The Italian School System

The past week has been a whirlwind of meeting new people, learning new things, and living with the unexpected. I’m very tired, but I love it.

This is the first year that my school has had students from MIT for GTL. This means that the teachers are taking advantage of the opportunity to learn about America and MIT, and to show some Americans their city and home. The teacher in charge of me and the other GTL student at my school taped a blank schedule to the table in the teacher’s lounge and just let teachers sign up for different hours of the day with us. A picture of my schedule is attached (though this tends to change as teachers forget they signed up/want to add me to other classes). So far, I’ve taught with 10 different teachers and met 12 different class sections. After school, this teacher coordinator and the principle drive us around to eat local food and see different parts of the region. It’s been an adventure, to say the least.

Because I’m here to teach ‘debate’ (which has been confused with ‘discussion’ several times with the teachers), I’ve mostly been in language classes. Teachers mostly want me to make conversation with the students so they can practice English, which means I’ve been able to have many (MANY) conversations with students about America, stereotypes, education, school systems, university, their lives outside of school, and whatever information I can drag out of them.  I’ll focus on the Italian school system (and some specifics of my school) for this post and conclude with a few amusing moments from the week. I’ll save my teaching experience for a future post (and after I have some more experience in classes that don’t involve just talking about America).

gtl schedule

The System

First, keep in mind that my school is not a typical Italian school. Trieste is only a couple miles from Slovenia (five minutes by car from where I’m living), so there is a large Slovenian minority in the city and surrounding villages. For these families there are Slovenian-language schools like mine, where most of the students and teachers speak Slovenian at home. Because this is a minority group, my school is small, with only about 230 total students in the five years of secondary school.

The structure of Italian secondary schools is much different from American high schools. When you first enter secondary school, you choose one of several programs which will determine which subjects you study for the next five years (yes, Italian high schools last an extra year, so the oldest students are the age of current freshmen in the US). At my school, students can choose from a math/physics, science, linguistics, or classics program, though these vary from school to school. All students still learn math, science, history, English, Italian, Slovenian, and other subjects, but the program they choose affects subjects we would call electives. The math and science sections are self-explanatory. The linguistics section studies the three languages listed above, but also German and Russian. The classics section studies Latin and Greek, along with philosophy and classical art history. In total, students take about 13 classes each year.

The program students choose is very important to their school experience because they will study with the students in their section for every class of every day for the next five years. Because most students will stay in the same program (you can switch in the first couple years if you want), they have the exact same classmates for every class for all five years of secondary school. This creates strong bonds between students and unique class dynamics. Because of the varying popularity of some programs, there is a huge range of class sizes, from 2 to 19 at my school. Each class has an incredibly different atmosphere, and teaching is very different for each group of students.

The hot topic at my school and much of Italy is whether to have school on Saturday. Classes go from 8:00 to 13:35 (with no lunch break), so there isn’t enough time in the year for the number of school hours required by the government. To solve this problem, students in the last three years of secondary school have class on Saturday. It seems like most students do not like this policy, for obvious student reasons. However, most teachers like the schedule because they can go home early every day and have the afternoon free. Also, most students do activities outside of school, like sports or music, so the long afternoons allow them enough time for those activities as well as their homework.

Another aspect of school life that often comes up in our conversations is cheating and strictness. Italians perceive American schools as being strict and competitive.  I do see strong relationships between students and teachers at my school, possibly a factor of its small size, and the class atmosphere seems very relaxed, rather than stressed or tense. Students know the grades of every other student for every assignment, and they seem less jealous/stressed/upset about their grades than at my high school. Also, cheating is apparently a big problem in Italy because it’s considered rude to not help your neighbor if they ask for it during exams, for example. Teachers are less excited about this cultural phenomenon.

I’m not going to make a judgement on which system is better. Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages of each system, and we can only attempt to prepare students for the world as best we can. But despite these differences, I can see so many similarities to high schools in America. Teachers have different styles of teaching, and their students react to the styles accordingly. Teenagers act like teenagers: making friends, trying to trick the teachers, laughing in the hallways, making excuses about not doing the homework. It’s a bit nostalgic for me, and fun to be here.


And finally, just a snapshot of some of the things that amused me this week:

-My host sister had skating practice on Wednesday night, but she had a student pass to the theatre in Trieste. She told me to use her pass and see an Italian play in this beautiful old theatre. I went, could not understand anything, and promptly fell asleep.

-The stereotypes about Italian driving are definitely true. I have driven with four different people, and none of them has managed to get through a drive without breaking some traffic law. Stop signs and no parking signs are the most commonly ignored.

-My host family has a cat named Birba, who likes to sleep and eat and sleep (pictured).

-Enrollment in the classics section is low in Italy, so many schools across the country had Noč klasikov (Classical Night) on Friday. This was a six-hour exhibition of student achievements from the classical section, including song, poetry, food, a hilarious modern rendition of The Iliad, and much more, aimed at promoting the section for future students. Because I was planning on going to the show to support my host sister, I also got roped into being in the performance. I gave the last two sentences of Martin Luther King Jr,’s “I Have a Dream” speech in the first-year students’ reading of poems on tolerance. A video of this may exist. Am I being exploited for my American accent? Maybe. Do I mind? Of course not.




3 thoughts on “The Italian School System

  1. This sounds really exciting (and like a lot of information to take in)! What are the students (I guess and teachers) prior level of interaction with Americans/American culture? Do they have any interesting perceptions about what Americans are like?

    Once students graduate what are the most common next steps?

    What is local food like?


    1. 1) Most students have not been to America. The few who have have been to New York City and maybe some other big city like Orlando or Seattle. They watch a lot of American TV/movies/music (Netflix was the most popular response when I ask what they did over the weekend). The stereotypes that come up a lot and that I found strange were that: American schools have uniforms, we like pineapple on pizza, and we eat pasta with ketchup. Lots of them thought cheerleaders/frats/parties were a myth.

      2) Most at this school will go to university because it already is hard to find a job in Italy. 5th year students have to take a huge test (or several tests) this summer, and their scores from that will help them get into university. Law/medical school are right after high school rather than after undergrad, but are hard to get in to. Some students are interested in that. I also heard some interest in interpreting, physical therapy, music/composing, among many other things that I don’t remember.

      3) pizza and pasta with lots of vegetables. lots of cheese. lots of nice breads/cakes that the grandmother brings to the house. lots of coffee. the best hot chocolate that I’ve ever tasted, which I think is just hot chocolate pudding. pig/fish is popular also. people cook the correct amount of food for one meal, so nothing seems to be wasted.

      Liked by 1 person

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