The Puglia Diaries

The thrills and spills of a British Council Language Assistant in Molfetta, Italy


School’s Out – Ciao Ragazzi

I’ve been on holiday for more than a month now, soaking up the sun and occasional thunderstorms, since my contract as a British Council Language Assistant ended on the 30th of May. Eight months of correcting the same mistakes, of delivering lessons and racking my brains for interesting activities came abruptly to a close. It felt like no time had passed at all since I first stepped in front of the first class, the 5°AS, to introduce myself and give a lesson about Red Nose Day.

After I got back from my weekend in Turin, the days rolled by alarmingly fast until I was into my last week as an assistant. The stage of saying goodbye to the classes was dragged out for a whole week as I announced that it would be my last lesson and that I’d be going back to the UK next year, not teaching there again. The classes all reacted differently, some totally unconcerned, some with applause (ok) and some wanting group pictures. Here are some of the results:

I did my rounds and did recaps on the material studied over the year and surprisingly enough, some things did stick with the students. Not a huge amount, but at least something went into their memory and stayed there for a few months. I corrected the last bunch of tests, thanked the teachers and closed the school door for the last time as a member of staff on Friday morning at 11, leaving the situation to degenerate into inevitable pre-summer holiday chaos.

About a week later, I went back to the school to say goodbye again, this time to the headmaster and the administration office. The custom in Italy is that if it is your birthday, saint day, leaving day, whatever, you bring the cake. So I prepared a bunch of tea biscuits. I iced them and transported them as well as I good, but even if they were a bit smudged, they were still good enough to pass around.

This was not even the final goodbye. On the 14th of June, I attended the final Saturday morning staff meeting, which was to be followed by a little buffet of croissants and panzerottini. I arrived after the boring bits, took a seat for about five minutes and was then called to the front to say my farewell into the microphone. I was told to do it in English, so with a flashback to my first hello right back in September, I spoke to the vast roomful of staff and said how fast the year had gone and how great it had been. Then, as usual, the emotion got too much for me. The retiring teachers beside me were tearful, the head teacher was looking moved and when I relinquished the microphone, it happened. I cried in front of everyone – how humiliating but in their opinion, endearing.

I made my way back to my seat, was given a squeeze by a couple of English teachers, a tissue by another and a liquorice sweet by the Italian teacher (for old time’s sake). People came to me left, right and centre to offer me somewhere to stay if I wanted to come back, to ask when I was leaving, to give me encouragement. It would have been quite heart warming if I could have stopped blubbering. I took some photos with the English teachers, which I am quite happy not to see because no doubt my face is a pink, watery blotch-fest in them. I chatted to lots of teachers and secretaries before really leaving the school for the final time, trotting off into the sunshine knowing that I’ll be back there to visit some day, no doubt. After all, my time at I.T.I.S. Galileo Ferraris has been important in shaping my career prospects and my language skills, as well as giving me much more confidence in all areas of public speaking. Presentations next year, no problem. I won’t have twenty-five pairs of probing eyes watching me explain the present perfect.

After working with 7 of 8 different teachers and encountering 700 pupils, it’s been a chance to meet lots of new people and to really see how a school works from a teacher’s point of view. Let me tell you, it’s not all fun and games and you get fewer holidays that you imagine. I’ve decided that teaching in a secondary school probably isn’t the job for me, but teaching English as a foreign language really has its interesting elements, so taking a qualification might be an option for the future. Aside from that, it’s time to use this experience for thinking about what I really want to do as a career: a bit of a daunting prospect. Perhaps if the Internet hasn’t been taken over and modified by robots yet, I will look back at this blog post in five years time and think ‘oh how things have changed, I have all my questions answered and a path planned out’. I doubt it though – different things happen and new questions always appear. Closing a chapter of working at the I.T.I.S. will lead to a new part of life, third year at university and then who knows… Wish me luck!


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The Italian Job (I HAD TO)

Up until now, my posts on this blog have mainly been concerned with how much fun I am having gallivanting around in a region where November is like the British summer. When I’m not meeting new people, seeing new places and eating Italian food, I do have to go to work. Even if it’s only for twelve hours a week.

I can’t really tell you what a typical week at the school is like, because there is no typical week. Because of class tests, assemblies, strikes and timetable changes, I adapt my schedule weekly. So far, I have worked with five teachers and perhaps twenty classes, meaning that I’ve encountered a fair few new faces and tasked with learning over two hundred names. I have a pretty decent memory but it has quickly become saturated, especially since some teachers call the students by their last names and others by their first. The names I remember are usually those belonging to the students that talk to me most, or alternately the ones that sound cool. Because let’s be honest, Italian names just sound nicer than English ones.

With each class, I help with a different topic. The Mechanics and the Electronics section are covering economy, globalisation and the job market. I also did a lesson yesterday about Electromagnetism, which reminded me why I hated physics so much at school. I have read texts aloud about the invention of paper, ‘supervolcanoes’, Google and more. In some of the classes, I get to help with English literature. One group is studying Shakespeare and another the Romantic period. It is slightly disconcerting that they are learning about the same things I studied in a second year university module at Leeds, but at least I know enough about the Ancient Mariner to be a credible teacher.


My Romantic pals Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge will follow me forever.

Public speaking was never my forte but I now feel comfortable walking into the class and facing twenty-five expectant teenagers. I have mastered the art of looking grave and disappointed when they are noisy, and can deliver a reading in a decidedly frosty tone to silence them for a few minutes. Let’s just say that English isn’t their favourite subject, so especially near the end of the school day, a lot of shouting and running goes on inside the classroom. I nearly lost it one time, but generally my patience goes quite a long way.

The language lab is an especially exciting event for them. I have taken a few classes there to play songs by The Lumineers and Bob Marley. Often, the listening exercise degenerates when they figure out there is a microphone attached to their headphones, and that if they say rude words, all the others can hear them. Sigh. Today, three students explained the meaning of No Woman, No Cry to me, while the others wailed the chorus in the background.

 Every morning, I wake up a whole hour before leaving so I can slowly enjoy the best part of the morning: breakfast. I have a leisurely half hour walk to school. On Thursdays, I can weave my way through the weekly market, packed with shoes, bags, household things, clothes…Sometimes I go out for a coffee with the other teachers, other times I stay in the staff room and prepare lessons. This week, I have had actual tests to correct: having the students’ marks in my hands makes me feel like a proper teacher. I now empathise with my language teachers at school. There is that feeling of satisfaction in ticking a right answer and the desire to shake their little shoulders at the truly awful mistakes. I can feel my facial expressions altering with each different test I mark.


This is me looking happy because BREAKFAST

All in all, this language assistantship job suits me fine. I work for two or three hours a day and never finish later than 1pm. I know where to make photocopies and how to work the coffee machine. I even got a round of applause from the students once, yay me.


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Bari (not to be confused with Barry, Wales)

Molfetta falls under the province of Bari, the largest city in Puglia. Almost all the young people I have met here study in one of the myriad university faculties dotted around the city. Last weekend, Bari beckoned with its modernity and fresh sights, so I made arrangements with my fellow Leeds language assistant Katie, who as luck would have it has been placed there. After school on Saturday (you read correctly….), I boarded a train and rattled into Bari within a short twenty minutes.

I picked a rather dull day to visit for the first time but the heavy grey skies and the threat of rain didn’t stop me from appreciating my surroundings. I met Katie at the station and she led me down a pedestrianised shopping street towards the seafront. I passed Gucci, Benetton, Zara and many other shops promising a bigger selection than Molfetta’s Corso, if I should ever need it. Not that I shop at Gucci.


We made it to a square facing the sea, which apparently is usually peopled by afternoon city dwellers. It was fairly quiet what with it being the Italian early afternoon downtime. We weaved our way through the old part of the city, happening upon a huge hidden basilica and strolling awkwardly past people’s open doorways. Apparently it is dangerous to walk these small passageways alone. There was an eerie stillness in all the twists and turns, which would have been a bit creepy if I was by myself. We stumbled upon the Norman Castle (Normano-Svevo) and after buying tickets from a shady, stinky office, we explored the small museum.


The layout was the least intuitive thing I’d ever seen. There were open doorways but lots of roped-off areas, so we kept having to double back on ourselves. Although the courtyard was quite nice and the doorway was impressive, the museum mainly showed off engraved stones like the one below. With a complete absence of explanatory plaques, we looked and shrugged. ‘Yeah…stones’.


When we left the castle, it started to rain so we ducked for cover in a seafood restaurant. One look at the menu told us that it was in fact only fish, and that anything as simple as a salad was going to cost at least an arm and maybe a leg. I’m not proud of it, but we did a runner. We hadn’t eaten or drunk anything but they had laid out the tablecloth and all the shiny plates for us specially. Well embarrassing. We scurried off into a little sandwich bar and instead had our fill of hot dogs and piadine with dodgy cheese. Over lunch, we coincidentally got talking with an English person, freshly arrived in Puglia to teach, like us.

We walked to the port from which ferries head to Greece and Croatia, and we talked about potential summer jaunts across the Adriatic. On the seafront, I was able to practice my appalling photo taking skills. I am reluctant to agree with my sister Izzy, but she may be right in saying that I cannot choose the right light and the right position. So sue me. This is one of the better pictures.


After a teeny tiny hazelnut coffee and lots of comparing of students, teachers, situations and impressions, I hopped on a train and whizzed back home again. I have a feeling I’ll travel to Bari quite often, when I feel a need for city pavements and modern buzz instead of Molfetta’s green-shuttered peace. I’m loyal to my lovely little town, but it’s always nice to have options.

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Twenty Italian Boys vs. 1 English girl

Today is the 1st of October, the day signalling the end of my four-month long summer holiday and the beginning of my duties as a proper paid language assistant. I can happily announce that I have survived my first encounter with a roomful of Italian teenagers and that I have found my inner shouting voice. Who knew I had one.

Last weekend, it was training time in Turin. Although it was great to meet my fellow language assistants from all over Europe, it was pretty exhausting. It entailed hours and hours of theory on how to teach English as a foreign language. Some of the ideas I will take away and use, such as cookery programmes and comic strips. Some of the more bizarre activities I will definitely not use: these included a teacher trying to make us guess her phobia of hens with a series of rather unrelated pictures and another taking us on a trippy experience of learning with our senses. We didn’t get much time to walk around and explore the city, so what I will take away from the weekend is the memory of the horrendous difficulties of travelling on Turin’s public transport. One bus driver shut the door on me and I eventually had to be led to my destination by a tiny little old lady who was as bus-savvy as they come.

Today I finally put all the theory into practice. All the trawling through language assistant handbooks and taking notes from power points finally culminated in one long awaited moment, when I was asked to lead a class for the first time. After feeling a bit nervous and almost dropping the chalk (not cool), I discovered that they actually had quite a good level. They seemed to enjoy looking at pictures of Leeds and one boy even asked to keep the Leeds University Union brochure I brought. Tough luck for the other classes, who will never find about clubs and societies.


The second class was another experience. The teacher was absent so a supply had stepped in. Apparently, this results in total chaos in Italian school. This particular professor was as useless as a chocolate teapot. I may as well have been in the class alone, as he had very little authority and seemingly barely any English skills. All twenty students were boys, with an overriding interest in football and Playstation games. Among reasonable questions, I was asked what I thought of Berlusconi, if I smoked weed and if I had a boyfriend. One of the boys was quite unimpressed by the UK, proclaiming that people were unfriendly and that they ate potatoes every day. I tried to dispel these negative stereotypes and was unable to give a meteorological explanation when he asked me why it rained all the time.  In any case, they certainly weren’t shy and seemed fairly keen to ask me questions despite their overwhelming noise and their tendency to walk about the classroom whenever they felt like it. To be fair, when I politely yelled ‘CAN YOU SIT DOWN, PLEASE’, they complied.

So far I have only met two out of the twelve classes I am teaching this term and only heard 40 names out of the 160 I will have to learn. After this wild time of free conversation, hopefully things will settle down into more organised activities and more obedient classes. If things continue like this, I estimate that I will have lost my voice in about six days time.


Swotting up on Phrasal-prepositional verbs

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The Student becomes the ‘Teacher’

I.T.I.S Galileo Ferraris is an industrial and technical school in Molfetta. The students are no doubt computer whizzes and electronic geniuses but they still need to learn English.

There are 44 classes in the institute: in the first part of the year I will be dealing with four or five of them. Learning all of the students’ names will certainly be a good exercise for my memory. I don’t yet know exactly what days I will be teaching but in any case, a school day in Italy runs from 8am until 1pm. So free afternoons, hurray!

Being a technical school, Galileo Ferraris’ pupils are mostly boys. I hate gender stereotypes, but that is just the way it is. The corridors were filled with a rowdy bunch of young men, gangly, stocky, short and tall. They seem friendly enough and even stood up when I came into the classroom (a welcome to teacherdom).

They were very interested in my age, though. One of the first things teachers remarked upon was my youthful appearance: I have been ascribed terms like ‘giovanissima’ and ‘piccolina’, which in my line of work may not be the best epithet. Yes, I am only a fraction older than the students I will be teaching because Italians leave school at the age of 19. Yes, I will have to dress ‘older’ because with an Eastpak, jeans and trainers I would blend into the casual school masses. If I conceal my age and the fact I speak Italian, then hopefully I will have the upper hand.

Photo on 2013-09-18 at 16.41

I even bought new shoes for the occasion: which incidentally gave me blisters :(

I was shown the language lab and given books to photocopy, as well as potential instructions for conversation topics and so on. It’s quite fun actually, sitting down and imagining role-play exercises for other people to do. Poor kids – I am determined that they will speak to me and I won’t give up until I find something they like.

This afternoon I went to my first staff meeting. It was not an intimate and organised affair over tea and biscuits: the army of teachers were organised classroom style in a long room, and it was chaos.

I agreed with the teacher next to me who said ‘Italians like talking too much’ between her shushing of the other staff members. It basically resembled a small-scale political rally. I watched irate teachers argue the merits of catch-up lessons and school trip funding, with the English teacher acting as my unofficial translator and dishing the dirt on the side. I will be honest and say that I was lost for about 98% of the time, which means it came as a surprise when I was invited to the front by the principal and vice-principal to introduce myself. Apparently I can speak Italian under pressure because a short explanation of my presence somehow tumbled out of my mouth and I got a round of applause.


Sneaky photo of the school

I am quite looking forward to actually getting in front of a class. I need to revise my English grammar because I have no clue what modal verbs are. I have been watching online video resources that range from the useful to the bizarre. I have two more days in Molfetta before I fly up to Turin to receive a bit of training before starting the job next Tuesday. Let’s hope the students don’t eat me.