The Italian School System: Part II

Fortunately (or unfortunately?) for you, I learned more and now have many more thoughts about the Italian school system, so here we are: part II. My last blog about the Italian school system was very superficial. It explained only the skeletal structure of the system, along with a few important characteristics. But recently (as in every day for the past 2+ weeks), I have been spending quality time with teachers and educators, so I now have a lot more context to add to this structure. I’m sorry this is so long; feel free to skip to the thoughts on culture/climate/fun quotes at the end.

My primary sources of information for this blog are (in no particular order): 1) my host father, who is a leading member of the education office for the region and knows a lot about the politics that go into educating students, 2) the students themselves, 3) the teachers that I regularly teach with in class, 4) the school principal who often spends afternoons with us, and 5) the GTL coordinator at my school, who also is an English teacher that I regularly work with and who plans out our afternoons and weekends to various parts of Italy and Slovenia. We’ve spent many an afternoon talking in the car or over food and coffee about anything and everything. Teachers love to talk, and luckily for me, they love learning and sharing knowledge, so they talk about things I find very interesting: culture, history, education, human nature, why things are the way they are. I’ve used my spongy abilities to soak up as much knowledge and feeling as I can, roughly organized below:


One thing I’ve heard about a lot is the Italian Bureaucracy. Partly because Italy wanted to guarantee that fascism would not be able to take hold again after WWII, there are a lot of steps involved in getting anything done through the government. I got to go to the Italian DMV to get approval for living with a host family and for my stipend, and there were probably 20 people lined up outside the door, waiting for it to open (the office was on lunch break). It takes a long time for anything to get done through the Italian government. This has strong effects on the school system.

Curriculum and school structure, unlike in the United States, is mostly run by the national government. Schools in the south of Italy and in Milan and in Trieste likely will have similar funding and the same basic curriculum. Keeping a standard for all schools in the nation seems reasonable, at least for a small and relatively unified country, rather than letting individual states and districts decide what they want to teach their students (and how much money they want to spend on it).

What I found interesting is that civil service exams are incredibly important in Italy. To get a top position in the government, you have to take a grueling exam (written and oral), and the person with the best score gets the job. There may be other things that go into your score, like education level and experience, but the test is very important. The same goes for teachers. If you want to teach in Italy, you have to take these tests, and you are placed on a list based on your score. Teaching ability and various other skills are not important for your placement on this list.

Then, the government will give the list to the principal at a school that needs a new teacher. The principal must take the first person on the list, even if the principal does not want the teacher for whatever reason. Basic skillsets, like if the teacher can use technology in the classroom or if the teacher has good reviews from their past teaching experiences, do not matter in this process. I was told that this process tends to bias against young teachers, and that things like marriage and if you have kids are also taken into account.

Furthermore, the principal has no power to fire teachers. Some teachers are wonderful, love their job, and really want to teach their students in a productive, interesting way. But other teachers know that they have a good score on that list and that the principal cannot remove them from the school, creating an unproductive attitude towards teaching. These teachers can be very smart with great test scores, but terrible educators, and there is nothing the school can do. In the US it can be very difficult to fire bad teachers, but this system seems even worse.

Personally, I think that teachers can make or break a child’s education. This is one of the most frightening parts of the Italian school system to me. I’ve witnessed some of the effects of the policy at my school. A couple times a teacher has not shown up to a class with me (or told me right beforehand that they weren’t coming), leaving me alone with the students and without a lesson plan. With at least one teacher, when the students heard she wasn’t coming, they cheered. It’s clear which teachers they like and which they don’t. Often, I amuse myself by watching teachers attempt to type up worksheets or google things on the computers in the teachers’ lounge. One teacher had me set up the projector because she didn’t know how to use it. Teachers sometimes forget which class they have next and seem to have nothing prepared. Some teachers tell me what they want me to do in the class 5 minutes before it begins (or even 5 minutes after it starts). There are very few young teachers.

Some of the teachers are absolutely wonderful. I love working with them, and the students seem to love being in class. But there is something wrong with this system.

Five Years, One Class

Like I said in my previous post, students choose their class section before their first year, and those students stick together for the next five years of their life. You and your classmates take all the same classes and sit together in the same classroom all year long. There are some advantages to this: students have very strong bonds with their classmates; there seems to be less of a competitive atmosphere because they know each other so well and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses; and they all take the same classes, so they all have the same hell weeks to barter with the teachers about switching exam dates/assigning less homework. These points were brought up by students in our conversations, but mostly by the younger classes. The fifth-year students told me that it was starting to get old.

Personally, I liked being around different students in all of my classes growing up. Hearing different opinions is valuable and can keep you from being sucked into a bubble. The classes have very different atmospheres, and I think this is because they are around the same people all the time. Strong personalities will start to take over and influence the rest of the class. Some classes are filled with high-achieving, engaged students, while others are a sea of disinterested faces, all refusing to talk. One class has just 2 students (their classroom is essentially a closet off the main hallway). Imagine spending your entire high school in class with just one other person. The two boys seem like good friends and good students, but teaching them was a very strange experience.

Another issue with this structure is that in my school, teachers will often teach only one section, but for all five years. If this doesn’t change each year (and I assume it doesn’t), this means that students might have the same English or science teacher for all five years of high school. If they get stuck with a bad teacher, at least the rest of the class is in the same boat. Many American graduate schools will refuse their own undergraduates for admission because they want students to get new perspectives from different faculty. This system is the exact problem they want to avoid. It’s important for students to get various viewpoints and hear different voices, if only because it’s less boring.


Another issue with choosing a class section in your first year is self-selection. Generally, students who do not like math will choose either the linguistics or classical section. Students who don’t like languages, or maybe are not as good at English, might choose the math or science section. This is a choice you make at age 13 or 14, but when you get older and learn about more interesting aspects of these subjects, you’re stuck with the choice you made as a pre-teen.

In addition, there is no freedom to choose classes beyond the initial selection. If you choose the math section, you can’t choose to also take German or a certain type of science class; the curriculum is fixed for each program. In my last years of high school, I had the option to choose between different types of history or science classes, and these students do not have that option.

Other Issues

Even after going to university, it is very difficult to find a job in Italy. The country hasn’t quite recovered from the financial crisis 10 years ago. There also is an issue of brain drain, where professionals and academics grow up in Italy, are educated there, and then go abroad to work. Then they return to Italy to retire.

This may or may not be a bad thing, but there is no division between classes based on ability or difficulty of material. There is no advanced or honors section like in the United States. This allows all students to have equal opportunity to learn, but it also means that if students excel in one class, there is no opportunity to go beyond, and students who struggle can easily be left behind.

The less competitive atmosphere also could result in less drive to achieve more. University admittance is mostly based on a huge test you take in your last year. This could make students less likely to push themselves in their classes because there is not much incentive to be ‘the best.’

Good Things

It’s easier to focus on the issues than the good things, so here is a quick list of parts of the school system that I think are great:

  • Students are required to take 3 languages by default. They already speak Italian and Slovenian fluently, but by the fifth year, they are also very good at English.
  • The school is starting a new program where students can choose to take math in English. After three years, they will have a certificate from Cambridge University in math and English.
  • Every student from this school goes to university.
  • Exams are often oral rather than (or in addition to) written, especially for language classes. This seems like a good way to learn and practice a language.
  • Classes are generally small, which allows for more individual attention. This may be a factor of my school’s small size.
  • The teachers enjoy having discussions with the students rather than just lecturing. Most teachers teach sitting down. I like this, as it makes the class atmosphere more relaxed and gives the students a chance to talk.
  • Sports and activities take place outside of school. Students seem to like this because they can make friends with people from other schools, and they’re not restricted to the opportunities that their school has.
  • There is no limit to school enrollment, and students can choose any high school in the region. Your high school is not determined by where you live. If the classes get too big, the school just hires more teachers.

Overall, the experience of being in another system has really opened my eyes to the system I grew up in. I have a natural bias against American governmental structures, and I always assumed our system was bad, especially compared to the rest of the developed world. I still think we have a lot of issues with our system. However, there are parts of it that work. The grass isn’t always greener across the Atlantic Ocean.


The GTL coordinator/English teacher has brought us to some amazing places in our afternoons and weekends here. In addition to going around Trieste and other Italian towns, we’ve seen parts of Slovenia and Croatia. Although both countries were part of Yugoslavia just 30 years ago, there are big differences between how they came out of communism into the modern era. Slovenia is part of the European Union, has beautiful new roads and bridges, and lots of tourism. Slovenians are incredibly proud to be Slovenian. Croatia seemed to not have had as much development after the Yugoslavian regime.

I have witnessed some mild sexism, especially regarding women in leadership roles or driving cars. Gender roles for domestic life seem to be very present, especially in the older generations. Few women are interested in STEM, and I have heard stories about those who are interested being dissuaded from pursuing STEM after high school because it is so uncommon. Also, there are still hard feelings between the former Yugoslavian countries; some Slovenians look down on Croatians and Bosnians and Serbians and can be very discriminatory. I’ve heard Croatians being described as ‘living in misery’ and being ‘not a part of Europe.’ Being described as Bosnian is an insult. Past conflicts run deep.

Fun Facts

Trieste is a large center for physics and houses a synchrotron and one of the six free-electron lasers in the world. We got to tour the facility and see the electron accelerators up close (pictured). 8.02 really came in handy. It was very cool.

Shifting gears to climate: the weather has been very nice so far. We’ve only had rain once, and everyone keeps commenting on how lucky that is. It feels cold, but still more mild than Boston. It snowed the day before we went to the capital of Slovenia, so everything was covered in white. It was beautiful (pictured: Bled, Slovenia).

The eastern Adriatic coast has something exciting called the Bora. I’ve included it in my weather lecture to bring something relatable to the students. Essentially, the Bora is an incredibly strong, often cold wind that comes down from the mountains and towards the sea. Due to funneling of the winds through mountain passes, the wind can get up to 220+ kph, which is really fast. There are some great videos of large objects falling over and people struggling due to the wind. There are two types of Bora: white and black. The White Bora is generally stronger and faster, but the weather is clear and cold. The infamous Black Bora comes with heavy rain or snow. I have not gotten to experience a true Bora yet (unfortunately), and I probably won’t, so I guess I’ll have to come back.

Trieste is also surrounded by hills of Karst, a limestone characteristic for caves. The first weekend I went to Grotta Gigante, which translates to “giant cave” because it used to hold a world record for the largest single cavern (107 m high, 65 m wide, and 130 m long). It houses the two largest geodetic pendula (they measure minuscule shifts of Earth’s crust) in the world. Some of the huge stalagmites are still growing, even though they are already 12 m tall. The stalagmites have these amazing pancake-shaped layers due to water dripping from such a high ceiling (pictured). Caves like this scatter the hills around the area, some being the shelters of the earliest hominins in Europe.

Fun quotes

“[name redacted]. Hmm… Your name is very sensual to me.” – a teacher

“Is Ohio part of Massachusetts?”

To the class: “Did anyone fall in love recently?” to me: “I love learning about when my students fall in love, but it doesn’t happen every day.”

“Parking is good exercise.”



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.