A Day in the Life of an EFL Teacher

EFL teachers

By Paul Finnerty

The fact that it’s mid-October and I’ve just got back from swimming in the sea rather sums up why I chose to come and work in Bari, a coastal city whose location is best explained as being the achilles of the Italian heel. Coming from Manchester, the rainiest city in the UK, my first pre-requisite when looking for a place to live and work is sunny and hot weather, and I’ve certainly ticked that box here. Next on the list comes place of work, and I tend to go for smaller schools, as I find that staff are usually treated better and you soon get to a pleasant stage where you end up knowing every student who goes there, at least by face. At the same time, however, less staff means being more flexible, which means my timetable can be a little unpredictable at times, due to rearranged classes, covering other teachers, and accommodating students’ demands. But all in all, having a workplace where you feel like a family, tucked into to a warm corner of Italy, just a 20-minute ride from gloriously beautiful beachside towns, hidden grottoes and wild stretches of green national park, I can’t really complain. Not to mention the local cuisine.

My lessons – average 4 hours a day = 25 hours a week maximum

As is probably the case for many other EFL teachers, the bulk of my lessons come in the evening, Fortunately, the latest I ever finish is at 8.30pm, a full hour and a half before some other language schools in the city, so I can get away early enough to make something of the evening, and often meet friends to play football, go to the cinema, or simply hang out.

I have a full schedule on Saturday morning, starting at 9.30am and finishing at 1.30pm. Naturally, being in Italy, there are always a couple of students who turn up late, so the first part of any class involves catch-up chats and checking homework. Word of mouth is a strong selling point in Bari, and as most of the students generally know each other, when there are some missing, it’s more than likely someone can explain to me whether or not they’ll turn up and why.

If it’s a group class we usually meet once a week for 90 minutes, unless it’s an intensive course with an exam coming up soon, in which case we have two classes. Individual lessons are usually for an hour and once or twice a week depending on the student. As for making up the rest of my 25 hours teaching per week, classes are usually dotted around mornings and afternoons, though an effort is made for there not to be huge gaps between classes, and if there is, it’s only likely to happen once a week, or twice in extreme cases.

While the number of hours worked per day comes out at about four per day, in reality there are days when you have as few as two hours and others where you can have as many as seven. Personally, I don’t mind cramming in a lot of classes in to one day, as it means you get more leisure time on others.

Although the school runs classes for learners starting at the ages of 5 and 6, the little ones are reserved for a couple of the other teachers and my youngest are 12. Aside from them I have teenage groups all the way up to 18, grouped according to level and with the odd university student thrown in.

There is quite an obsession with passing exams in Italy, and having a piece of paper that says you know English is highly coveted, with practically all students aiming towards passing a Cambridge exam. They don’t describe themselves as beginners, intermediate or advanced, but A2, B1 and so on, often overestimating their level. At school, the maximum group size is eight, in my opinion just about the right number for a productive environment, and I must say that there are barely any classroom management issues as most of the students are motivated and interested. Given, there are a few teenagers passing through the age of ‘too cool for school’, but with a mix of patience and effort you eventually crack how to deal with them. Italians are usually good students to have, as they’re generally very outgoing and talkative, so there is not much drawing blood from stones as such.

Getting to classes – 1 hour per day average = 6 hours a week

I rent a room 10 minutes from the school itself, and live with two Italians and a Mexican, meaning my Italian is quite good as I speak it every day with them. My school runs a few external courses, which often involve walks of up to 30 minutes each way. To tell the truth, I’ve never taken a local bus, and I prefer to go on foot so as to get some fresh air, plug my headphones in and people-watch as I make my way to what is usually the other side of the tracks, the centre of the city being across the bridge from the train station from where we are based.

I’m considering acquiring a Vespa to reduce travel time, and I also relish the prospect of buzzing around the streets on two wheels, though this is proving difficult due to the fact that you need to be resident to get the requisite vehicle documents. Doing a deal with one of my housemates may be an option, as anyone can ride the scooter because insurance here covers the vehicle rather than the users.

I have classes at a local university in which I teach business English to undergraduates, after which they usually buy me a coffee in exchange for lower-league English football betting tips for the upcoming weekend. I also go off-site for classes with suited and booted accountants twice a week, who might look a little intimidating, but are a really quirky bunch to deal with. Let’s just say that they love doing roleplays and the way they take on characters can be very amusing at times, and they aren’t afraid to play to national stereotypes. Sooner or later I will end up doing one of the most draining types of lesson: the two-hour long exam preparation class with 30 or so middle-school students.

To say you expend a lot of energy and lose your voice in these is an understatement. Italian school teachers still adhere to the ‘I talk, you listen’ method, and by the time the students see me at 3pm they are restless and a little unruly. As such, a balance has to be struck between controlling the group and doing things ‘open class’, and then giving them the opportunity to do group work and get that precious speaking practice they lack in their normal English classes.

Planning – 2 or 3 hours per day twice or three times a week = 6-9 hours a week

Clearly an effective lesson requires detailed planning and material preparation. My mantra is to only ever work at work, and it is extremely rare that I do planning or marking at home. I’ll usually go in an hour or two before my lessons are due to begin, or if I have a gap between them I’ll use this time to prepare. I try to stay at least two days ahead, as I detest last-minute rushing around, and when I get a bit of extra time I tend to make the most and plan even further along. I try to ‘blitz’ my lesson planning and get the week done in one day, but this rarely turns out to be the case. Being the first day of the week, I usually attempt this on Mondays, but I have gotten to know myself well, and I don’t really hit top gear till midweek, so inevitably, this blitz carries through to at least Tuesday.

In terms of planning, in a previous job I had to submit word-processed lessons plans for every class I did. My current employers don’t demand to see my plans, but I still make them up on my PC, perhaps not in as much detail as I used to, and I find going through the process of writing up objectives, lesson stages and anticipated difficulties really makes me focus on what my students need. I like to believe that my students appreciate the lengths to which I go to make their lessons both enjoyable and productive, but whether they aware of what goes on behind the scenes I’m not sure.

Some of my colleagues might allege that I’m an anti-social teacher because I always hide away in a free classroom to do my planning. I do so for a couple of reasons. In a staff room with people coming and going there is always a tendency to lapse into conversation, and to be honest, on most days I just want to get my planning and marking done as quickly as possible. Secondly, I’m one of those that likes to spread everything out all over the desk(s) and I feel that doing that in the staff room is impinging upon someone else’s space. Though being in a classroom often involves lots of going backwards and forwards to grab materials and course books from the staff room, it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

Materials – 20 minutes per day = 2 hours per week

The way I go about things is the following: I plan the lessons themselves a few days in advance, identifying what materials I need and usually end up making them on the day of the class. One of my strong teaching beliefs is to make the students think and work things out for themselves, thus elicitation and guided discovery are key parts of my approach, so I’m constantly handing out pictures, prompts and flashcards to get the students more involved. For this reason, I sometimes spend a bit of time making materials where the teaching point is embedded in the topic of the lesson, for example, one of my recent creations is a set of ‘stupid’ American laws used to introduce modals of obligation.

Clearly, thinking of and making such materials takes a bit of time, but by now, I’ve built up quite a bank of resources, so I spend less time doing this than before. Creating materials is one thing, but then dashing around, getting hold of books and photocopying take up a little time too.

Doing the activities that students will do – 1 hour per day, 2 or 3 times a week = 2-3 hours

The content and exercises in classes at B1 (Intermediate) and below are quite straightforward for a qualified native speaker, so skimming through materials you are going to use usually does the trick. However, with higher levels, especially at C1 (Advanced) and above, you have to do the activities yourself. This is particularly important with exam-style reading and listening papers, and more complex grammar and vocabulary exercises such as cleft sentences, mixed conditionals and compound perfect tenses.

Obviously, many teachers will simply look at the answers and go through them in class. While this may work on occasion, going through the activities yourself will mean you can see which parts are difficult or confusing, and in some cases, you will disagree with the answer in the key. Either way, I feel much more prepared if I’ve done the activity myself beforehand, as I’m much more able to respond to student doubts and queries. Being caught short when students ask questions is something I prefer to avoid, and ‘blagging it’ is something I’ve never been a fan of in the classroom.

Administration – 10 minutes per day = 1 hour a week

As with most language schools, registers have to be filled in, and notes need to be made on topics covered and homework given. I must do this in written form and electronically, though it doesn’t take much time. Add to that checking the rotas for any last-minute changes, which takes a matter of seconds. At the end of the semester, reports have to be written on students and mock exams need to be recorded, so the workload does increase during these periods.

Filing – when it needs to be done, if you ever get around to it

Over time, we teachers accumulate masses of worksheets and bits and bobs of materials, and at the end of a busy day, they often get thrown into your teacher box or put at the back of your ring binder. Clearly, over time, things get more disorganised and the materials that you need six months later are less easy to locate. So every now and again, I make attempts to order things nicely, because later down the line it will save me time wasted looking for them. In actual fact, this week I managed to separate all my exam class materials into skill-specific areas, something that had been a very long time coming!

I probably accumulate more scrap paper than most because I’m quite environmentally conscious, so that tends to build up and also has to be routinely separated from clean copies and print-outs.

Socialising and drinking tea and coffee – on any given day whenever there’s a spare 15 minutes

The abovementioned filing that I should have been doing often sits abandoned, as at certain points during the day my tired self would prefer to have a chat to another teacher, preferably not about teaching, or slowly make and drink a cup of tea. Bumping into current or previous students in the corridor is also an opportunity to procrastinate. As any teacher will know, there is always food to be had, and here in Italy, focaccia, biscuits and cakes often land in the staff room, whether it be for someone’s birthday, or just ‘coz yeah. There’s a café on the corner of the street, and on a busy day it’s nice to take a few minutes out to grab an espresso and lounge on one of their comfy chairs.

Free time

As said previously, I’m quite insistent that home time is me time, so I don’t think about classes until I get into work, and as soon as I leave the school, for me the working day is over. I go to the gym four times a week, usually mid-morning. Not only does it keep me in shape, but I feel that exercise is really valuable psychologically and allows me to empty my mind for a few hours a day.

As well as exercising, I like socialising with friends in the evenings, and not having to get up for work early the next day means more liberties can be taken in terms of how long I stay out, except, of course, on a Friday night. Take the other day as an example. Whereas many British twentysomethings would consider a party’s main activity to be drinking, I went to one last night in which everyone getting their hands dirty (or floury) making panzerotti (cheese and mozzarella-filled pastries) was the focus.

Other hobbies of mine are reading and writing, which I always find time for, and my timetable usually allows me to make meals three times a day, though on the odd occasion I only have enough time to eat out, which is no punishment in Italy!

So it would seem that on my calculations, the average time spent working per day is between 7 and 8 hours a day, and thus more than 40 per week, so for those that say teaching English is a breeze, think again! How long do other teachers spend on the abovementioned tasks per day? I’d be interested to know how similar or different my routine is to yours!

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EFL MAGAZINE (5)

  • Hannah Mac

    Thanks so much for this glimpse into your life, Paul! You sounds like an ideal life for an EFL teacher and made me examine my own.

    I really like that you broke it down into how long tasks take as well. It really puts things into perspective and should be a framework for teachers everywhere. I know I’m guilty of spending far too much time on lesson planning sometimes, trying to get them “right” or “the best” (whatever that means! Still working on this bad habit…) and maybe because I love what I do, but the line needs to be drawn somewhere. With times written down on paper, you can see how long things take and work on the areas where time management perhaps need improving.

    When I compare your experience to mine in Paris a few years ago, I realise now that it was all work, work, work (pub, club, sleep) I didn’t really have a routine (which I’ve discovered I need as much as possible) nor did I have the energy, time or motivation to go to the gym or do other activities which encourage healthy living, but as I’ve got older and have suffered a couple of periods of burnout, it’s something I pay attention to constantly and I warn other young teachers to watch out for. We should work to live, not live to work and look after ourselves or everything starts to suffer in a kind of domino effect.

    It must be said that working in private language schools can make it tricky for teachers to maintain a healthy life and a decent work-life balance, what with weekly changing schedules, last minute changes and late nights, but there are good schools out there where managers care about your well being. It’s definitely something I look for when applying for work somewhere. Often new EFL teachers feel like they should take on as much as possible for financial reasons, because they want to impress their boss or out of fear of not being given any more hours if they refuse because there is always someone else who can do it instead but I repeat, it’s incredibly important to have time for yourself and ensure that work stays at work (or on your commute in my case, if I’m in the “zone”).

    I don’t think you’re anti social at all for going and planning in a classroom! It can be extremely distracting, especially if you work in a busy school with lots of coming and going. Maybe you only see colleagues once a week, for example. So easy to procrastinate! Some schools don’t have that luxury of available space, though, so enjoy it guilt-free, which I’m sure you do!

    Bari sounds like a lovely place to teach and I’m glad to have read about your experience. Thanks again and all the best! I hope the World Cup qualification chat will die down soon 🙂