La dolce vita? Not here

14th October 2005 at 01:00
For Italians, teaching is a job to fight over. In the US, too, it lets you walk tall. So why is it, asks Fiona Leney, that over here it is held in such low esteem?

If you're reading this after another demoralising day at what we should now call the whiteboard-face, you'll probably not want to know that many of your colleagues in other countries feel appreciated, loved and well-paid for doing a job they say they think is the best in the world. Sorry, but it's true.

Piero Calvi, a secondary school teacher in Pesaro, a small city on Italy's Adriatic coast, is one of them. He is an architect by training and still runs a small practice with a partner despite working four days a week teaching technical drawing and design at a nearby school. Lessons finish at 2pm. And, while the students may be expected to complete their work by doing another two or three hours independent study at home, Piero has the afternoon free for his architectural business.

"It's wonderful," he says. "Teaching is a job that lets me do what I really want with the rest of my time."

When was the last time you thought that as you sat marking papers at 11pm on a Saturday night? But then Piero's workload is lighter than his English counterparts. He has considerable freedom to determine how and what he teaches as long as he covers the general points of a syllabus that has changed little since he was at school.

Surprisingly, perhaps, for a country renowned for its bureaucracy and paperwork, Italian teachers are relatively untroubled by the current English obsession with testing, monitoring, league tables and paperwork.

That's why Piero is not alone in his contentment.

A recent survey in La Repubblica suggested that Italy's teachers are a happy, happy lot; almost three-quarters said there was no job they would rather do. "There is no greater joy than leading a little one through the discoveries of learning," gushed one teacher who emailed the paper with her reply.

No doubt, but other practical aspects help, such as the generous state pensions that Italian teachers get - they can still expect to receive 70 to 80 per cent of their salary on retirement, despite government attempts to reform the system. For teachers are civil servants, and, incidentally, that makes them almost impossible to fire.

Add to that holidays several weeks longer than their British colleagues, and the prestige which their job carries, and it is easy to see why Italian teachers not only love their jobs, but want to stay in them. Indeed competition for teaching jobs in many parts of Italy is so fierce that candidates have to sit tough public exams to win a place on the waiting list for jobs in their area.

Interestingly, teachers' attitudes mirror those of the public towards them.

Although many aspects of Italian society have changed dramatically - witness its plummeting birth rate - the respect in which teachers are held has not. Only 100 years ago, after all, 70 per cent of the country was illiterate and the economy was overwhelmingly agricultural. Nowadays, being a university lecturer is viewed as the second most prestigious job, bettered only by surgeons. And even humble schoolteachers sit comfortably in the middle of the professional prestige ratings: almost 40 per cent of Italians believe that they deserve more money for doing an excellent job.

My friend Piero has a morbid fascination with the horror stories coming out of British education about secondary - and even primary - schoolkids terrorising their teachers.

"I have never heard of such a thing here," he tells me, rather smugly. "Any child who was cheeky to me would know I would shame him in front of his parents. The whole family would be horrified."

In truth, Piero, like his colleagues, is usually greeted by a chorus of "Buongiorno, professore" wherever he goes.

In the United States too, teaching is generally seen as a job to boast about at your neighbours' drinks party. Almost half of the parents and pupils quizzed for a poll last year thought teaching carried "very great prestige" - tell that to your bolshy sixth-formers - while 57 per cent of their teachers responded that they were very satisfied with teaching as a career.

"It is no surprise that there is a connection between these two issues,"

says Sibyl Jacobson, the president of MetLife Foundation, the educational charity that funded the poll. "The finding has implications for efforts to retain qualified teachers and recruit new ones. Teachers need to be heard and respected in order to be effective in the classroom."

But to be honest, workload plays a large part too. In many American secondary schools, a teacher will teach exactly the same lesson across several classes in the same year group. So no darting between the American Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, with ongoing preparation for the Founding Fathers. Only one period to prepare, hone and teach, with a minimum of adjustment to match student capabilities. A third of the effort, although, of course, somewhat boring.

But what of the countries that export teachers to Britain? Surely these emigres must be attracted by something lacking in the system back home.

Well yes. A job, mainly. Better pay, often, and the chance to travel.

Georgia Thompson, a newly qualified teacher from Durban, on the east coast of South Africa, has come to Britain because she couldn't find a job back home. "Many state schools in SA do have huge classes and more teachers would be needed to bring class numbers down, but the government just can't fund that number of new teaching jobs," she says. "So, for now, I'm going to get experience - and save some money - over here."

Georgia has no intention of staying, however. Although she's earning much more than she would be doing in South Africa, she says there's more pure teaching satisfaction to be had back home. The challenges there are great - trying to bring on children from hugely differing backgrounds and family circumstances. But the freedom a teacher has to use their initiative to bring the curriculum alive for these children is exciting.

Georgia says she envies colleagues who email her from home to tell her about taking their class on a bush survival holiday for their biology field trip. "The amount of paperwork and planning that your teachers do is unbelievable - it sometimes feels more like being a clerk."

Hmm. Not a vote of confidence, then. And once again, the R word - respect - is mentioned. Georgia says that although discipline problems in the Manchester comprehensive where she works are not as bad as she'd been led to believe, in South Africa they would simply not have been tolerated at all.

"I guess the system is more traditional there. Perhaps that's not always such a great thing for the kids - but it certainly makes life more pleasant for the teacher."

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