Key challenges that spring to my mind include globalisation, migration, war and terrorism, and disease. These issues are more immediate in children’s lives than ever before. Like the global village, our schools have become global too.
The problems Swedish schools face today are quite different from those of just 25 years ago. The school I run is a multi-cultural state funded primary school where all of our pupils or their parents come from various countries abroad. The world is in our classrooms, and yet we are expected to strive towards the same exacting standards with the same curriculum as others in Sweden. We are not alone and it puts the teaching profession and the entire school system in the spotlight.
There are three main challenges: organisation, pupil empowerment in their own work, and co-operation between different pedagogical professions. Fifteen years ago teachers worked alone. They were at the front of the classroom, symbols of knowledge and authority. But today, more than one person is needed to help pupils reach the goals we set for them. This makes organisation very important.
At our school, teachers, pre-school teachers and recreational educationalists or pedagogues work together in teams. Letting go of that control has not been easy for some, but in today’s demanding educational scene, teachers have no choice but to share tasks, not just for the kids’ sake, but for their own too.
Each teacher at Husbygårds school receives a clear mission statement in writing: they are co-workers along with the principal and other staff, and our joint job is to educate. We make this clear to every teacher under my authority. We discuss and reach agreement on goals. There are six performance categories: ability to cooperate; competence; leadership; communication skills; effort and results; and responsibility. We treat teaching as a results driven profession. That is why better teachers at Husbygårds school earn a higher bonus than less-performing ones.
Husbygårds school is governed by public policy targets. Reaching them is like walking through a minefield. You have to be a strategist and you need a leader who can set priorities, make tough decisions and still inspire in everyone a sense of pride in this hugely important profession. Teaching people of many different religions is rewarding, but we must deal with what happens in the world, in the Middle East, in Africa. And we must teach Swedish to students who together speak some 40 other tongues. Still, our approach pays off. Our student performance has been very good, not least in Swedish. And our teacher turnover is low.
On top of academic performance, we have to worry about funding. This is a burden policymakers could help us more with. The system takes time and administration costs us about Skr4 million a year. This pressure forces us to severely limit the number of new teachers we employ.
The management burden eats into my time for pedagogical development and teacher support. This is a pity, since in any OECD country, developing competence and knowledge is surely where the priority should lie.
Another job is to oversee and train new teachers. Is our teacher training system able to cope? Sometimes when we meet teacher candidates, we are forced to wonder. Shouldn’t those who work in today’s schools mould the teachers of tomorrow, not outmoded training colleges?
A new direction for our teaching academies is needed. A successful teacher is one who learns in the classroom. We need to work with children, yes, but also interact with historians, mathematicians, scientists and other professionals who might help students understand and enjoy school. Happiness is a necessary ingredient for our multicultural schools.
This interaction does not happen enough. Kista, where our school is located, is a kind of Silicon Valley near Stockholm, yet we have almost no contact with firms in the area. At the same time, our joint priority must be the welfare and happiness of the children. A system that fosters learning is more likely to lead to a successful economy over time.
The children we teach today are more diverse than we ever were. Tomorrow is their world and it is unknown territory. We must help them develop the knowledge they need to move ahead.
©OECD Observer No 242, March 2004