Ten years later: Teachers’ views of their profession

Agneta Hult
Anders Olofsson
Karin Rönnerman

During the last decade a new school-reform was launched in Sweden. One of the biggest changes is that, in line with decentralization, each individual municipality is now free to decide how its schools should be run. The Swedish parliament and the government, however, still define curricula, national objectives and guidelines for state schooling in Sweden (Skolverket, 2001). Based on the central curriculum each municipality produces an education plan describing how schooling is to be funded, organized, developed and evaluated. The headmaster of each school has the task of drawing up a local working plan based on the curricula, national objectives and municipal education plan. It is obligatory that this take place in consultation with teachers and other staff members (Skolverket, 2001).

In 1995, when the new national curriculum (Lpo-94) was introduced into the Swedish compulsory school, a shift took place in the history of the compulsory school. The curriculum was the final consequence of an ongoing process of change regarding the governance of teachers and their work in schools. The shift was from a centralized system of regulating schools towards a decentralized management with a goal- and result- system for schools. The government states the goals for compulsory school; and the curricular goals are expressed in terms of knowledge to be acquired by pupils through their education that shall be reached by all children. The national curriculum (Lpo-94) does not include any centralized models for teaching. Instead, teachers have the freedom to choose their own teaching methods to achieve the national goals. In order to guarantee that all schools fulfill the aims of the curriculum, national evaluations and tests are used.

The shift towards decentralization and local governance, including decentralized economic responsibility, has taken place during a period of recession in Sweden. There has been much debate on how to overcome the negative aspects of national intervention concerning pedagogy-in-practice with its dependence on bureaucracy, and how to give more power and responsibility to classroom teachers for the development of a pedagogy relevant to the goals of the curriculum.

In this article we present a study about teachers who began their careers in state-regulated school, but who today work in a decentralized school system. The aim was to investigate how teachers view their profession and the school today, which is ten years after graduation. In this article we have analyzed their views on three aspects:

  • What is a teacher?
  • What motivates a teacher?
  • How is a teacher governed?

The study was designed in two steps. Firstly, a questionnaire was distributed to 100 teachers who graduated from three different colleges of education. Two of them are part of the University, one in the south and one in the north of Sweden; the third is a university college in the middle of Sweden. The questionnaire contained closed and open-ended questions and was sent to teachers in the spring of 2001. Questions focused on teacher education, and present occupation and changes within the school system during their ten years as teachers. In the second step, a sample of teachers from the survey study was interviewed. About ten from each college were chosen. The interviews were focused on the three aspects mentioned above. We will briefly mention some of the results from the questionnaire study, but mainly concentrate on outcomes from the interviews. In the discussion we will connect our results to other relevant research findings.

The result of the questionnaire study shows in short that a large majority of the population studied still work as teachers. Of those who have left the occupation, a majority were men. Male teachers had also changed their position and worked more often in leadership positions in school today. Teachers who had left their profession identified arguments such as low salary and that support from the local schooladministration was less than expected or non-existent. The teachers who still were working in school mention colleagues and their own families as most supportive when giving reasons for staying in the profession.

When asked about what was lacking in their knowledge and skills when they began to work, the most common answers were knowledge in how to deal with children with special needs and in how to tackle conflicts between pupils and groups of pupils. Teachers also recommended that colleges include more of this knowledge and skills in teacher training today. They also suggested that teacher education should include more teaching practice and better collaboration with schools.

The Interview Study

During the spring of 2002, 30 teachers were chosen for interviews about their present occupation. A majority of the teachers’ (22) were still working as teachers while eight had left school for other careers. The interview schedule focused on three aspects of the teacher’s experience of teacher training and teaching in school: What is a teacher? What motivates the teachers to work as teachers? What are the teachers views on leadership in schools and how do they value the national and local governance of schools today?

1. What is a teacher?

Informants were asked to describe their profession to someone who was not familiar with the schooling world. Although there is great variety in the way in which they express their views, most of the teachers describe their profession as being highly diversified. A teacher has to be competent in many different fields and solve problems on many different levels. The fact that their work varies is appreciated by most of the teachers, and is presented as a characteristic that makes their work stimulating. Some reported that the teacher also has to act as a social worker, a psychologist and sometimes even as a police officer or as a guard.

The teacher’s main task, as reflected in most responses, is to create the prerequisites for children’s development and learning.

… together with young people, you can be a part of the process of their, what shall I call it, progression forward in life /…/ you are part of a process involving the stimulation and development of young people to acquire knowledge of their society and tools to deal with their future.

The teacher�s main task, as reflected in most responses, is to create the prerequisites for children�s development and learning

This, however, can be achieved in different ways and teachers differed in their views of how these prerequisites are to be established. When analyzing teacher responses, four different ways to foster learning emerged. These include fostering, empowerment, pedagogical planning and influencing pupils’ attitudes.

Fostering pupils: The most common view is that the teacher nowadays needs to foster pupils in order to create a favorable environment for development and learning. A great deal of time in school is devoted to discussion of values and attitudes, as well as mobbing and different types of conflicts. Even though some of the teachers expressed a desire not to have to deal with this type of activity, most of the teachers stated that since society has changed, the task of fostering is, and always will be a part of the profession. One teacher expresses this in the following way:

…dealing with mobbing, with frequent conflicts and working with attitudes and values is what creates the prerequisites for children to learn. It often takes more time than teaching the subject matter itself and thinking about teaching methods. I think it’s important; you have to see to their whole life in a way. (69)

By fostering, the teacher tries to establish a working climate that is harmonious, where the pupils can relax, learn and develop.

Empowerment: The second way of stimulating children’s development and learning is by empowerment. The teacher tries to enhance the pupil’s self-confidence and hence create a positive learning atmosphere. One way of doing this is to discover the pupil’s strong points and build on them, another way is to push and praise and thereby try to make the child feel capable. The following quotation is an example of this view:

...Instead of saying; ‘this wasn’t very good’, I try to find what’s good on the ‘pizza’, so to speak. And then build on that, that’s the way I think and try to work.

Pedagogical Planning: The third way of stimulating development and learning is by means of the teacher’s pedagogical planning: by creating engaging and amusing learning material and situations/ settings. The teacher has to be creative and try to find different ways of helping different children. It is important that school is a place where you have fun:

...That it should be creative and fun, for both the children and I and for everyone involved. It should be educational of course, but basically/fundamentally it should be fun.

Influencing pupils’ attitudes: The fourth and final way of stimulating development and learning concerns pupil attitudes towards learning. It is necessary for children to learn that everything cannot be easy, they also have to work and struggle to learn new things. It can’t be fun all the time either; some schoolwork is boring and must necessarily be so.

…I think, for example, that you must be able to cope with having a boring time. You have to learn to work, and that kind of thing is disappearing everywhere else in this society, so I think it is extremely important that children get to learn this.

Ideals and changes

We also asked the teachers to give an ideal description of the teaching profession, that is, what description did they wish they could give of their profession? All of the teachers expressed a desire for better economical resources in order to realize their task. According to most teachers interviewed, the most significant way of making use of more resources in school is to organize smaller groups of pupils or to provide more teachers in the classroom. Some of the teachers would also like to have more time to discuss pedagogical matters and for planning together with their colleagues. They also expressed a desire for more personnel with special competencies, such as psychologists, educational psychologists and remedial teachers to help children with special needs.

Teachers underlined the importance of knowledge and skills in the field of leadership for the head-teachers and that they should concentrate on pedagogical tasks.

Another question was: “Did teachers think their profession had undergone any changes during the time they had been working as teachers?” We found examples of both positive and negative views of change, with a slight predominance of negative ones. The most common view on the negative side was that an increasing number of different work tasks outside the classroom have been placed on teachers.

This has created a very stressful working situation. Decreasing economic resources have also meant fewer adults work in a school and more pupils are assigned to teachers. On the positive side, teachers mentioned the current practice of teamwork and co-operation with their colleagues. The new goal-related system and the fact that grades are now related to criteria are also positively mentioned, since it has meant more clear-cut demands on both the teachers and pupils and also better individual assessment of pupils.

Quite a few teachers mentioned the difficult climate in school and more restless and disrespectful children, which mirrors a transformation in society. This change can be viewed as both positive and negative; it means that the teacher has a much wider responsibility for pupils, and requires more of a fostering function. It also means better and closer contact with the children, however the automatic respect for the teacher experienced in the past does not exist any more. As a teacher you have to earn the respect of the children. One teacher put it this way:

...and so there is a change in society, you have to strive to become a figure of authority and you can’t be authoritarian, it doesn’t work. Instead you have to establish a relationship with every pupil in order to get somewhere.

2. What motivates a teacher?

In the discussions about teacher work in schools, the question of their motivation frequently appears. In this project we asked the informants what they considered to be the motivating force in their job, and if they could point out any special object as being the driving force. We also wanted to know the impact of teacher training, and whether they could discern any critical events that had been of importance for them as teachers.

In the analysis we discovered a pattern as to how the teachers motivated their teaching. It is presented here as different aspects of motivation. The three main aspects are, the children are important, the colleagues are important and I am important. A fourth aspect mentioned by a few informants is that you get paid to teach, which is termed earning a living. We also questioned what teachers perceive to have been important for their professional development, which here is named significant others.

The children are important: Teachers expressed how much they like children, that it is easy to get on with them and that children give them much joy. Teachers find it important to create an environment for the wellbeing and learning of children. Many also emphasized their own joy in teaching and that it is a great pleasure to follow the development of children.

...I think it is such great fun to meet the children, and that you become aware of their progress and you try to do your best for their learning and wellbeing.

...The children are important and they give something back, they are so wonderful, although they can be troublesome sometimes.

...I have great fun with the children and I love teaching.

The colleagues are important: Although a majority talk about children, many teachers in our study also emphasize the importance of their colleagues: not feeling alone with the responsibility and having someone to discuss different school-matters with:

… I like to be in school and I like the children but I don’t think I could stand it if I didn’t get on well with my colleagues. I feel worried about getting into a situation where I cannot co-operate, that would be serious and I can’t say that I would continue teaching if it should happen.

A few teachers also talk about how satisfactory teamwork is. One teacher explains teaming as a new way of learning, and how she spread it to other teachers through in-service training.

… It is the cooperation with other teachers. Yes, that’s the way it is; we cooperate. We plan teaching together, create something together and go through it together. You can see that the children have had fun and you can see that they have learned a lot./…/ And another thing that has been very stimulating; other teachers, not only in our municipality, have asked about our way of teaching. We have had workshops and seminars several times now. Such things have just happened, it’s nothing we have looked for or even dreamed about. The inquiries just happened and it is very stimulating.

I am important: A third aspect is that teachers perceive they have something special to give the children. This “something special” can vary from their subject knowledge and experience to correct values. Some of the teachers talk about influencing children and thereby making a difference for children with social problems. The following quotations are examples from the teachers’ views:

… And then, it might sound ridiculous but I like the thought that I in some ways can influence the children.

… I am good for children. I can give them possibilities for their future, give them joy for life and the feeling that life should be pleasant in general /…/ many children have strong needs and you feel you are needed. You can be an important person who guides them further.

… I fight for the good /…/ There are so many things that disturb children’s development, so many problems all around: parents who fight or drink, no friends, lack of things. I think I have the right values, which are important, and I want to work from that. I am religious, but most of all a humanist and I think there is too much egoism in society, so I find it important to work with children.

A majority of our informants discussed the disadvantages of the decentralization of the school system. They described how local authorities often are unable to distribute adequate resources to fulfill the needs of different local areas, each having different prerequisites for the creation and maintenance of a school equal for all pupils.

Earning a living: Just a few of the teachers mention that they teach for a living. Some of them also mentioned the working-hours including the holidays suitable for family-life. One of the teachers however referred to the salary who tried another job for a couple of years, but found that the payment and the independence of teaching were preferable. She returned to teaching.

Significant others: In respect to the question of what motivates teachers to continue teaching, we asked the teachers if they could refer to special persons or situations that have been of importance to them in their professional development. We found that more than half of the informants mention colleagues as significant others. It was usually a colleague with more experience. Teachers talked about how they have received support and help in structuring things and solutions to problems from other teachers. Teachingteams were emphasized as an important group for learning and development to develop within and learn from. Discussions when working in teams are highly valued. Some teachers mention that particularly the teachers who work with children with special needs have taught them very much.

… Some colleagues have been of great importance, they have stimulated me and I have been able to exchange ideas with them. It has been very stimulating.

… Colleagues, both older and younger are important, I know some older teachers who work with children with special needs and they have helped me greatly in my own development.

… You might have been in conflict with some pupils and you see how a colleague sorts it out, it’s something that you take with you and think ‘I will do like that next time’.

Children are mentioned by a third of the teachers as being important for their professional development. When children have said something challenging to the teacher, this has had a great impact on the teacher’s future teaching. Among this group of teachers, more than half of them mention that children with special needs have been important in their professional development.

… You take care of and have responsibility for pupils with special needs, things I have never encountered before. It means a lot of thinking and feeling; it’s like being on a roller coaster. I have to read, develop ideas and find out things so I have it under control and know what it is all about.

… I had a child who was diagnosed as having DAMP and he had his assistant with him in the classroom. I learned very much within this field and about children with special needs.

There are also a few teachers who talk about their own school time and some of their former teachers as important for their profession. A few teachers refer to the head-teacher as someone who should be of importance. But they have neither received support nor regarded the head-teacher as important to their own professional development.

We also wondered in what way teacher training has been important? The majority of the teachers talked about their education in positive terms. They met a lot of people, had good discussions, got to know a variety of teaching methods etc. The teachers also talked about personality development and that after finishing the program they had a good foundation. An interesting expression used in several of the interviews was that the teacher said, “I liked teacher training but I think I was the only one who did”. We also found that the informants think that the practical part of teacher training is “where you learned”. Only two of the informants mentioned the subjects themselves. Many of them also emphasized that it is from your own practice in the classroom that you learn, in a way expressing the best way is “Learning by doing”.

3. How are Teachers governed?

The last theme of the interviews concerned the teachers’ view on leadership in schools and how they value the national and local governance of schools today. The majority of teachers interviewed discussed two broad themes,

  1. the head-teacher as a pedagogical leader,
  2. “recentralization” of the steering of Swedish schools.

The pedagogical leader: Teachers underlined the importance of knowledge and skills in the field of leadership for the head-teachers and that they should concentrate on pedagogical tasks. Our teachers find the head-teachers’ work to be concentrated too heavily on school administra­tion and the economy of the school. School leaders should instead have professional administrators working for them. The head-teachers could then spend much more time on the development of pedagogical strategies for teaching in school.

Besides stimulating pedagogical innovations, the head-teacher should also be a good coach. The head-teacher must be aware of the importance of listening to staff in the school and be able to handle different opinions. According to the informants, many head-teachers today don’t see the importance of the pedagogical and democratic leadership. Nearly 70 % of the informants prefer a pedagogical leader.

… They are forced to act as bad educated economists /.../ instead they should create pedagogical and didactic visions for the future /…/ listen to their staff.

Our informants gave us many other examples of good pedagogical leadership. Children with special needs are an expanding field in school today. Some emphasize the importance of leadership that deals with this challenge seriously. School health and the social environment, especially for pupils with special needs, are important for a healthy working environment for both teachers and pupils. Some teachers are better suited than others for a leadership role. Some expressed how educational resources and training could make the difference between success and failure as a head-teacher.

Recentralization: As a consequence of the decentralization, local authorities now are responsible for running the local schools. The teachers interviewed began to work as teachers at a time when the Swedish educational system was changing from a strong regulation of resources, curricula and syllabus by the state, to a decentralization of the responsibility for schools to the local authorities. The educational system changed from being rule-governed to goal-oriented, which means that the local authorities were expected to interpret and rewrite central goals as local plans and educational objectives. Our informants suggest that the local authorities are unable to create a local curriculum and instructions for work in schools that teachers find meaningful and can respect

/…/ the local authorities have no general view /…./ it makes the situation bad in schools /…/ the communities create local plans without connections to the national plan.

/…./I have friends who work in other municipalities/…/ they can have it much better or worse than I have. It does not only affect the teachers but of course the children, the teaching and…..The schools are not of equal value any more.

The most frequent opinion in this matter is that the Swedish government should withdraw from local responsibility for education. Instead the state should resume central authority. This is a necessity if schools of equal value and opportunities are to be maintained, irrespective of where the schools are situated.

… It should not matter if you live in the north or in the south, the quality in schools should be equal for everybody /…/ but it depends on the local community /…/ think that the state should take more responsibility /…/ the state must be the boss.

Another teacher suggested that the state should withdraw the power over allocation of resources and explain that: it is for the children and for equality. The majority of our informants expressed that it would be easier to reach equality among schools with a centralized curricula, syllabus and allocation of resources. Other informants had little to say on this issue or believed that higher qualities in school comes with more money, stronger leadership, or more well defined educational objectives, without regard for the level of the decisions.

Concluding remarks

Throughout the interviews, teachers mentioned their relationships with others. In many ways, the informants stressed that working together today is giving them much more than working alone. Along with the new curriculum, working in a team is a highly valued issue that over the years seems to have been developed and appreciated by the teachers. Working in a team in a Swedish school does not mean that you share the same group of children; a working team can be put together in different ways. It can either consist of teachers who work with the same ages, usually 6-10 years old, or it can consist of teachers who follow the same pupils over a period of years in compulsory school, usually with children aged 6-13 or even up to 15. Working in a team means that you can plan a theme together but implement it by yourself.

Collabo­ration between teachers had a central focus during the 1990´s. Some informants mention it as being forced on teachers, others as occurring by free will, aspects that also are discussed by Hargreaves (1991). Little (1990) found when analyzing the results from different research projects that four different ways of collaborating emerged:

  1. “Joint work”, which occurs in a setting where teachers are dependent on each other and also share responsi­bility in practice;
  2. “Sharing” happens in settings where teachers regularly collaborate, share ideas, methods, and materials, and come together to work on a theme;
  3. “Storytelling and scanning for Ideas”, which occurs when teachers are more independent of each other;
  4. Collaboration with meetings in staff-rooms to exchange experiences, and get support for ideas; and,
  5. “Aid and assistance”, where teachers ask for help from a colleague, and often occurs between teachers with different amounts of experience and time in the teaching profession.

Within this framework, collaboration in our study could be discussed as “sharing” and “aid and assistance”. Little (1990) suggests that the “highest form” of collaboration is joint work, where you work together in the classroom and share a group of children. This means both dependence and adaptation exist on both sides, which some teachers find difficult but stimulating. Little’s conclusions are that collaboration between teachers has a value, and it is important to use different kinds of collaboration. As a consequence of the school reform in Sweden, working in teams is highly emphasized and is more or less forced on teachers today. In this respect, it is interesting that so many of our informants mentioned collaboration as fruitful. In a paper presented at AERA, Marston and Courtney (2002) found that collegiality is a factor that influenced teachers to remain in the classroom. It would be interesting to study and analyze different ways of collaboration and what it means to teachers in different settings in the Swedish context.

Another interesting result in our study is how the teachers view the effects of the school-reform. Our informants emphasized the importance of head-teachers as pedagogical leaders who are skilled and have the time and interest to work with the staff and with the pedagogical aspects in teaching. This result is in line with the goals for the new central training program for school leaders in Sweden (Skolverket 2002), where school leaders are expected to create a democratic, learning and communicative environment and thereby contribute to the development of a learning organization, which can support any pupil, irrespective of individual prerequisites. The informants’ views on what motivates teachers also correspond to their view on pedagogical leadership. A democratic leader can contribute to and successfully develop school by working together with the staff, instead of an authoritarian leadership (Utbildningsdepartementet 2000). Our teachers emphasize the importance of support from their colleagues as well as from their head masters.

Another perspective concerns the governance of the school system. Central governance of the distribution of resources to schools is seen as a better solution for achieving equal rights and opportunities for schools and pupils. This means that allocation of resources can be done in relation to needs, not in relation to the local economy. Further, a central curricula and syllabus gives opportunities for every pupil to get the same quality in education.

The decentralized governance structure that exists today is a hindrance to the teacher’s ability to respond to the different needs of pupils, and thus limits their possibility to serve students with different abilities and interests. This is seen clearly among teachers who point out that local authorities are unable to allocate resources and make curriculum decisions that respond to the variety of pupils in the municipalities. On the contrary, a direct and visible central governance over curricula, money, and the distribution of resources can provide better opportunities for teachers to meet the varying needs of students. Moreover, it is clear that the local power to distribute resources today has not given teachers the anticipated advantages to serve students; quite the opposite.

In relation to the political debate in Sweden today this view of governance is a very unorthodox opinion, for few argue in favor of centralization. The question remains whether returning back to a former system is the best solution. However, at the present time this is more an open question, especially among teachers, rather an item on the public agenda.

One theme that emerged from the interviews is the question: what is a teacher is today? This was discussed differently by teachers and politicians, and apparently influenced by a surrounding political debate, which focused on “problems” in schools, which took place during the data collection phase. Politicians of different persuasions competed with each other on the best way to create order in school. Frequently the solutions involved bringing back the “real” teacher, the one who is obeyed. Different means to accomplish this were discussed, such as the reintroduction of marks for order and conduct.

Teachers in our study talked differently than politicians about the same problems in schools. While a lot of the political arguments include a revival of the authoritarian teacher, teachers talked about being fellow-beings with students. Teachers do not believe in the authoritarian teacher; instead, they pointed out that the teacher has to establish a relationship with each pupil to deserve their respect. The teacher has to foster the pupils in a respectful way, in order to create the prerequisites for development and learning. Society has changed and relationships between people, between teacher and pupil are different now.

In spite of the problems that exist for teachers, a majority of them appreciate their profession. A fundamental condition for success of their work is based on their ability to create individual and good relationships, especially with the children and with their colleagues, but also with parents and other adults. This is of special interest and importance for the contemporary teachers, for teacher training and for school leaders. The successful authoritarian teacher era has faded away and so are also the teachers representing this view. Teacher who succeed in creating good relationships with their pupils also succeed in contributing to the pupils learning. This group of teachers are committed to their profession and enjoy spending a lot of time with their pupils. They have deep knowledge about hindrance and, of paramount importance, the possibilities with the profession as a teacher.

Bibliography

Hargreaves, Andy (1991). Contrived Collegiality. The Micropolitics of Teacher Collaboration. In Blase, Joseph (ed). The Politics of Life in Schools. Newsbury Park. London. New Deli: Sage Publications, 46-72.

Informationsfolder om den statliga befattningsutbildningen för rektorer

Little Warren, Judith (1990). The persistence of privacy: Autonomy and initiative in teachers´professional relations. Teacher College Record, 91 (4), 509-536.

Lpo 94. Curriculum for the compulsory school system, the pre-school class and the leisure-time centres. (www.skolverket.se)

Marton, Susan H, & Courtney, Victoria, B. (2002). The Voices of Experienced Elementary School Teachers: their insights about the Profession. Paper presented at American Educational Research Association Conference, april.

Utbildningsdepartementet (2001). Lärande ledare. (Utbildningsdepartementets skriftserie nr 4) Stockholm: Regeringskansliet: Utbildningsdepartementet.

Skolverket (2001). The Swedish School-system. (www.skolverket.se).

Skolverket (2002). Rektor - demokratisk, utmanande ledare

Agneta Hult
Senior Lecturer
Umeå University, Sweden
agneta.hult@pedag.umu.se

Anders Olofsson
Senior lecturer
Department of Education,
Mid Sweden University, Sweden
anders.olofsson@miun.se

Karin Rönnerman
Docent
Adult Learning Unit
Göteborg University, Sweden
karin.ronnerman@ped.gu.se