By: Joe Mazza
As our flight left Newark for Stockholm, Sweden, I introduced myself to the woman sitting next to me on the nine-hour flight. She saw I was reading Finnish Lessons, and asked me if I was an educator. After articulating my role in working for kids and the purpose of our visit to Finland, I asked her what she did.
She replied, “I oversee schools in Sweden.”
The learning on this trip was about to get a head start from an unlikely source.
My knowledge of Sweden is limited other than some reading on ideas they’ve shared with Finland over the years. Some of these ideas included a health care system, the welfare state model and basic educational offerings before adopting its own approach to education.
The next six hours of in-flight conversation covered topics including teacher and leadership preparation models/needs, mentoring, family engagement, standardized testing, poverty, early intervention, equity in K-college education access and differences in the educational systems in Finland and Sweden.
We discussed the importance of adopting shared core values in education versus “programs” and one-size-fits-all approaches. Reflecting back, six “Swedish Lessons” stood out from our conversation and are detailed below:
- Honesty and trust are always trending. The people of Sweden care about others, and when you form a relationship with someone, it is authentic by default. People genuinely care about others and will do whatever it takes to help them achieve their goals. However, if you lie or hide things from others, you lose all credibility in your circles. The Swedes have built their schools upon these core values, and they find various ways of highlighting the importance of these life competencies inside the classroom each day.
- Ongoing mentoring supports for students, teachers and leaders. The supports in place at schools for kids, teachers and leaders remind me more of a hospital setting. All students have access to extra help in the areas they need it in and outside school hours. Teachers have a variety of educational coaches, mentors and administrators observing and providing ongoing feedback to them. Principals have mentors in and outside of the field. The outside edu mentors are an interesting concept to me, as the biases in education a mentor brings can be extracted leaving the important people to people efforts in the limelight. The support along every step of the way was impressive, and if I was a new teacher in Sweden, I’d feel like I was part of a comprehensive support system across multiple lenses.
- Personal connections with kids can have lasting impacts. As she was reflecting upon the high poverty levels in the Houston area, she shared a story with me about providing a sense of belonging for at-risk youth earlier in her career when she was a teacher. She took a risk and opened her home and family to a student who just needed someone to make him feel valued in this world. With added support, this student turned his life around and became a dentist. Oftentimes it takes an extra few minutes, a thoughtful gesture, smile or relevant compliment to help kids understand how valuable they are to those around them.
- Mistakes are accepted and expected for adults & kids alike. We talked about when we were new administrators, and how many mistakes we made as rookie principals. When we’re new in a role, we want to work hard, do a great job and help others believe we were the right hire. The succession plan we may have envisioned prior to the first day on the job oftentimes becomes difficult when staff want you to make changes early. Three areas of succession focus came up including the 1) importance of valuing the culture you walk into; 2) observing student instructional time with all of your senses; and 3) building real relationships with all stakeholders. New and veteran educators may make mistakes, but if your passion is relationship-based, others have the tendency to feed off you. In time, a safe place where everyone (students and staff) can make mistakes is born.
- Early intervention starts at age 1 – Parents have the option to pay around $150 (USD) a month for up to 50 hours a week of pre-school offerings. There is a curriculum based on early childhood skills. Kids officially start required school at the age of seven, which dates back to the age where it was acceptable to walk from the farm to the school.
- Family Engagement – Parents are able to be at the school on any day. They can stay as long as they like, and even have lunch with the child (school pays). She described a grandmother checking in on her grandchildren while knitting in the back of the classroom. In talking about preparation of teachers and leaders in the area of family and community engagement, we agreed that much more coursework and real relationship-based experiences are necessary. Over the years, the Swedish school system has adjusted to the fact that parents are working full time. There are after-school social groups and other academic tutoring offerings for all children at no charge. The school is at the center of the universe, and the community fully supports the schools
In summary, it was great meeting someone of such a high global leadership position who was as passionate as a beginning teacher about education and building relationships with kids. With a new global educator/leader in my PLN, I’m looking forward to connecting further on the work happening in Sweden.
Now, onto Helsinki, where I’ll be looking to see how Sweden and Finland are both alike and different in their approach to teaching, learning and leading.