2. Learning to Teach

The gateway job to making it in Rome is teaching English. If you want to move here and you don’t have European citizenship or work for a U.N. agency, then teaching English is your ticket to getting a foothold in the country and paying rent. When I arrived in Rome, I had a 1.5 month sublet set up with the girlfriend of the brother of a guy I’d met in a creative writing workshop in San Francisco (serendipity), $1,000 to my name (after paying for my upcoming teacher certification class and one way plane ticket) and the only person I knew in the country was the Italian boyfriend who said he wasn’t sure we should stay together. I didn’t have a job and I didn’t really speak Italian beyond a few phrases. I didn’t have my visa sorted out and in three months I’d be illegal. But I had a one month teacher certification course to get through and I trusted that at the end of it, I’d get a job. I had to.

Step One: Get Certified

I arrived in Rome at the end of August when the air itself was wet with humidity and the sky hung as low and tight as a lid clamped over a boiling pot. Within a week I had started an English teacher certification course at Byron Language Development. I was in class from nine to six every day with homework at night, planning mock lessons and filling out worksheets.

As with anything official, there are a few acronyms you can accrue to prove you’re serious about the whole thing: TEFL, TESOL, CELTA. At Byron I got the TESOL which stands for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. This one is more more comprehensive, and therefore time consuming, than the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) which you can usually get online. The CELTA is a Certificate in English Language Teaching for Adults. This one is a type of TEFL certification given specifically by Cambridge English Assessment. There you have it.

School is something I know how to do and I reveled in my natural habitat, my ruff bristling with anticipation as I studied the syllabus. Give me an assignment and I’ll move the world (that’s the quote, right Archimedes?). I thought: I at least have one month of my life figured out and I’ll take it from there. Little did I know this would become my mantra for the next 5 years.

The school was in Testaccio but I lived in … well… what I considered the middle of nowhere. My optimistic and fanciful roommate, a jazz singing American bohemian from New York, said we lived in the Pigneto neighborhood which is the artsy, grungy part of Rome complete with artistic (and less artistic) graffiti and air laced with the smell of weed. We did not in fact live in Pigneto, we lived beyond it, much like the room I was renting from her which was not actually a room but the dilapidated fold out couch-bed in the living room. I was helping to cover rent while her boyfriend was off “making a movie” (writing the blog for the movie). To me, it was the perfect first place: temporary, cheap enough and living with another foreigner roommate from whom I was to learn many lessons, not least of which was the power of positive thinking.

My morning commute took about an hour and a half and started by cramming myself onto an ancient, mint green tram packed with all the other people coming into town without their own means of transportation. This meant old, Italian ladies and immigrants like me… but not like me. Bangladesh, Indian, African. How different our journeys in Italy would be.

The smell of the tram was rubber, smoke and sweat. On public transport you are intimately connected to the bodily smells of strangers. Cigarette smoke steeps into a coat, sweet hair gel mingles with someone’s orchid perfume and the bus passing you at the intersection belches fumes through the open window, the only means of air conditioning while we all sweat through our clothes. A heavy plastic bag cuts into a mans fingers. A gold earring pulls on an earlobe. No matter how packed it is, elderly or pregnant woman are always immediately offered a seat, the crowd squeezing together to shift and make way for these small kindnesses to those who need it. A hand touches you but you can’t see whose and you can’t turn. An elbow bores into the small of your back. You try not to fall onto the five year old next to you every time the tram jolts to a stop as it drags us all through the city getting progressively more and more stuffed.

I read or watched the passing kebab shops, coffee bars, ancient walls and modern overpasses but I had a favorite building that I always tried to see. It was U-shaped, its arms reaching to the road so I could look into the courtyard of leafy green tropical-looking plants set against the orange marmalade building. In between two windows, a proud marble bust surveyed his small, jungle kingdom. Someday I’ll live in a place like that, I thought.

We finally reach Termini where we gush out to the sweet, pollution-filled air of the train station. Underground into the labyrinth of the metro, dodging the slow and the too fast, I cram myself onto the Blue line to Piramide station and finally emerge, twisting my skirt back into place, wiping sweat from my neck and walk to school.

On this walk I pass the Aurelian wall built in 275AD and the Pyramid of Cestius embedded into that wall which was probably what saved it from being demolished. Someone saved some money on wall materials and therefore we remember Gaius Cestius who built a gaudy pyramidal tomb for himself in 12bc in the latest faddish, Egyptian style. I passed the Non-Catholic Cemetery where the tombs of poets like Keats and Shelley lie under poetic engravings, dotted with flower blossoms and the occasional cat paw. I’d think, I’m so lucky to live here.

That’s Rome. Hot, crowded and indescribably beautiful.

Step Two: Meet your fellow Italy seekers

The other people in my class were comprised of both practical people and free-spirited dreamers. Amy had moved to Rome for love, to live with her long-distance boyfriend. Alexa had studied Italian and art history in college and was dissatisfied with a lackluster job in Portland, one year after graduation. Simon was the stereotypically polite-to-the-point-of “maybe he’s a robot?” Brit who was always ready with a kind word and a smile but when we asked him when he’d go back to England he fatefully responded: “Never.” Elyssa, an Italian who had lived all over the world, spoke many languages, was bisexual, wrote music, played guitar and seemed to have lived roughly 50 times more than I had ever planned to. Rosie, the optimist who seemed to only ever tell us stories of her happy marriage (did I say optimist? I meant unicorn) would sadly drop out before the month was up. We all had one thing in common. None of us wanted a career in English teaching and not one of us wanted to live in Rome long term.

Most of us didn’t. Alexa, you and I are the weirdos that stayed. Simon, are you still in Naples or perhaps… space?

Step Three: Learn the English Language

Yeah, you thought you knew it but turns out you just know how to speak it. You actually have no clue what a past participle is. What are the exact rules for when you use a gerund vs. an infinitive? When is the past perfect used vs. the past simple? With what tense do you use “already/just”? These are the kinds of things your students will ask you. They are learning English from a construction worker perspective and they need the tools. You learned organically and don’t even know the tools you have.

That’s where Ester came in: a woman with so much makeup on she could have been another race under there for all I knew. She taught grammar and she smoked 8,000 cigarettes a day and she made sentence diagramming a treasure hunt. She scared and fascinated us and she was one of the best teachers I ever had.

Step Four: Learn how to Teach

We practiced tutoring individuals and teaching a group class made up of Italians who got some free lessons out of being our guinea pigs. Elicit answers. Encourage participation. Do a combination of Reading and Listening. Or writing and Speaking. Or Speaking and listening. When to focus on fluency instead of accuracy? During one of these tutoring sessions, my student Ligeia said she was looking for a roommate. “Do you know the meaning of: ‘When can I move in?’”

This was the beginning of 8 years of serendipitous apartment miracles in which I never had to look for an apartment. They would appear to me like this. In subsequent meltdowns over being broke or in the midst of bureaucratic nightmares I’d cling to this fact as some kind of explanation. As long as housing keeps showing up, I’m meant to be here. This is my home. It’s a sign. Right?

At the end of September we graduated and the students had to go out and become the teachers.

My roommate thought it had been a waste of my time. To learn Italian you should just “talk to the strangers on the bus and make friends at the local market” and to teach English you could figure it out on your own. Maybe some people can do this but I am not one of these people. If you’re thinking of teaching English and skipping the certification for whatever reason, this is the part that should convince you: You just speak English. You don’t know English.

I also will be forever grateful for having met Amy and Alexa, two women that would eventually shape my life in Rome and still remain dear friends to this day. Again, Simon: let us know where you ended up and if you were actually fleeing crime in the UK and that’s why you never wanted to return or you were just desperately in need of an adventure in a country that involves a lot more yelling and hand gesturing than yours. Kind regards.

Step Five: Get a Job… or two… or three…

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