Guest Post: My Experience of Teaching Abroad in Rome as a British Council Comenius Assistant
Settit Beyene has just spent a year living and working in Rome as part of the British Council’s Comenius Assistantship programme. It bears similarities to the better-known Language Assistant role that many undergraduates do on their Third Year Abroad, and here she gives her take on what she got up to in Rome. Also check out Settit’s blog, Girl About Rome, about her experiences abroad, and particularly about her fantastic experience of volunteering in San Salvador.
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.
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.
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!
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!