Do you ever dream of living in Florence, enjoying the cuisine, sights and sounds of Italy? This week it’s been a real pleasure to chat with Chris Herring, an American English language teacher living and working there.
Chris describes herself interestingly as starting out as an “English facilitator”, and has worked in a range of different educational settings, which makes her a fount of useful information and knowledge on all things Italy. She speaks about her morning bike ride right by the Duomo or Piazza Signoria. We started by asking her a few questions about her life in Florence. Read on for some fascinating stories...
I moved to Florence, Italy to be with my fiancé and have been living here ever since. I started 'facilitating' English in the Spring of 2001. My job is helping Italians, primarily adults, acquire English as a second language, through private profit-based schools, some public institutions, and eventually privately. Of late I do a lot of English certificate coaching.
The idea of teaching English came to me all very casually, from an ex-pat friend who was working for this company that was looking for English language facilitators and suggested I give it a shot. Truthfully, the idea of being a teacher wasn't appealing, I didn't feel I knew enough about the structure of English to teach and I naively and perhaps haughtily thought teaching was somewhat déclassé. I came to Florence after living in New York City, and after all, in the 'go-go eighties' jobs were supposed to be high-octane.
My first position was with a for-profit private language school that had its own method of ESL. No chalk and talk classroom setting but informal around the table. The nuts and bolts of the language were done off a programmed computer and student workbooks. Students met with native speakers once a month to practice what they had studied on their own. We had a new group of students every hour. It was a fantastic introduction to learning to work with a wide variety of language learners of all ages, levels and attitudes. The boss of the place interviewed me and the only thing he cared about was if I was a native speaker and if I am attractive enough in a sexist way I had never encountered before. He strongly believed that was the key to attracting clients ergo boosting profits. It worked for him but it worked for me, too because had I had to rely on my teaching abilities I wouldn't be where I am today!
Oh my word, that’s an incredibly outdated idea of an interview technique in the 2020’s. Still, I am glad it worked out for you and you took the best from it. (Ed)
Just about everything taught was valuable to me as I moved away from being a facilitator to becoming a teacher. After several years the school I worked at was bought by a larger company and the new owners required a teaching certificate. Another teacher told me about Global English TESOL. The fact it was online was the thing that was most appealing for I could work on it while taking care of my school-age kids and continue working. The two most important things out of the Global course were probably lesson planning and classroom management. One visual I got from the course was from a recorded class. I remember the instructor held up two open fingers to illustrate two the two words can and not. She then pressed those fingers together to demonstrate the contraction can't. Simple, effective and I use it to this day.
An American friend of mine teaches in Roma which is my favourite city in this country. I love big cities. But it is hectic, chaotic and for that being in Firenze is a dream. The city is very manageable and sophisticated. I can use my bicycle to get to most places. I consider it a privilege to be able to bike right by the Duomo or Piazza Signoria and look back 500 years to the spectacular art and architectural achievements made by man. The location, midway between Roma and Milan, makes moving around the country easy. Then there is the food. It is a very safe city, too. No worries about being downtown after hours. Whereas the cuisine is somewhat plain, the quality of the ingredients makes the simplest dish of beans and greens sublime.
The bureaucracy is very hard to navigate. Before Brexit, English citizens could breeze on down and get a teaching job. Meanwhile, we non-European citizens had more than a few hoops to jump thru, work papers, resident cards and on and on. Consequently, there were far more British teachers working here. Now, poor things, have to go through the hoops too.
Living here, well, Florentines are very, very, really, extremely proud of their illustrative past, rightfully so. However, this tends to make them cool to strangers. Florence is not warm and welcoming as Rome, Naples or Palermo. I never really cared to assimilate until I started to teach. They are very respectful of teachers here and that is when I got to know Florentines. Their snootiness is a façade.
Mi arrangio (I manage) but given the 35 years I've been here and the wife of an Italian philologist my students are shocked I'm not better than I am. But I am a better language teacher for this. I rarely fall into using Italian to explain grammar points and they know they really have to do their best to converse in English with me.
Well, certainly the standard stuff like have your papers in order, and learn some of the languages, maybe get in touch with people already living here so you can start establishing a network. Regarding learning the language, study how to pronounce it. The grammar is harder, I think, passato remoto, congintivo etc. but compared to English the pronunciation is very simple. English has 17 or more vowel sounds with its vowels, whereas Italian has 7 and what you read is what you say. Also, get some background, and learn a little of the history. History has shaped the Italian character and probably influences how they learn.
One last thing, don't come here leaving a love one back home, falling in love with an Italian is an occupational hazard.
Thanks for sharing that amazing insight into life in Florence Chris.
For now, arrivederci!
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