Fighting the good fight: reflections on being an English language teacher in Italy in the aftermath of Covid.

Thursday 23 September, 2021

Last Saturday evening, driving through the city of Lecce, I saw a big billboard advertising the services of the English language school: the school I am going to start working for in about ten days’ time. There was some inspirational photographic image of photogenic students, absorbed in some language-learning activity, and below it in a kind of hip but approachable font, the slogan, “Never stop learning”.

I could be cynical about the commercial nature of appealing to people’s desire to improve themselves through education: to tell you the truth, I am a bit cynical about it – the marketing side, not education itself. I did a degree and a master’s degree, both times in the field of American literature, and though the university in no way guaranteed that a good career would follow, that was the implication.

Okay, it was clear these were not the most commercially oriented degrees one could be doing, but the idea was that the resulting qualifications would be so impressive to potential employers that it didn’t matter all that much what you had studied.  I bought into that, because I was enjoying my course so much and didn’t want to recognize the fact that I was doing something basically irrelevant to all but a handful of people in the world outside my academic retreat. I had a considerable shock when I found, at the end of those lengthy halcyon days, my former tutors were no longer replying to my emails and my extensive reading of the transcendentalists, realists and modernists of American literature was of absolutely no use to anyone advertising a job.  Since then, I have met people who did degrees with more practical applications – psychology, law, engineering – who also found themselves without a way into those professions, or a way to make secure careers in them – some of those people are now English language teachers.  

And that is how education is marketed – with the implication that by doing a particular course, whether a six-week training course or a four-year degree, your future is assured – you won’t ever have to worry about finding a good job (not just “good”, but “satisfying”), or about getting a mortgage, or simply paying the rent on a decent flat in a respectable part of town, or buying groceries.

By signing up for an education, the sales pitch goes, you are building yourself a house of bricks that no big bad wolf can huff and puff and blow down. There’s a “through a mirror darkly” implication too – if you don’t sign up, well, your house is made of sticks, or straw, or maybe even something nonbiodegradable like polystyrene coffee cups– good luck when a wolf or a hurricane comes along.

There is of course a value to education, but it is not automatically a market value. An advanced level of education does not guarantee that you will not find yourself at some time unemployed, poor, disregarded, disrespected, desperate. It may give you the self-respect and analytical skills to deal with these situations better than if you hadn’t had an advanced level of education – I think it has for me, and that has made it worthwhile. This is not how education is marketed and promoted, however – it if was, it would be for a very “niche” market, as they say. Existentialists, perhaps.

But to return to this billboard, when I saw it, I did not think something cynical, I thought instead that I had a responsibility toward any hopeful spirit who had read that billboard and consequently registered for a course that I will be teaching.

It is easy to become demoralized in the English language teaching profession. It is true you can live in foreign countries for extended periods – from six months to a lifetime, depending on your desire and the circumstances – and you can travel the world, finding a job to support you in each different place.

It sounds wonderful, I know; and it can be, for a few years, but if you are in it as your main career, there is a considerable downside. The salary is at subsistence level – the current average salary for an English language teacher in Europe is between 1100 euro and 1300 euro per month. As a single person you can, depending on where you live in Europe, just about survive on that, but you won’t save anything, unless you live like a church mouse. Nor could you think about raising a family, unless your relationship partner has a better paid job than yours. There are, with very few exceptions, no benefits offered to teachers by English language schools – no pension plan, no health insurance, no incremental raise in salary if you stay longer than a year. The employment contracts are usually for eight or nine months of the year, from the beginning of October to the end of May or June – in the summer it’s up to you to find a way to support yourself, and there is hardly any work available in this field in summer – save for working in summer camps, which is not to all tastes – in fact, unless you’re a 25-year -old sports enthusiast who is happy to get four hours of sleep each night, and likes eating all their meals in a canteen surrounded by kids, I don’t really recommend it as a way to spend your summer.

The profession is not unionized, nor can you expect much solidarity from your colleagues should you tangle with management. Some teachers are just there – wherever “there” might be – to have fun no matter what, and don’t care much about pay or conditions, because they are not planning to remain in the game for too long anyway. Why should they get involved in someone else’s dispute? Someone they hardly know and whose issue is not their issue?

Without a union to support teachers… management has just about all the cards in their favour.

Others who might be more sympathetic or in agreement with your point of contention are aware that, without a union to support teachers, or any formal complaints system involving third-party mediation (as with more regulated companies or organisations), management has just about all the cards in their favour. English language schools can always find teachers from somewhere, and their attitude towards teachers who ask for better pay or better terms of employment is, in most cases, “take it or leave it”. They’ll probably also let you know, in various ways, they find it rather distasteful and naïve of you to have asked. What profession do you think you’re in?

If you’re trying to build a life around this line of work, you can start to feel, after a few decades at it, like the ageing boxer played by Stacy Keach in the John Huston film “Fat City” (1972)…

For teachers in their twenties, doing it for up to five years for the travel experience, or at the other end of the spectrum, teachers who had a good career beforehand, then decided to go into this profession at retirement age, to have a few interesting experiences, none of this is much of an issue. However, if you’re trying to build a life around this line of work, you can start to feel, after a few decades at it, like the ageing boxer played by Stacy Keach in the John Huston film Fat City (1972) – an amicable gun-for-hire, a “good sort” everybody is fairly well disposed towards, but nobody really loves or cares much about, never advancing in either his profession or his personal life, and with a future ahead that doesn’t bear contemplation (Keach’s character, like many English language teachers, avoids such contemplation by getting wasted on booze periodically).

Stacy Keach, left, with Jeff Bridges, in the John Huston film “Fat City” (1972)

When you see… they are enjoying the lesson, it’s a great feeling.

Your mind can be taken off all this, at least for a while, by an appreciative student, or class of students. When you have a one-to-one lesson with student who wants to learn, or a lesson with a class of interested students who meet you halfway or more, and you see that you are facilitating some learning, and they are enjoying the lesson, it’s a great feeling. It doesn’t even feel like work, sometimes. In the grand scheme of things, it’s nothing; but you are, at least, for those ninety minutes, succeeding in your role and helping people to achieve their goals, and the effect can be, well, reassuring for a teacher (at least, this teacher) dealing with feelings of the pointlessness of their own existence.

However, we don’t always encounter these kinds of students. English language teaching is not secondary-school teaching – it doesn’t pay nearly as well, have the benefits like government pensions and a year-round salary, and it isn’t nearly as tough. We don’t have to face moody teenagers for five hours a day, do all the paperwork that comes with a public-sector job, and perhaps worst of all, deal with parents who feel that the reason their kids are failing in their formative tests must be due to the school, or more precisely their teacher, failing them (as opposed to them needing a bit more monitoring at home as to their engagement in class and completion of homework, for instance). On our training courses, the CELTA or TESOL, we are taught mainly how to teach motivated students, and in fact our “guinea pigs” on which we develop our teaching skills are adults who are so keen to learn English they come to free classes where they know the teacher is still qualifying (though to be fair, they usually get a good lesson, even if it is delivered with a certain nervousness).

In a typical English language teaching week in a European country, you usually have some classes, or one-to-one lessons, with motivated adult learners. But most of your lessons are with school-age children – the children the secondary-school teachers have been teaching all day, enrolled in extra lessons after school to learn English, sometimes against their wishes – often against their wishes. So, although we don’t have the responsibilities that secondary-school teachers have, we don’t escape the moody teenagers who don’t want to be in our class.

The right way to deal with this is with a shrug and tolerance – what the hell, you can’t expect every class to go like an aria, just do your job, try your best, and at the end say goodnight, and go home – or to the bar. But over the last year, not having much of a life of my own, it got me down. English language teaching is predicated on the idea that students must be interested in one topic or other. English language textbooks tend to recycle a small number of topics with the broadest possible appeal – food, travel, friendship, shopping, sports, celebrities; you try to relate this to your students’ lives and preferences: what kind of food do you like best? Where is the most interesting place you’ve been? What sports do you enjoy playing or watching?

Planets Jupiter (L) and Saturn are seen during the great conjunction from the Griffith Observatory on the same day as the winter solstice, December 21, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. – The great conjunction refers to the astronomical alignment of Jupiter and Saturn, the closest for nearly 400 years. (Photo by Patrick T. Fallon / AFP)

…perhaps demoralized by the restrictions created by the Covid regulations, most students would not get enthusiastic about or interested in anything…

Usually, this gets some enthusiasm – everybody likes being asked about themselves, young people especially. But this past academic year, from October 2020 to June 2021, perhaps demoralized by the restrictions created by the Covid regulations, most students would not get enthusiastic about or interested in anything. I felt that this might be more a kind of collective depression than resentment of being in class, and I  recall trying to inspire conversations based on current events that were not Covid-related, and that were, I suppose, focused on the more fascinating aspects of living on Earth: on 13 December 2020, the new eruption of the volcano  Mount Etna, of which spectacular photos had appeared in all international news sources; on 21 December 2020, the arrival of the Great Conjunction, when the planet Jupiter “overtakes” Saturn in its orbit, an occurrence that happens approximately once every twenty years; but they showed barely an interest in either subject. In the end, there seemed nothing to do but just accept that there was not going to be much brightness in these lessons, and just get through them, delivering the content.

Mount Etna eruption, December 2020 (stock photo, no credit)

It became a massive psychological effort just to take a shower in the morning.

By the end of the last term, I had lost all my enthusiasm for teaching. I did my best by the students and worked hard to help as many of them pass their exams as possible, but I had come to feel that there was nothing to be said for the work other than that it paid the bills and gave me a daily routine essential for keeping one’s feet on the ground. I’ve been looking into ways to get into a more elevated position in the profession, and other possible work outside of it. This summer was for me a summer of depression. It became a massive psychological effort just to take a shower in the morning. A feeling of despair and self-loathing and paranoia overwhelmed me.

At some point, the better part of my nature fought back. I started the blog you’re now reading. I carried through the activities of moving forward with my life even if my heart wasn’t yet in it. I started an online course from the British Council, specifically about motivating learners. It began two days ago, on 21 September, only a fortnight before most English language teachers start the autumn term, and the timing of it makes me wonder if the problems I experienced with student motivation are problems that many other teachers in my profession also experienced, and I wonder if many teachers too are hoping to turn things around in this next academic year. I wonder if many of them also felt depressed by the problems of encountering indifference to the task of learning in their classrooms.

Even before I saw the billboard… I had been thinking about the need to approach this new academic year in a positive way…

Even before I saw the billboard with the photogenic learners and the slogan in hip but approachable font that read, “Never stop learning”, I had been thinking about the need to approach this new academic year in a positive way. I am still looking for ways to get higher in the profession or develop other career strands, because if I don’t, I don’t know where I’m going to end up. But, for now, this is my profession, and for the sake of self-respect, I need to do my best for the students that, at least in some cases, might be coming to me with a desire to learn, or if not a desire, some spark of curiosity or intelligence or ambition that might do as well as desire.

“If you only think of yourself, you’ll only destroy yourself” – Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” (1954)

As we seem to be coming out of global crisis… the role of a teacher, even a simple languages teacher, seems to have some more meaning in it.

As we seem to be coming out of the worst phase of a global crisis that left many people dead before their time, and many others bereaved, the role of a teacher, even a simple languages teacher, seems to have some more meaning in it. The Covid pandemic seems to me something like a war that the world has been through – the casualties certainly justify the comparison – and I’ve recently been thinking a lot of a film I haven’t seen in a long time, The Seven Samurai (d. Akira Kurosawa, 1954). In the film, a group of samurai who have lost their master and have become mercenaries for hire, rediscover a sense of responsibility to others in helping a village to protect itself from marauding bandits. As an older samurai tells a younger one, “This is the nature of war. By protecting others, you save yourself. If you only think of yourself, you’ll only destroy yourself.” I’m not protecting others, but a teacher helps others, which might hold some comparative value. Perhaps also by helping others, even in a small way, you also save yourself. I’m kind of counting on it.

Leaving Tricase (part 1)

Leaving Tricase (part 1)

Monday 6 September, 2021.

The day the beach umbrella died, my apartment, Tricase, early September 2021.

In which a meditation on leaving the coastal hamlet of Tricase after a two-year stay leads to a perspective on the city of Lecce, and a memory of a friend.

It is Sunday 5 September 2021, and I have begun writing this on a bus heading back to the hamlet of Tricase from the city of Lecce, a distance of 50 kilometres between these two points, a ride or drive of around an hour by the fastest route.

I was in Lecce for a weekend, to get my second Covid vaccination shot, spend some time with a friend and to try to get myself excited again about moving to Lecce.

I’ve been visiting this city regularly over the four years I have been living in the vicinity, working as an English language teacher. Lecce is a relatively small city, but that is part of its appeal. Outside of the summer season, its wide, oak-lined boulevards and small cobbled-stone streets are rarely empty, but hardly ever overcrowded. There is a relaxed and cultured atmosphere about the place, and indeed relaxation and culture are really the city’s main lures.

Promontory children’s playground, Porto Tricase, 16 July, 2021, at sunset.

Lecce is a fascinating city, but unlike the city of Bari to the north, it is not a city of industry and commerce. It has a university, some excellent cultural centres such as the Castromediano museum and the Bernadini public library, and is full of great restaurants, bars, enoteche (wine shops), delicatessens and boutique clothing stores. Mainly though, it is simply great to look at, and is efficiently maintained and policed – the streets are clean, and the average resident or visitor can feel pretty safe walking those streets.

However, in recent years, its appeal to students and the well-heeled has made Lecce a more expensive place to live than it was (I’m informed) ten or fifteen years ago. I’m having a hard time finding a decent flat at a price commensurate to the salary of an English language teacher and I am starting to wonder if I should consider a Plan B.

It was (at least in part) the desire for affordable accommodation that led me to go work in a small town in southern Italy in the first place. Now I feel driven (though with reservations) back to a city.

The reason for this has been a creeping feeling of desolation that overcame me, starting from the last Christmas period onwards.

I had been doing okay up to that point. I had completely abstained from alcohol for six months. I continued my project to read the complete works of Joseph Conrad. I stopped writing random pronouncements nobody was particularly interested in on social media. I went cycling to the coastal point of Marina Serra most days, a ninety-minute round trip. I lost weight, my hair seemed to have stopped falling out, I looked in the mirror and what I saw did not seem too bad, all things considered. I felt I had achieved a certain dignity and equilibrium.

House with the perfect view of the Adriatic sea, viewed from the crest of Marina Serra, 27 June, 2021.

I tried to be content in my roomy apartment… the local church bells chiming melodically….

But then, Christmas got to me. I tried to be content in my roomy apartment, with my soft drinks and coffee and books, and the local church bells chiming melodically, but the total loneliness and a sense of being a redundant individual in the world overwhelmed me like a typhoon.

You ask yourself that question – or rather, you don’t, but that question arrives, when the bells stop chiming: if you were to keel over right now on this floor and die of a heart attack, how long would it take for anyone to notice? This leads to further questions: Once they noticed, how many people would it affect? And for how long would it affect them? And what would be your contribution to this planet? What could anyone point to as something – or somebody – you developed or to which/whom you gave life? In short, would the results of your life so far add up to anything? The answers to these questions were sobering, as they say – and I was already sober, so I got out the bottle of wine that had been idling in the cupboard for six months and opened it.

They say alcoholism is a slow form of suicide, but it could be argued that, considering it’s slow enough to have time to turn things around, like Raymond Carver did in his last decade, it is still better than the fast version. A good friend of mine, whom I’ll call Miranda (as I have never known anyone called that), died in the autumn of 2019.  She was an English language teacher like me, except she was a lot better than me. She was an examiner for one of the two accrediting English language exam boards, and when not teaching, she travelled all over the world for her examiner work, a well-paid occupation. She had a cosy ground-floor flat, in a desirable area of southern England, with a garden, and she had finished paying off the mortgage on it many years before. She had a home that no one could take away from her, and the security of being a sought-after member of the higher tier of her profession.  

She was talented. She wrote poems and short plays. She did voluntary work helping refugees to learn English. She was intelligent, she was well-read, she was compassionate, she was witty, and she was much-loved by colleagues, neighbours, and friends, of which she had many.

Perhaps she felt it was something that you could learn how to handle, with the use of intellect

But Miranda was lonely – I can say that, based on what followed. She must have been – deeply, heartbreakingly lonely. Perhaps she was only vaguely aware of it, or perhaps she felt it was something you could live with – a lifelong condition that you could learn how to handle, with the use of intellect, as is tentatively suggested in the title essay of a book of essays by Jonathan Franzen she had loaned me in 2017, How to Be Alone (2002). If my memory serves me well, Franzen’s essay was more focussed on the difficulty of maintaining some private life and private thoughts in the new era (as it was, back then) of internet sharing and “over-sharing” than the actual problem of loneliness. I remember thinking that although Franzen’s intelligence was impressive, and he had clearly experienced some of life’s “ups and downs”, in his way, the author did not strike me as a man who had ever experienced real, extended loneliness. For such people – and I believe I was once one of those people – “being alone” may be imagined something like a holiday on an exotic island – enjoyable, because you know that you are not marooned there.

Miranda had at least one boyfriend in the five or six years I knew her, but the relationship didn’t last long. Her greatest love seemed to be reserved for her dog. I saw a series of posts she made on Instagram about her dog being ill, in 2019, and the last post I saw was posted soon after her dog had died.

She had a funeral for her dog, with several bouquets of flowers, in her garden. It seemed as if it were something she had done alone. I posted a message of support in the thread of that post because I could see Miranda was distraught, but I didn’t realise just how inconsolable. I was busy working for an intense university summer programme some ninety kilometres away, and intended to visit her in the brief hiatus between the end of my job, and my return to Italy. I felt sorry for her loss, but felt she would probably have started to move forward with her life by the time I saw her, in three or four weeks.

Less than a fortnight later I received an email from my former manager at the school Miranda and I had worked at– the email said that Miranda had died, and Miranda’s father and brother were inviting all her colleagues from the school to attend the funeral.

At the funeral, which I was able to attend (fortunately, for my return flight was booked for the very same evening), I saw at least a dozen of my former colleagues and there seemed to be at least a hundred and fifty people in attendance. As I said, Miranda was loved by many. The cause of Miranda’s death was never mentioned and of course, it was not the right time or place to ask. However, as Miranda was only 58 years old at the time of her death and had no health problems anyone knew about, and as I had read her last messages on Instagram, I strongly suspected (as I think did some of my colleagues) that she had committed suicide.

When I researched the facts on the Internet – because I needed to know the truth – the website of the established local newspaper confirmed that this was the case. No reference was made to the death of her dog as the catalyst that led to Miranda taking her own life, just the cause of death, which was reported to have been an overdose of sleeping pills. This led me to believe that Miranda had been planning her suicide for a while, maybe during her dog’s period of illness or maybe even before; it takes time to gather enough sleeping pills to effectively kill oneself, if one only deals with respectable doctors, and I find it hard to believe she knew any other kind.

Miranda’s suicide affected me and continues to affect me. I miss her. But more than that, I wish I could have helped her. There were friends closer to her than me, and yet we were (I believe) close friends.

Miranda was loved by many people, but this was not enough.

Miranda was loved by many people, but this was not enough. It was a sincere love, but it was not a strong enough love. It was what is sometimes called affection, or perhaps gratitude. The hungry heart cannot be fed on this alone, and it led Miranda to focus her strongest love on her pet dog. Pets, of course, love a kind master or mistress unconditionally and unreservedly, with none of the complications or vacillations of other human beings. When her dog died, for Miranda it was the end of hope for the kind of love she needed. She felt, I believe, she was facing slow starvation – and she preferred a quick death to slow starvation.

How did so many of us – intelligent, kind, generous, not-unattractive people – end up coming to this kind of desolation in our later years? This is something I will explore further – and come back to leaving Tricase – in part two.