A day in the life of an Italian substitute teacher


The inspiration to write today’s post came from days of contemplation on my job as a 16 year (getting ready to start my 17th)  substitute teacher in the Italian school system. What really pushed me over to the laptop and made me sit down was the reading of the last of many articles on the reasons why Italian substitute teachers did not receive their unemployment benefits. You will not believe what I am about to tell you but it is true. The fact is that the Italian government and thus, the Ministry of Education itself, didn’t pay the specific taxes or worse yet forgot to do so, making it impossible for the subs, once their contract expired, to file for their unemployment benefits.

Obviously this was only the icing on the cake as this country’s respect towards its citizens, workers and future generations has gone from bad to horrible.

In some of my past posts I wrote about the horrible conditions of the Italian substitute teachers, but since then nothing has changed and actually due to the economic crisis things have gotten worse.  Being one of the many, puts me in the best place possible in trying to tell people out there on how the Italian subs live, almost in a near poverty state.  I would have never imagined when I finished my studies a few decades ago and got my college degree after years of sacrifices (parents and me both) that I would be at age 43 in such a place.
I guess for you to make some sense of all this, I need to give you some background information on the ridiculous recruitment system that the Italian government has for its teachers.  I will try, but it surely doesn’t mean you’ll understand it as I, am still trying to comprehend the reasoning behind it.

See, here in the country where you’ll find 60% of the world’s cultural heritage, teachers are recruited through a system of lists based on the subject taught. Now every list is divided in various levels, from certified teachers, to college graduates with no teaching certification/credentials. Obtaining a teaching certification in this country is not for the faint at heart and it isn’t something that happens every year.  Actually sometimes many years will pass by until the government (who manages directly the certification process) decides that for one reason or another it is time to certify more teachers. To gain access to these certification courses you must pass a selection test held throughout Italy, via the Universities. It is important to understand that up until a few years ago this process held the same value as a national contest, being that it was a selection process.
Once passed, a list of potentials is posted based on the points obtained on the testing and only a certain amount get in as the spots are few.  Universities become rich in hosting these courses as they are quite expensive for the candidates, ranging around 1,500 to 3,000€ depending on the geographic location of the university. Now remind you, you can’t get certified in any other way, plus unless you are certified you have no chance of becoming a permanent teacher.
There is also another way for recruiting teachers in Italy by using a system of national contests, starting off with eliminatory phases where candidates take part in online testing sessions and the majority of whom, lose their chance to participate, even before starting the real selection process. Mind you, some of the questions on those tests are out of this world.

Basically a contest within a contest. The hiring process or what we call becoming “permanent” is divided in a 50/50 proportion. What does that mean? The government in deciding every year how many teachers will become permanent throughout the country, go through the lists of certified substitute teachers and decide on a quota, usually around 50% and the other 50% of new hires come from the lists of the contest winners, divided by the year in which the contests were held. The law also states that you may win a contest in 1999 for example and if somehow the government doesn’t give you a position in the meantime and a new contest is held, the old lists get cancelled out by the new ones.  Meaning you are back at the starting point and lose every right to a permanent position even though you won the contest. One more thing, the quotas are also calculated on the basis of student registration per city and region. Meaning that if there are more students in the North, or in one city over another, they get more permanent teachers. So over the years what happened is that the Southern regions had less new teachers compared to the North because people moved to the North due to lack of jobs in the South. The irony of it all? We have subs becoming permanent at 65 and retiring the following year. Yep, in Italy we have teachers who sub their entire life, it is obscene.

Confused yet?
After 16 years I am still having a difficult time in grasping this whole process.  The results of all this is complete CHAOS.

How can you just not want to yell out HELP! I have been teaching in the Italian school system for 16 years and yet there is no place for me. Every year the Ministry tells me what temporary positions are available and every year I must change schools, cities and say goodbye to my students and colleagues at the end of each school year. We don’t have a starting date for our contracts as every city decides to call their subs on different dates, even though the educational system is a national one, it changes in the way the administration is managed from region to region, from city to city, sometimes within the same province. Last year the subs in my home city were called on October 13th and until then the students and classes were left without their teacher, maybe doing PE instead of doing English or Italian, or any other subject. It is a way to save money, the later the better so that the government can save more money. You must understand that Italy has 250,000 substitute teachers in these lists, people with multiple degrees, masters and all sorts of academic titles. The average age is mid 40’s and considered almost too old to be in school. One of the many things the earlier Minister Profumo left us with. I mean, is it the fault of the subs that they reach 65 without ever becoming permanent? Because from what I understand, I get called every year to do my job, by the same state that says it doesn’t have money to hire me. So, it is all about money, I get paid for about 9 months a year, no holidays, no off days of any kind, no medical leave, no anything (compared to our permanent colleagues).
This year the state hired 11,000 or so new teachers throughout the entire country as a result of the hiring freeze and the increase in the retiring age by the last government. What this means for all of us is that if a colleague who is permanent has to reach 68 or 70 years of age to be able to retire, I will have to wait until I am 60 to become permanent. Just sad. Worse of all, subs have no safeguard, nothing to protect them. Once you are fired at the end of your contract come June 30th, you have to file for unemployment, which is a mystery of its own. As you know the date of the filing but you have no idea when you will receive payment. Months go by, your savings get depleted and you find yourself in a worse place than when you started. One of the reasons for the delays is also summer. August in Italy is the month where everything stops. Offices stop, everything works at bare minimum.
Is it possible to not receive unemployment because the state doesn’t pay taxes or forgets it completely? YES! What if I forgot to pay taxes what would happen to me?
We all know what would happen I would find the finance guards (IRS) at my doorstep in no time. Yet the state can decide to not pay taxes, or just simply say that they forgot with no direct consequence.
Two months and 8 days and still no unemployment. School officially starts on Monday and as of yet the majority of Italian subs are still waiting to hear where and when. Complete chaos is what reigns over the offices of the Ministry of Education in our region.

I want to close with the tale of our last act of unfairness by the Ministry. As we all know, when you work you earn a number of days off proportionate to the days worked, right? They are called holidays. Well, in Italy we have the paradox that subs earn holidays as we usually work an entire school year and usually due to the fact that we can’t get days off during the school year, the days worked were paid off about two months after the end of the contract.
“Economic crisis” is what they call it, to justify the denial of another person’s right, who’s only sin is that he/she is in a temporary work contract.
Last year, the previous government (as Italy changes government as often as we change sox) decided that it needed to cut down the budget and why not cut it by not paying holidays to the subs anymore? They did not cut their privileges, their cars, their salaries, they cut what was for them a significant amount of money and took our hard-earned days (by doing our jobs) without as much as a “thank you” or a “sorry”.
I do not know how the school system is in other countries around the world, but the inequities in our system are just starting to be too much to bear. They governments have taken away everything and yet they still get to go on holidays with their families, send their kids to the most expensive private schools, offer their children with the best of the best the world has to offer and yet our children must live in poverty.
I am a teacher and proud of being one, I would not change my job for any other, but governments must learn to pay more respect for their teachers as we take care of our future generations, we take care of our kids. When you invest in education, you invest in the future of your people. Instead, we get shoved, punched, pushed and thrown down like animals. We live in a state of poverty like no other. Who would have imagined that a college education would be worth nothing in this country? My fault? I wanted to teach.
I think in Japan, the Emperor doesn’t bow to anyone except to teachers. Does that mean something to anyone? I believe that the way a country treats its teachers is the way that country will treat its future generations. It is depressing to see parents hoping their children do not decide to go to college because they can’t afford to send them and have the courage to say “I’m sorry son, I just can’t afford to send you to college”.

What world is this? I find my self and others like me around the country in their mid 40’s living a life, where paying bills and finding the money is our only mission. We have given our heart to this profession and all that Italy has done is to step all over us, by taking everything.
…and this is only a day in the life…imagine our lives and those of our families so far.


22 responses to “A day in the life of an Italian substitute teacher

  1. Mrs Sensible is a substitute teacher, she entered the concorso and passed the exam, but she is back as a substitute teacher again. She hopes she may get a full time position next year, although it is only a hope… Regarding the unemployment benefit, hers arrived yesterday, she applied for it 2 months ago.

    • Same here my dear friend. I must say this country is literally taking a toll on me. Every year for the past 16 years I have hoped to become permanent and yet another year has gone by and still waiting. Just a bit depressing. Still waiting for unemployment…just still waiting! A whole in my heart. Now waiting for this year’s contract. Best of luck to the Mrs.

      • Good luck with the contract…

        Amazingly, Mrs S is working at the same 2 schools that she worked at last year, (this will sound bizarre to people who do not work in the Italian school system), half her time is in one school and the other half is in a school 10 km away. she has lessons at both schools on the same day, 🙂

        A teacher has been moved from one school to hers for bad behaviour!! I thought they sacked bad teachers not moved them to another school!! We call her Mrs Touretts, she swears at kids and teachers alike… So a fun year for Mrs S.

      • Hahaha…I had hoped to return to my schools from last year, but not happening this year 😦 Just waiting around for the Provveditorato to call us, it is all so nerve racking. The constant thought of having a job and all just distracts me from so many things. Anyway, wish her a great year from me!

  2. I’m playing the waiting game right now too. Waiting for a school to call me and ask me to long-term sub until June 30. Waiting for the same school I’ve been working for since 2005! They hire me between sept and nov and fire me in June…the same school, year after year. But I’m not treated as a permanent staff. How’s that for a dead end? Very de-motivating, not to mention the few benefits we had that are being taken away,as you described. At least I did receive a first partial and meager unemployment payment in August.

    • Thank you for posting 🙂 what do you teach? You know, I find it so hard to explain the system to my friends back home, no matter how I try they just don’t get the reasoning behind it. That is because there is no reasoning!

  3. Hey everybody! Doesn’t sound that strange to a French ear.. Though maybe not as ‘bad’ substitutes in France don’t know where they will work until beginning of September.. Unemployment benefits come very late and to become a permanent teacher is a national contest where you need to have a master these days to enter and if you qualify (and it’s not easy..!) you will probably work away from your place for years (probably the hardest schools and areas..) for about 1200E a month.. Now I know why I quit the National Education…

    • Well, I wish I would have known back in 1997, but I had no idea what was waiting for me. In Italy besides a masters you also need a teacher’s certification, without which you can’t ever become permanent. Also as a colleague reminded me, you also have to be an Italian citizen, being an EU citizen doesn’t qualify you. At least not just yet. Maybe in the foreseeable future.

      • Hi A
        It’s not true that you have to be an Italian citizen, but you do have to be an EU citizen (unless things have changed). I went permanent 8 years ago and I’m not an Italian citizen, although I am from the EU 🙂

  4. This is a great blogpost. Thank you. I am a retired language teacher in the US, but part of the year, I live in Lucca. I have always been baffled by the work environment of teachers in Italy. It must be terrible to endure such uncertainty. Would you consider leaving Italy? Going to another EU country to teach?

    • Hi Jane, yes I would consider leaving Italy, for the EU or even for the States, problem is with a wife and two children I would need certainties before I pack up and leave. Not an easy thing to uproot a family without a job waiting for you.

  5. Maybe, it might be a good idea to get some interviews when you go back next year for your holidays. As you miss the US so much I wouldn’t consider moving to another country if I were you, You will always be comparing it to your own country and finding faults. You do not need to be an Italian citizen to become permanent. Most of my foreign colleagues are not. At one point Americans, Australians, South Africans and Canadians were not allowed to enter the system but if you are in the graduatoria that means you have been accepted and you will eventually get in. Good luck!

  6. Mrs Sensible has just read your post, she said she couldn’t have explained the Italian school system and its faults any better than you have. Unless people like you blog about the failings of the Italian school system, others will never become aware that they steal our holiday pay and treat us as unqualified part time staff, not teachers who started their career with a passion to educate the children of Italy.

    • It gets worse by the day. Our only satisfaction comes from our students who love us and want to learn from us. We all know though Italy is a country of its own and a living paradox. I just can’t understand why people just don’t get tired of it all.

      • I work in a private language school in Italy, which has its own problems (poor pay, ridiculous number of teaching hours, dubious payment arrangements) and a few people have suggested the state system to me,but it actually sounds worse than the private sector… truly shocking.

      • Well, the state system is always better than the private sector, I believe. I have my share of experiences but gave it up for the state because I could not live on it. I have a family, two kids and a wife, there was just no way I could manage waiting months for pay, or just receiving half of it, or whatever their creative mind told them. Yet, I am in my 40’s and still live from paycheck to paycheck. Just sorry that my kids have to live through it with me.

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