After I returned home from Italy I wanted to give myself time to decompress and re-acclimate before I tried writing about my experiences as a whole. Now, 6 weeks back into the US I'm still looking back fondly on my time in Italy nearly every day.
Regardless of what happens on any lengthy trip, it's almost sure to be a life changing experience - and it certainly was for me.
Before I left for Italy someone asked me why I thought it was important to embark on such an experience. I've already traveled abroad, what could I possibly gain from teaching in a secondary school in Italy for 3 months? I replied that I wanted to view the world from another person's perspective - to almost literally live in someone else's shoes (which was true a couple times when I actually had to borrow other people's shoes!). It's so easy to get comfortable in our own version of the human experience - to stay in our own little lives, in our own little towns, in our own little cultures. To break out of that mold and experience something wholly novel is a formative undertaking.
I participated in a program called Conversation Partners through Connecticut-based Geovisions. They have multiple programs, including Conversation Corps (in which you live with a family and teach them English), but this one spoke to me the most. You travel to a foreign country, are installed in some sort of professional environment (school, place of business, etc.), and teach people English. Some people teach police officers in South America, I taught teenagers at a school in Italy.
What's important to understand is that every experience abroad is different and it really is what you make of it. I was recently in the market for purchasing a home and many people I spoke with stressed the importance of quality school districts near our location. This is, of course, an important building block in life - but it doesn't matter how great the school's statistics are if a student isn't dedicated to learning. An education is truly what you make of it - an uninterested student is going to struggle no matter the quality of the institution he or she attends.
It's the same with volunteering programs. There are good reviews and there are bad reviews for every single organization out there. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Geovisions was a good or a bad organization to work with, they merely facilitate placement and expect you to make the most of it - which is precisely what both they and you should be there for. They aren't going to coddle you along every step of the way and acclimate you to the foreign culture, it's going to take a significant amount of effort and patience on your part to make your experience a fulfilling one. Whether or not it's a good experience ultimately falls on your shoulders.
That being said, it will be difficult. There were a couple times I caught myself wondering what the hell I was thinking getting myself into this situation. But, ultimately, it's extremely satisfying to immerse yourself into a culture and struggle - and then to emerge victorious on the other side, having learned a new language and made friends halfway across the planet.
On Living With A New Family
I had the rather unique experience of living with not one, but two families in Italy. I lived with my first family for one month in a smaller town about 10 minutes away from where I taught. I had my own space on the top floor of the house complete with my own bathroom and outside terrace - it was a wonderful space. The family had two children - one 12 one 4 - who were, for the most part, delightful to be around. Many times, however, it was quite a struggle to adjust to being in a house with small children after having lived on my own for so many years. As the youngest in my family, I've never really been around small children so it was bizarre to find myself living with one - and all the difficulties that present around a 4 year-old child. There are only so many days in a row one can be woken up in the middle of the night by a screaming child and retain one's sanity. But, it was a fun experience and I became very close with them. We went shopping together, made dinner together, and they dropped me off and picked me up at school everyday (it helped that one of the children was my student).
I lived with my second host family for two months in the larger town, Civitanova, right near the Adriatic Sea. They also had two children, a 9 year old and a 17 year old. The family dynamic was much different - everyone was far more independent than my first family so it took some time getting used to the idea that I was going to be on my own much of the time. I needed to find my own way to and from school, sometimes made my own meals, and really had to entertain myself most often. This was also OK and I really enjoyed finding my way around. I often walked to the stores nearby to buy my own groceries and practice my Italian. I had a smaller living space, and I felt kind of awkward because it had displaced the oldest child from her room, but they were all so welcoming it was easy to adjust.
On Teaching in a Foreign Country
Usually when you arrive in-country you are met by that country's liaison for the program and they help to get you adjusted with your family and wherever it is you'll be working. However, the weekend I arrived in Italy they had the snow storm of the century and the in-country liason was giving birth to her first child. So, when I arrived in Italy I didn't have an orientation - at all. My host family picked me up from a bus stop on the side of the street and took me home - not speaking a word of English, mind you.
When I arrived at the school I was teaching in I also didn't receive much in the way of orientation. I had spoken with one teacher by email a few times before my arrival, so I met her, the other two English teachers, and the rest of the faculty...and then we started our classes. You really can just be thrown into the mix that quickly and it's up to you to figure out how to be the best asset you can in the classroom.
The school in which I was teaching had no program for me - no agenda, no goals, no nothing. They had only had one tutor before and it didn't go very well, which, looking back on it isn't entirely surprising considering the complete lack of structure. Additionally, each class and each teacher you work with is vastly different. One teacher wanted me to participate in almost all aspects of the class as support while she led. She would give me ideas on what she wanted to talk about in the next class and I would go home and prepare a Powerpoint presentation or a game. Another teacher essentially ignored me while I sat in the back of the classroom until the last 30 minutes and then wanted me to teach my own independent lesson. Still another teacher thought I was her subsitute and expected me to lead the entire class on my own for the full duration of the period.
Again, you never know what you're going to get until you're there. It's up to you to decide how you're going to make the best of a situation and then to leave it better than how you found it. I quickly realized that in my situation the best possible solution was Powerpoint presentations. It associated language with visual context and the children can read along with you. So I had a new presentation nearly every day, either tied into what they were studying or independent. About 90% of the time the kids loved it - and when it's fun, they don't even realize how much they're learning! When I first arrived the kids were so timid around me hardly any of them would speak. When I left I was having nearly entire conversations with many students all in English. It was so fulfilling!
Before I left I also created an orientation for future tutors in the school. A simple set of documents outlining what they should expect from the school, some advice on the levels of each group of students, and some tips on what seems to work best in that school. I also provided some information about the best way to travel on weekends and where to get a good deal on a cell phone package - this is all about leaving the area better off than when you arrived. I know now that when the next tutor arrives at that school they will be that much more prepared because of my actions.
Am I happy I joined the program and spent three months in a foreign country teaching my native language? Yes. Would I do it again? Double yes.
I think the most important part of this type of experience is to go into with an open mind. You can't have too many expectations and you must be flexible. I know I could never have prepared myself for everything I encountered, but because I was willing to be flexible and accept new opportunities I had an amazing time.