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Exploring the 'Hidden Curriculum' as an ESL Teacher in Italy

Italy Travel
by Gina Mussio Sep 11, 2013

I’m currently working as an ESL tutor in Italy, giving private lessons to a range of people from hot-shot managers to unenthusiastic high school students. We practice conversation, prepare for interviews, and review, again, the differences between present perfect and present perfect continuous.

But if you pay attention, between the grammar quizzes and listening exercises, there’s another lesson going on. It’s this ‘hidden curriculum’ that I enjoy the most. That is, the moments during every lesson where my students willingly share with me a bit about themselves: what they did that day, where they went, or what their favorite gelateria in town is. Though I’m supposed to be the teacher, with the hidden curriculum I learn just as much as my “students.”

To be a good teacher, it’s important to know your student. Andrea loves to travel to New York City, eat in all the restaurants, and avoid shopping with his wife. When our lessons entered a lull, I printed an entire restaurant menu and we used it for vocabulary expansion, role play, and reading exercises. He was thrilled to finally know how to order food by himself, and not have to rely on his English-speaking wife.

Michele came to improve his English for his job, one that he likes very much, but it’s when I discovered his passion for exercise that his eyes lit up. We now interweave both topics into our conversation hours.

Teaching English has taught me about myself too. Not just the quantifiable — how long it takes to plan a lesson, how many lessons a day I can feasibly do without losing all language ability — but also more subjective discoveries like how my teaching needed to evolve to be able to reach all levels and types of learner. I like to talk, but teaching English taught me to truly listen.

Maybe not every comment brings me a deeper understanding of Italy overall, but each one teaches me something new.

In one offhand comment, I can learn more about Italian culture than years of studying “cultural fact” boxes in my Italian grammar books. I learn about attitudes, neighborhood differences, and Italian habits. I learn that most Milanese escape from the city to seaside homes in Liguria during the weekends, often vacationing there in the summer as well. I learn how to tell if a gelato is good just by looking at the texture and size of each mountain of ice cream behind the glass window. I learn the complex dealings of selling scooters and motorcycles in Italy and abroad, and I hear the differences of growing up near the border of Switzerland versus in the south of the boot.

Maybe not every comment brings me a deeper understanding of Italy overall, but each one teaches me something new about my students, myself, and the often-elusive concept of a place’s true culture.

I have been thrilled by the unexpected benefit of teaching — learning. A semester abroad and multiple visits have left me with a solid introduction to Italian culture, but actually living abroad made me quickly realize how much more I had to learn.

In my daily one-on-one lessons with Italians, I’m able to understand the hidden curriculum — which cities surround my own, and how they differ; how difficult it is to arrive from Lissone to Milan by public transportation; and the ins and outs of how to do business in Italy.

Teaching, luckily, leaves me feeling very satisfied more often than not. I appreciate my students’ efforts and, usually, their genuine desire to learn. I also appreciate those who are more hesitant or not so motivated, because language learning is a long, difficult process. Even the smallest breakthrough is valued.

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