Despite the current economic situation in Italy, the need for English doesn't appear to be declining. This means that although many Italians seem to be suffering from the lack of employment opportunities, those seeking to get into the area of teaching English in Italy are at an advantage, and English mother tongue teachers are definitely sought after. State schools all offer English to their students, but many also seek to supplement their English (which can often be taught to a less-than-desirable standard) with private lessons.
As an English teacher in Italy myself, I can safely say that teaching here is fantastic. The abundance of sunshine (particularly in the south), the tasty food and the friendly people make for a great expat experience. Nevertheless, there are several things that you should know before you jet off to the land of la dolce vita.
There are plenty of places, particularly online (check out tefl.com, for example), where you can find teaching jobs in Italy. It is advisable to have a look at paginegialle.it to check if a language school (scuole di lingue) is legitimate; unfortunately, not all schools are. The best time to look for jobs is around September, before the new teaching year officially begins, although some employers already publicise their vacancies during the summer. The teaching year roughly follows the typical academic school year, from September/October until June.
You will come across employers who are only willing to hire you if you are currently in Italy, but schools will also hire teachers who have yet to leave their home country. Many teaching posts in Italy tend to want between two and three years of experience, and while some are happy to consider newly qualified teachers, the general trend seems to lean towards those with experience. Getting a post without having any qualifications is also tricky. The majority of posts are for those with a CELTA/Trinity TESOL certificate or another recognised TEFL qualification, and sometimes also a university degree (although not necessarily in the field of teaching).
Many language schools in Italy are only keen to hire native English-speaking EU nationals (on tefl.com, many postings have the 'EU national preferred' stamped on them), and many explicitly say that they prefer British teachers. While American English is taught here, there tend to be a lot more schools that choose to go down the British English route. While this is an advantage to those of you who are British, it can be much more difficult for non-EU residents. Getting a work permit for Italy is tricky. Why would the Italians go to all that trouble when it's much easier to employ someone from the EU? It is possible to be sponsored, however, and if you are applying to study in Italy, study visas are available and can give you up to 20 hours of 'employment time' per week. Either that, or there's the option of marrying an Italian. Now, they can be very charming, but still!
Prospective employers often have other employee preferences too. A basic (and occasionally 'good') knowledge of Italian is sometimes asked for, but not always – I came here knowing next to nothing. You may need to work weekends (many schools don't follow the typical Monday to Friday working week, and this is not only in Italy), and you may be required to work with young children. Private schools typically work with a range of ages and abilities, and some branch out to outside organisations, such as local companies and nursery schools (yes, they are starting that young!). The typical working day doesn't involve a 9–5 set-up either. The norm tends to be a type of 'split shift': working mornings (often with individuals) and planning lessons, having a lunch/afternoon break (often used for a nap, particularly in the south!) before starting work again in the evening. The number of contact hours a week varies from 20 to 28, the average being about 25. This is only teaching hours though; lesson planning takes up time too. Some schools offer the opportunity of overtime.
Many schools will employ you on a British contract instead of an Italian one. If you are on a British contract, your tax payments will be lower, but the total duration of your 'working year' is limited to 183 days. If you work any more than this, you are liable to pay tax to the Italians too. Being on an Italian contract means that you are, of course, paying your taxes in Italy, and therefore you can claim your social security in Italy. You may not get the contract in English, however, as the employer may not bother to translate it, which can make things difficult if your Italian is limited. Teaching contracts tend to be renewable, whether they are British or Italian. You won't be offered a 'long-term' arrangement immediately, if at all. The usual salary is around EUR 1,000 net per month, but it could be a little more or a little less, depending on hours and location (it may be a little more in the north because living expenses can be higher than in the south). Holidays are often paid, and you tend to get a couple of weeks at Christmas and a week or so for Easter. Many schools also offer a bonus on completion of the contract.
So what about practicalities when you arrive? Employers will usually provide you with accommodation or at least assist you with it. Rent isn't high in the south but may increase in the bigger, northern cities. You'll need to register to get a residence permit when you arrive. All the usual documents are required to do this (such as your passport), and many employers will give you a hand with it all. If you are on an Italian contract, to claim the social security mentioned earlier, you will need to register at the public records office, apply for a tax code (codice fiscale), and register with the local health authority (ASL – Azienda Sanitaria Locale). To register with the local health system, you are required to choose a general practitioner (from the list supplied by the ASL), and following this, you will receive your health card. If you aren't registering for healthcare in Italy (and are still paying your taxes in the UK), ensure you have your European Health Insurance card (previously E111). With this, you have the right to urgent medical treatment and will be treated like an Italian citizen. If you haven't got one of these cards, make sure you apply for it before you leave your home country.
Italian students are a pleasure to teach. They are often lively, cheerful and willing to take part. That's not to say that they can't be a handful though, and you may experience some bad behaviour. Children with learning difficulties don't tend to be given as much support as they should be, so you may encounter some difficulties in this area. The Italian alphabet is similar to the English one, so they don't need to learn a new script, but they tend to have some difficulties with pronunciation. Italian words are pronounced as they are spelt, unlike many English ones. On the whole, however, Italians are warm, pleasant people, particularly adult students, who are aware of the importance of English and are dedicated to learning it.
So what about living in Italy? I've spoken about the practicalities of teaching in Italy but have yet to touch on the lifestyle. Be aware that the south and the north differ in many ways. Northern cities are more similar to Northern/Western European cities, particularly regarding weather and trading hours (i.e. 9–5), and their way of thinking is often more open-minded. The north is undoubtedly more hectic, yet more cosmopolitan, than the south. The south is the home of the true dolce vita, with great weather, friendly people and a relaxed pace of life, but they tend to be more traditional and place more significance on religion and the family unit. They are also hardly ever punctual.
Living and teaching in Italy can be a truly fulfilling experience. The culture, the food, the weather, the history, even the fashion – there will be something here to tempt you. I've been working here in Puglia for almost two years now, and have just renewed my teaching contract for a third. Teaching Italians, even though it can sometimes be hard work (like all teaching positions), is always interesting and so much fun. There's one thing that Italians are superb at, and that's having a laugh and a joke!