Home » Culture » Six Swedish Lessons – One Flight

Six Swedish Lessons – One Flight

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.


  1. thadhaines says:


    Thank you for sharing, your trip will help all of us gain a new perspective on education.

    I really feel these are ways that we can all impact our schools. The first lesson of honesty and trust lay the foundation for all we do, and is the most important. Without creating a culture of open honesty, then we cannot begin to build the connections, provide the mentor-ship, or build the community connections.

    The idea of mentors outside of the school community really resonates with me personally, we too often focus on,y on “doing school” and can lose the full perspective that can enable us to better serve our schools.

    • Joe Mazza says:

      Hey Thad, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The outside mentor piece also struck me as, as it would be interesting to have someone focused more on people skills (not nec edu) to bounce ideas off of and push me forward. Many schools systems I know of do not even have mentors past the first year for principals or teachers – how many of us were ready to do it ALL w/o support after just one year as a teacher or principal? We need ongoing, non-evaluative support, and I’m glad to have my PLN each day as a main means to this support – jm

      • thadhaines says:

        After that first year, we are left to our own for finding and cultivating mentors. I am so thankful for my PLN as well, and can’t help but wonder the impact of Twitter/Blogs/Social-Media-In-General would have had on me as a beginning teacher if they had existed in the mid-90s. We have more opportunities for those connections, experiences, and supports. I feel less isolated than when I began my teaching career.

        For example, I would (maybe) have read about your journey in a journal (maybe not because,at the time, I would probably not have looked at the experiences of an elementary perspective). I would not have had the fortune to experience it vicariously via your sharing, let alone have dialog with you about the learning.

      • Joe Mazza says:

        I think it’s really important for connected educators who also serve as doctoral/master’s students continue with research on how social media impacts things like professional development and mentoring/support for educators and leaders. I believe Tony Sinanis (@cantiague_lead) is planning a dissertation around something like this. We have to help traditional minds understand how “being connected” has made a difference for connected educators in such a short time.

        Thanks again for participating in these circles. The main purpose of our trip is make our learning as transparent as possible using a variety of tools. Hope you can participate in the LIVE gHangout on Thursday via @Edutopia.

  2. thadhaines says:

    The LIVE hangout sounds great! Link to info? Time?

    Thanks again Joe!

  3. How lucky Joe! A fantastic plane trip partner. Your trip sounds amazing and I am certainly looking forward to dipping into this reflective blog often. Thanks for sharing your insights with us all!
    From @7mrsjames Down under

    • Joe Mazza says:

      Thanks Jeannette. Let me know what your curiosities are around this system and what makes it up. We’re currently in session w/ an educational leader learning about differences in leadership in US-Finland.

  4. […] takeaways from that conversation were transitioned into my first post of the #PennFinn13 trip, entitled Six Swedish Lessons, One Flight. Little did I know that seven days later on the way back home, I’d sit next to a […]

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