn’t getting as much chance to practice my Italian either.

Another strange thing about my school, was that they’d lied to me during the interview. It was a small lie and doesn’t seem like much, but I thought if they were dishonest about the start, what could come later? The woman who hired me, pretended that all the other teachers who worked there were native English speakers, but out of a group of 14, I was only one of two native English speakers. Generally, to ensure quality, schools try and recruit native speakers and non-native teachers may have a harder time finding jobs, even though their grasp of English is almost always better (grammatically).  She also lied and said I would get a lot of help to begin with, when none was given at all.

Unfortunately, you can’t prevent this kind of thing happening, but you can ensure you’re informed enough to minimise the risk. I knew what the job market was like in Rome for newly-qualified teachers but was still determined to make it work. Now in September 2013, I’m moving back to Rome but with a British Council job as a Comenius Assistant; my role, responsibilities and hours are set and I’ll be trained and monitored from the beginning. For me, this is a fantastic starting point for a teaching English career and we’ll just have to see where this goes!


The Dangers of Teaching English

Teaching English isn’t the most stable profession and the industry is rife with ‘cowboy’ schools who deliver substandard service to the teachers they employ (not to mention the students). For those who are unqualified, teaching English may be an attractive prospect as all that is required is a bachelor’s degree, however it is not uncommon for teachers to become entangled in the fine print of their contract once its signed. I’ve even heard of stories where schools have refused to return teachers’ passports to them (for Visa purposes certain countries may be required to hold onto your passport for the duration of your contract, but I definitely wouldn’t hand it over). The above video is an example of the perils of teaching English, watch it now. I’ll wait.

Some of it initially seems comical but many of it is rooted in truth:

I can tell by your skin colour that you will be a great teacher“- some countries may hold a bias against non-Caucasian teachers, even those whose native language is English. Some may see it as more of a “guarantee” and do not want to be taught by someone whose first language is not English. It may not even be the schools who are biased but parents may hold this preference that schools would have to accommodate.

Do you have a bachelor’s degree?”
Do you have two opposable thumbs that can be used to touch and grasp simple objects?”
Do you have less than three felony convictions for molestation of a minor?”

These ‘requirements’ hint at the lax criteria used to hire prospective teachers, hence why it’s better to be qualified, so you can go for the better-quality schools. I’m not going to go through the rest of the video, but its always best to get reviews from teachers who have worked there and ask the right questions during interview. Of course they could always lie, like my interviewer did, but at least you can pull them up on it later on. Also make sure that you get your contract translated into English if it is in a different language! Here is just one account of things that can go wrong.

Routes Into TEFL

Most of the information here will be geared toward British graduates, unless stated otherwise. There are a wide range of different routes into the TEFL industry, but it can be hard to know which ones won’t take advantage of you. My failed experience in TEFL in Italy has not taught me to give up, but to pursue alternative (and more structured) routes in. The options below cover year-long teaching posts, as well as summer work and volunteering within the TEFL industry.

Graduates without qualifications, part I

Most of the British Council assistantships will be closed off to you, except for the ones in China where you don’t need any knowledge of Mandarin. Everywhere but China you need a language A-Level to even be considered for applications.

To work in Asia at all though, you won’t really need qualifications. Many countries just want graduates with a degree, but beware that there is a racial bias and some south east Asian countries will prefer white graduates over other races, as they see this as more of a ‘guarantee’ that they’re a native speaker. It is possible to work straight off the bat without qualifications, but it could be quite a risk, as schools who are willing to take on teachers who aren’t qualified will be of a lower quality and therefore more apt to take advantage. These are known as ‘cowboy schools’.

There is also the JET scheme for those who are happy to spend up to a year working in Japan and teaching English-not neccessarily in the big cities either. You can apply to be an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) and can earn up to £25,500 per year. Not bad for a graduate starting salary.

Graduates without qualifications, part II

Having completed a degree and wanting to pursue a teaching career makes you eligible for the British Council’s Comenius assistant scheme. I prefer this to the British Council’s general assistantships as you can choose to work between 13- 45 weeks in Europe AND some wicked overseas territories.

The British Council covers the entire cost of travel, visas and allows a stipend for living costs and language tuition. The sole caveat is that you have to either have studied, be studying or plan to work towards a teaching qualification.

*As of July 2013, I’ve been informed that this may be the last cohort of Comenius Assistants, but that a similar programme is possibly being devised as we speak… I’ll be starting with Comenius in September 2013 in Rome, Italy.

Language Undergraduates/Graduates (A-Levels/ Modern Foreign Languages Degree)

If you have studied a language at A-Level then you are eligible to apply for British Council assistantships in Italy, Spain, France and even south America. Many of these places will be awarded to language undergraduates as this is a required component of their degree, but the British Council also consider graduates. You will be required to work for an entire academic year and have a working week of 12-16 hours and you will receive a tax-free grant to cover living costs. Most people will need to take on a second job to live comfortably, but this can be done tutoring students of English by the hour.

You will be based in one school and unlike many other teachers, won’t have to race around the city to make your next class. Lucky you.

Graduates with qualifications CELTA/ CertTesol and PGCE (and other general teaching qualifications)

You’ve heard me praise the CELTA at length, so I won’t bore you any longer. With this qualification, you will be able to target the better schools and command a much better salary-particularly in south east Asia. Be warned though, being fresh out of a CELTA can make job-hunting difficult in the Middle East and Europe, where they expect teachers with more experience.

Graduates and Non-Graduates with other TEFL qualifications

Weekend courses and other schemes don’t hold much sway in the TEFL world but may stand you in a better light in Asia, where even a weekend course is better than no previous experience. Unfortunately, in south east Asia they sometimes have a preference for Caucasian English teachers (even over Asian), so bear this in mind and some countries stipulate (Indonesia) that you must have completed a degree.

Graduates who just wanna volunteer

Whilst its all well and good wanting to volunteer abroad, be wary of organisations that will cost you an arm and a leg. Remember you shouldn’t have to pay for the privilege of giving away your time, but if you do want a shorter teaching stint then volunteering could be the option for you. Do keep in mind the impact you will have on your students though, if you decide to volunteer in an African village for a few weeks before touring the Serengeti, having signed away £4000 (not including flights of course) to a British charity. It’s these trips you should try and avoid.

If you want to break up your travelling, log onto Help Exchange and see if the areas you’re visiting need a hand for a few weeks to a few months. Its a great (free!) opportunity to help out in schools in need and can give you a fantastic opportunity to get to know the country and culture a little better. Some may ask for a minimum commitment.

Graduates who want summer work

The final option is for graduates who want to work in European summer camps helping students learn English through games, songs and other activities. The salaries are often decent and you’re usually based in a beautiful part of the country. For these, you often won’t need a qualification (as you won’t strictly be teaching) but experience with children is preferable. ACLE is one such company based in Italy and a google search will yield loads more.

CELTA Glossary

Below is a list of CELTA terminology that you can get to grips with if you want to be extra-prepared for the course, in no particular order and it features stages that should be in every TEFL lesson. 

Productive skills– These are the skills in which students are producing the target language through speaking and writing

Receptive skills– These are the skills in which students are imbibing the target language through reading and listening

TP– Teaching Practice

Setting the context– Before every lesson it is vital to ‘set the context’ to get sts interested in the topic. For example, when teaching a lesson on “used to do” (past state) I drew a character on the board and asked students to name her. I then told them what this character’s life used to be like before winning the lottery and saying “Before winning the lottery, Pochahuntus (they named her, not me!) used to live in a small flat, now she lives in a mansion.”

Realia– The visuals used to teach vocabulary, e.g. bringing in lots of fruit, veg, snacks to teach food names

Eliciting– Drawing the target language from the students. Tutors hate it when you tell students the answer instead of drawing the answer from them. This always seemed bizarre for me as how could you draw from students what you’re just about to teach?! But many of our students had had quite a few English classes before and often were familiar with the majority of our material. So for teaching sport vocabulary, instead of showing a picture of a football match and saying “Football”, I would ask the class what this was. If no one gave the right answer, then I can tell them, but you have to make them work for it.

Model– This is when you literally just say a word so students can hear the correct pronunciation and stress. You enunciate and ensure that they can hear where the stress goes.

Drill-Making students repeat the word or sentence you have just introduced. You should always drill chorally (everyone) and then individually, picking on random students to give you the pronunciation. So first in unison and then individual checks just to make sure everyone’s got it. Most of my coursemates and I didn’t get this until after halfway through TP’s so it might be a boost to your grades to slot it in from the beginning. Tutors were adamant about the chain of eliciting-modelling-drilling.

Flying with the fastest– In your class there will always be stronger students and weaker students and once the stronger students have gotten the answer or understood the question it is easy to just move on, but you shouldn’t! Just because the stronger ones are shouting out the answers doesn’t mean that everyone in the class has understood, which is you you need to “concept check” (literally check students have understood the concept” with Concept Questions…

Concept Questions-These check a student’s comprehension of a new word or piece of grammar. So if I was to concept check “I used to” I might say “I used to play tennis everyday,” I would ask the class, “Do I still play tennis now?” (no!) Its a way of making sure students have really understood what you’re teaching them. Concept questions are a bit harder than they sound and my coursemates and I sometimes got this wrong for various reasons. You’re not allowed to use the target language or grammar structure in the target sentence! Remember you’re checking their understanding so you have to rephrase it. Also ensure that your concept questions are not harder than the target language being taught. 

Sts– For some reason tutors had an obsession with abbreviating “students” to “sts” or even “ss”

Error corrections– You should not automatically correct students’ mistakes but should try and get them to correct each other. So if a student said to me during a past tense lesson, “I go to the shop”, I would say to the group they’re in or the class, “Is it ‘I go to the shop’ or…?” and usually someone else will supply me with the correct answer. We were told that when teachers correct students’ mistakes, they’re less likely to remember it then if they correct themselves or are corrected by their peers. Sometimes I would also try and get them to correct themselves, so if we were conjugating verbs in the past tense I would have the “I, you, he/she/it” structure written on the board and if they said, “I go to the shop” I could point at the board and indicate that they need to change their answer and usually they will correct themselves. This follows the Chinese proverb, “Tell me and I’ll forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”