Navigating the English School scene in Rome is akin to trying to make your way across a minefield. It takes time, effort, and a lot of luck.
During the year I spent in Rome, I had more interviews than does your average recent college grad-wielding-a-liberal-arts-degree and as a result got to see more of the language school scene than most. The only thing that became worse for me than meeting troublesome potential employers was routinely getting screwed over by the ones I already worked for.
While it might be tempting to write off my experiences as those of a disgruntled interviewee or employee, with years of satisfactory teaching experience in reputable schools, I hope you’ll hear me out first. Because ultimately, despite the raging narcissistic Texan, the double “tax” charging Scot, and the bell ringing factory schools, I ended up finding a great school with an employer who treated his employees as something more than mere chattel. I just had to go through the language school wringer to find it.
Beware then, of the following four schools!
One: The Factory School
This school, located in the Monti district, has truly charming staff. It was also the first school that I interviewed for, even before arriving in Rome, and only afterwards did I make the move to the Italian capital. When I was hired, I was told by the Italian owner that I’d receive an hourly rate of 15 euros, and, not having experience yet with the tricks employed by many schools, I foolishly didn’t ask for more details. Only after my first day of teaching did my Italian employer clarify that I would receive 15 euros an hour only for classes taught outside the school, of which my hours were minimal. For classes at the school, the lion’s share of my hours in other words, I would receive only 8 EUROS AN HOUR! If you’ve spent any time in Rome at all you know how expensive most things are, so let me assure you that living in Rome on a salary earning a bit more than double what this school offers still leaves one regularly debating whether to buy bufala Mozzarella or pay the rent on time.
Furthermore, as some of the classes were especially far out of the center, my boss offered the use of her car to get from one to the other. Though this last offer was, I suppose, an extremely trusting one to make, the thought of driving in Rome to this day sends a tiny shiver of fear through me. Did I really want the added responsibility that came from driving my boss’s car around?
Best of all, this school employed the use of a bell which, when the class was over, would ring persistently until the door was opened and the student was quickly swapped with another.
Ultimately, I’ll own up and say that many of the mistakes made here were on my side and could have been avoided simply by asking for clarification. And then asking for clarification again.
Two: The School with the Bad Math
This school is located so far out of the center that odds are the people left on the bus with you at the end of the line are either your colleagues or your students. While I met many of my good friends at this school, it’s on the list because of the way they do their accounting. Upon being hired, you’re told that you’ll make a certain amount, after taxes. So far standard operating procedure. Except that the figure quoted to you by this school isn’t after taxes at all… or, at least, isn’t after ALL taxes.
Note: When a school starts subtracting mysterious amounts from your paycheck that haven’t been explained beforehand, a big CAUTION sign ought to flash before your eyes. A school that isn’t honest from the start about how much they pay likely won’t be honest about other things either. In this case, they explained that the added “tax” is subtracted only from the salaries of E.U. (i.e. British) employees with the promise that it will be refunded at the end of the year. Whether or not such a tax is legitimate, or whether you do in fact get the money returned, this policy is suspect when plenty of other Italian schools don’t have it.
Three: The School of False Hope
Hiring day: “We’ll help you get a visa!”
Day 15: “We’re working on your visa.”
Day 30: “You’ll probably get your visa.”
Day 60: “You might get your visa.”
Day 90: “You’re screwed.”
If you have much experience in the ESL world, this is likely something that you’ve come across. The school in that fantastic destination that, despite all your voiced fears, promises to hook you up with a visa straightaway. If you don’t have this in writing, undoubtedly complications will arise.
There are many ways the school might pull one over on you. A specific example might be the school in China that hires you over Skype only to, when you arrive, give you an F (tourist) visa rather than the Z (work) visa that you actually need.
In general it all too frequently comes down to promising to get you a visa but never delivering for one reason or another. This is really the hardest school to weed out, their staff often say all the right things during that Skype interview but in the end the only remedy (other than experiencing firsthand) is to ask to be put into contact with former teachers and to research the school up and down all over the web.
There is little worse than being stuck halfway around the world on an expired tourist visa!
Four: The English Nuthouse
There are more of these than you think and if you’re not a psychology major (or just adept at dealing with narcissists) spotting the director who is raging to their inner ego maniac is about as difficult as trying to get a private audience with the Pope!
An overwhelming sense of superiority is usually only good for so long at staying under wraps, in this case not long at all. I replied to a Facebook post seeking “nightmare” teaching experiences and met a school director from Texas with an ego (and sense of irony) to rival that of the Lone Star State. After marrying an Italian, moving to Rome and opening her own school she offered me a job after having just a week earlier turned me down due to my lack of an E.U. residency permit. She explained her change of heart by saying she was “desperate” having not found anyone else in the interim.
Note: If an employer hires you because she’s “desperate” that’s a bad sign.
An English school director’s “desperation” over a lack of suitable teachers usually comes down to one of three possibilities:
1. Not being able to find anyone to work at their school because they’re operating in a small market (i.e. NOT Rome).
2. Not being able to find anyone to work at their school because they’re offering a smaller salary/fewer benefits than their competitors.
3. Not being able to find anyone to work at their school because they’re emotionally unstable.
In this case, two and three apply.
Two applies because while 13 euros per hour of class time might seem a decent amount, it isn’t when you have to take public transportation for an hour and upon arrival remain placid while a quartet of 4 year olds draw all over you with permanent markers.
Three applies because when, after reevaluating the above, you decide to put your 2 weeks notice in and the director of the school responds by lambasting you in an email. That would be quite enough, but then reading said email to the remaining crop of employees really puts things over the top (Note: I was, on this occasion, in the latter camp which led to this observation).
When I put my notice in two months later after finding a better (read: saner) set-up, Texas sent me an email (which she likely read to her one remaining employee) informing me that if I wanted my previous week’s salary she would have the carabinieri (Italian military police who deal with immigration affairs) bring it to my new school. Threatening deportation because an employee leaves your school is certainly one I hadn’t heard before.
In the end, there is hope out there for the English teacher seeking paradise, a living wage, and a sane working environment. Even in Italy. With luck you’ll manage to bypass these first four schools straight to the fifth. Though no school or general work environment is perfect, once you’ve learned about or experienced the worst that’s out there, everything else starts to look pretty good. Especially when followed by gelato.