Three Ways Italian Schools in Calabria Differ from American Schools

Sometimes I feel like a kid in a candy store around here. I get to meet new people, speak a new language-sometimes!-and learn fun, interesting things about a new country.

But some of these things are just. plain. odd … for my American born-and-raised-mentality, that is-especially when it comes to the school system.

Here are three of the biggest differences I’ve noticed between Italian schools in Calabria and our schools in America.

1. Mr. and Miss Smock

See those cute, happy faces smiling at you up there? Now … see what they are wearing? Elementary school kids in Calabria-and in many places throughout Italy, I’m told-wear smocks to school every day. The Globetrotter Parent had a great discussion on the subject a couple of years ago  and there are a lot of interesting opinions over there.

2. Saturday School

Once reserved in the US for the bad kids on the block, Saturday school is a way of life for Calabrian kids. Their typical school week is Monday-Saturday, from 8:00ish to 1:00ish, with a quick snack break in the day. Some progressive schools in Catanzaro were discussing eliminating Saturday school and extending weekday classes until 3:00 … until the teachers threw a fit about it and demanded to be let off by 1:30.

3. Homework Hostage

While the above two examples I only know from second-hand experience, I learned “homework hostage” the hard way. On Tuesday I went to my regularly scheduled Italian class and sat through three hours of intense Italian verb conjugation exercises. At some point, one of the other Americans made a comment about taking it home to review it.

“Oh no,” the teacher began. “You can’t take it home with you. That is mine.”

“What?” The American asked … her temper simmering. “What do you need it for?”

“It is mine. I need proof that we did work in class.”

So, after several rounds of “she said-she said,” the teacher’s boyfriend/husband/friend/bodyguard (mah!) jumps in. In true Italian fashion, every is talking at once and voices-and emotions-are raised.

Finally, I had a chance to speak.

“Paola,” I said as calmly as possible. “I understand you need proof, can’t you just make us a copy?”


“But why?” I asked.

“Because it is useless.”

“It is not useless for me,” I told her. “Italian verbs are hard.”

“Look,” she said, addressing the class. “You are in Italy and that is how it works here. You take homework home with you, you leave classwork in the class.”

Well, the scene played out for another half hour or so and ended with one student storming from the class, being blocked by the boyfriend/husband/friend/bodyguard and the principal coming in to check on the situation.

The next day I asked my retired professor/principal father-in-law if it was true Italian kids can’t take classwork home.

“Yea … sometimes,” he said, laughing. “Teachers are afraid if they take it home, people can see their mistakes.”

Well, the whole idea that it is more important to be right than to help a child learn blows my mind. So I prodded for more information.

“For example” my husband told me. “If I did a math problem at school and the teacher corrected it, I wouldn’t be allowed to bring it home. If I was sure my math problem was correct, I’d have to make an appointment with the principal and he’d get someone else to review it.”


So … what do you think about these differences? If you have children going to school in Italy, what other differences have you noticed?

12 Responses
  1. Irish Jen

    Oh good God is this what im sending my son too! As for the Italian lesson well its a lesson i suppose…..! You will have to fill me in again….
    Oh yes, Jen. Always a lesson!!

  2. When I read things like no. 3, I get worried about having to send my daughter to school when she gets older. I’m with you, making sure that children have learned something is so much more important than a teacher’s pride.
    I can see where you’d worry. Also, as silly as it might seem, I wouldn’t want my kids to have to go to school on Saturdays. Saturdays are fun days!
    KC’s last blog post..She knows what she likes

  3. Here in very small town Italy, elementary students have the same teacher/teachers throughout elementary. My son is in second grade and there are 21 students in his class. He also has three teachers in his class. They NEVER get a new teacher every september like we did in the states. I’m not sure if it’s the same throughout Italy though…I’m sorry I just think this is weird.
    I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask some of the kids I teach English. I do know that at one point the 3rd grader had the same English teacher at school as her sister, who was in 11th grade. I guess the teacher runs between the schools?? I wasn’t sure about that.

  4. My son brings his own dishes to school. It’s a bit different, but I’m just happy I don’t have to pack a lunch every day 😉 Plus, he eats better at school (of course he has a primi and a secondi!) than he does at home!
    Wow. He has to carry his own dishes-like plates and stuff? When I first read that I thought you meant dishes, like a “sack lunch!” Glad to know he’s eating well. 🙂
    South of Rome’s last blog post..La Mia Bicicletta

  5. j

    I think teachers in Italy, as probably in all European countries, get more respect from the students than they do in the US. It sounds to me like you where getting the downside of this. She wasn’t used to being challenged by the students. In Italy they call the teacher professore…in the US we call the teacher butt head.
    LOL. True. Kinda sad, but true.

  6. As an Italian born and raised, I think I need to pitch in this discussion. I could not understand what it was you were talking about, until I realized you were talking about “Compiti in Classe”, which are the equivalent of what in American schools are tests or quizzes, and not compiti, which are the simply translated homework.
    I am a bit puzzled about your friend shrugging it off and saying it is a way for people not to find out about the teachers’ mistakes. I am not sure that would be the first reason to come to mind…
    Compiti in classe are official school documents, just like report cards. They are part of your permanent record and they can’t be taken out of school premises. That doesn’t justify why your teacher would not make copies, but the official documentation cannot be taken home because it could be tampered with before going on records. Remember that there is no stigma on cheating or manipulating your school results in Italy, making it a completely different experience than the one you get in American schools- and teachers can’t just trust their students.

    I have been a high school student and a college student in both countries, and I have to say the school system in Italy is nowhere as despicable as it seems a common place to represent it. It teaches different skills and different notions (less independent thinking, more group spirit; less soft skills, more structured curriculum) but it is in no way inferior. For example, one of its side effects is that it teaches students how to navigate Italian bureaucracy.

    Good luck with your Italian class!


    Hey, Vanessa. Thanks for weighing in. I’m happy to hear both sides from someone’s who has been through “both sides!” I wasn’t meaning to demonize the Italian school system-I don’t have first hand knowledge of most of it. My real gripe, though was not being able to have a copy. Remember, we aren’t “kids” in the Italian school system, we are adults trying to learn a new language. I get that the professoressa needed documents, but it wasn’t a “test” or “quiz,” and her insistence on not letting us leave class with at least a copy, made me think she was less interested in us actually absorbing the lesson and more interested in something else. Maybe that is why my father-in-law, who worked in the Italian school system his whole life, thought her motives were selfish. Apparently he knew teachers like this when he was an administrator. Thanks again for weighing in and offering us another viewpoint on Italian schools. It helps explain some of the mysteries! 🙂
    Vanessa’s last blog post..Variety

  7. I’ve heard good and bad about Itaian schools. Like Vanessa I suspect that the truth is somewhere in between. I went to elementary and junior high in the US and high school in Australia so I know that different systems are different!

    One thing which horrifies me (and which Vanessa referred to) is all the cheating which goes on in Italian schools. I believe that Deirdra (former expat blogger) actually sent her daughter to boarding school in India because of all the cheating her daughter saw in an Italian public school. The lack of stigma against cheating is what gets to me. I just think it’s morally wrong but a lot of Italian parents would not agree with me. 🙁

    I’ve seen this, as well, with the students I teach English to. I was amazed the kids were telling me about it right in front of their moms. My mom would have killed us!

    .-= kataroma´s last blog ..Roman rainbow =-.

  8. Well, the discussion on cheating takes us through an anthropological discussion that looks very deeply into Italian history. It goes with the fact that people brag about cheating on their taxes, skipping lines at the post office, and all those mind-bugging behavior that seems so uncivilized to other nationals.
    Italy has always been under the domain of someone else. Its very recent unification (late 1800s) is still such a novelty that the behavior of “sticking it to the oppressors” (being it the Austrians, the Spaniards, or the Pope state) has never really disappeared. I am not sure it ever will disappear, either, not after 100 years of independence and sill the same issues at hand. Cheating in school follows in the same category: there is a stigma for those who don’t cheat, or don’t pass their homework, as the “group” is more important than the individual. Kids brag about how to cheat on their schoolwork- which, mind you, teach you a different set of skills! You learn to program your calculator to solve complex equation (you don’t learn math, but you learn programming), write up in microscopic fonts an entire book critique (which you have to read,a nd re-write, hence learning it in your own account), and such things. In the end, schoolwork in Italy is much more critical and never in multiple choice format, as to render “cheating” quite obsolete… you still need to think through problems and come up with original answers and solutions, as you will never be tested on sheer data knowledge alone. That’s also why your school results are never determined just by your written tests, but also by an oral “interrogation” for each subject, to prove you ave studied the topics and are able to form structured thoughts about it…
    so, no, I don’t think all the “cheating philosophy” is bad. I barely ever copied homeworks, but I would feel very proud to pass my work to my friends and prevent them from failing. The “pack” feeling was always very strong.
    I also TAd a college class in foundation engineering in the US, and found extensive cheating from the students there. Without any of the nice side effect of a different teaching method to go around it!
    Gosh, this conversation is interesting!

    Ciao, Vanessa. Thank you for the other perspective to this mind-boggling matter. It is such a hard concept for me, and apparently other non-Italians to grasp. Yes, there were kids in my school who wanted to copy homework or would ask for answers on a test, but they wouldn’t have admitted it to their parents and their parents most certainly wouldn’t have approved. It is like a whole ‘nurther country here. 😉

  9. This is my first year taking my child to a scuola materna in Rome. While thoroughly impressed that from 3 yrs of age kids in Italy can go to a full time preschool for FREE, the only negative has been that in just three short months, we have had many headlice scares. So far no creepy crawlies, but one outbreak after another at the schools. EWWWW!I thought these were eradicated!

    Eek! Good luck with that…

    .-= regina´s last blog ..10 Places not to miss on a 2nd visit to Rome =-.

  10. Dr Ann Sartori

    ciao and I would love to find a job in Italy at least part time. I am an experienced psychologist and also do skype evaluations and treatment.


  11. gigi

    i need help in a project im doing for my geography class, we have to choose a student that is foreign and native to a country and do an interview and I was going to do an Italian boy but he speaks no English at all and I cant o it with him because we just don’t understand each other but I still want to do Italian students I was wondering if you guys can help me for some of you guys live in Italy and know the school systems?

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