10 Ways Italian High School is Different from American High School

Volunteer teach Italy Piedmont

Teaching is not my profession.  When I was very young, I used to pass out worksheets to my stuffed animals and teach lessons, but that is about as far as I got.  My transformation into Jen: English Teacher (and gym twice a week) has been like nothing else I have experienced.  Granted, I am the assistant teacher, meaning there is always an actual teacher present, with a teaching degree.  However, it is often up to me to lead discussions and ask the students questions.  Even the teachers sometimes look to me to confirm that words or phrases are being said correctly.

Not only has this job been something new for me, but the entire Italian school system has taken some getting used to.  My high school experience has been over for quite some time but I do remember it well.  And I actually find very few similarities between my high school experience and what my student’s lives are like. The students themselves are so different from those in America.  Maybe if the students were like they are here, I might consider a career in teaching.

10 Ways Italian High School is Different from American High School

  1. Students are responsible:  Imagine a world where the students, not the teacher, are responsible for their own grade.  There is no extra credit.  The student knows what is expected of them and they either comply or they get held back.  There is no grey area. No parent/teacher conferences.  No yelling by parents or begging by students if they receive a bad grade.
  2. Students are mature: Imagine a world where cell phones are not glanced at during class.  Where students stand when the teacher enters the room. Where there are no giggles if the word “erect” is used in an excerpt of something you are reading.   They are respectful.  They are nice. They always have their homework ready.  I teach 17 classes each week of 22-25 students.  And not a single one of them has been in any trouble over the course of my last 3 weeks.
  3. Study, study, study:  They study a lot here.  One of the assignments my students had was to tell me about their normal day.  ALL of them said they study at least 3-4 hours every single day.  They do not have jobs.  They can’t. School takes up a lot of their time and teachers (most teachers) are very strict with what they expect from their students.
  4. 5 Years: In America, being a 19 year old “5th year senior” is never a good thing.  But in Italy, 5 years of high school is standard.  Students range in age from 14-19.  Since you can smoke, drive, and buy alcohol in Italy at the age of 18 it makes for an interesting dynamic and you can always tell who the older kids are.  They are often found right in front of school, smoking away or they are carrying their motorcycle helmet around.
  5. Saturday School: It is one of my most boring memories of high school.  I got into trouble one time and was required to go to Saturday school.  I sat at a desk for a couple hours and did absolutely nothing.  However, on Saturdays, high school in Italy is in full swing.  Students attend school 6 days a week here.  Sunday is the only day off.
  6. High School Branches:  Public or private were my only options for different high schools.  Everyone basically took the same core classes and selected a few elective classes here and there.  But here there are several different branches of high schools which prepare students for what they want to do when they reach the university level (if they decide to go).  I would compare it to picking a college major.  I teach at a Classical and Linguistic school.  Students at my school study the basics of history, math, Italian, science, etc but they also study multiple languages.  For example, my host brother has several courses in Latin, Spanish, French, and English every week.  He is only 15 and can speak 5 languages!!  There are also Scientific, Artistic, Technical, Pedagogical, and Vocational high schools.
  7. “You can’t sit with us”: This line from Mean Girls sums up many people’s high school cafeteria experience.  The cafeteria could literally be a jungle sometimes.  But this is something that Italian high school students will never get to/have to experience.  There is no cafeteria.  While the students attend school 6 days a week, their school day begins at 8AM and is over by 1PM.  They receive a 15 min break between the 3rd & 4th class where they often meet their friends in the hallway or grab a snack from the vending machine.  Students eat lunch when they return home in the afternoon.
  8. After school activities: Sports and clubs are a big part of high school for Americans.  From football practice to the yearbook club to play rehearsal, these meetings took place after school.  None of this exists in Italy.  There are no sports, there is no yearbook, no drama club, no band, no school newspaper, etc.   Some students do participate in sports, but it is not through the school.  Students generally don’t hang around after the final school bell rings.
  9. Schedule changes: I always knew my schedule before school started.  I knew where my classes were, how to get there, etc.  There were seldom changes to the schedule after school started, unless there was a good reason.  In Italy, things are a bit more…relaxed (in this aspect of school, at least).  Even last week changes were still being made to the schedule.
  10. Lockers and crowded hallways between classes: Neither of these exist in Italy.  They don’t have to.  The students do not need lockers because they always have all of their books with them.  When they get to class in the morning, they stay there for the whole day.  The teachers are the ones who change classrooms (which has led to me getting lost many times).  The same 20-30 students take all the same classes together in the same classroom. All year.

My teaching experience so far has been good.  I like it, but it is definitely weird for me, having hundreds of kids every week just staring at me while I speak. I pronounce some things differently than they are used to.  They are taught British English.  The very proficient students and teachers even speak with a British accent!!  They ask me a million questions about myself and life in America.  Some have even asked for my help outside of school. They just want someone to have a conversation with and I am happy to help.  I am still getting used to the way things are here.  I never knew that my ability to speak English would ever be helpful to someone, but I am glad it is! There are new, different things that I notice everyday, but I am definitely taking full advantage of this once in a lifetime experience!!

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2 thoughts on "10 Ways Italian High School is Different from American High School"

  1. Awilda says:

    Hi Jen, I’m planning to travel abroad and teach in Italy, and it caught my eye that you said that there’s school on Saturday, I am a Seventh-day Adventist, meaning I keep the Sabbath as a holy day. Do you know anyone with a similar situation? Is there any way to get Saturday’s to be days of relaxation in the classroom?

    1. Maria says:

      I’m Italian, and have lived in Italy my whole life. Generally, teachers have a day off during the week (each teacher has their own, and it’s the same throughout the whole year). You might be able to get Saturdays off, but there’s no guarantee. If you’ve got to work, you’ve got to work.
      We don’t have classes where we can relax, or have more fun. Every class is intense, and it doesn’t matter what day of the week it is. For example, I “majored” in human sciences, but my classes where: Human Sciences (psychology, pedagogy, anthropology, sociology), Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Philosophy, Italian Literature, English (literature from the third year), History, Art History, Latin, P.E. (2h a week)… and I think that’s it. So on a Saturday I could have two hours of Italian, an hour of English, an hour of Maths, and an hour of Philosophy. Our programs are really extensive, so there’s little to no time for fun projects. Teachers gotta teach, and students gotta take notes and study.
      Also “open notes tests” don’t exist in Italy. Students study. A lot. And most of our test are oral test.

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