“What are you still doing here? Go home!” Two new coworkers said this to me as they passed the copy room I had already been huddled in for a good hour or so.
“But… I still have things to finish for today. It being the first week of school and all, I think I should—”
“It’s 4:30, when does your frametime end today?”
I was hesitant to respond. “Oh! Um, 2:30, but—”
“Oh girl, no. You have to go home. There will always be something to do. Always something that needs to be done. It can wait until tomorrow. In Sweden, we go home on time. You can’t survive as a teacher without doing that. See you tomorrow!”
The pair walked away, chatting in Swedish, leaving me to my American ideal of “work until you can’t work anymore and everything will be fine,” thinking little of myself and my health in the process.
I looked down at the list of parents I still needed to call, the “About Me” pages my new ten-year-olds had filled out, the welcome letter to parents I wrote in broken Swedish that needed copying, the reading pretests I was collating and stapling…
“We go home on time.” I packed all of my things on my trolley and rolled it out of the copy room. I was going home.
— • —
I first arrived in Sweden from the United States in July 2018. Culturally, there were a lot of differences I noticed right away at school: more visible tattoos, regularly smoking cigarettes on breaks, an impeccable fashion sense. In terms of academics and actual teaching, however, there were even more differences: no grades for certain year groups, subjective grading based on vague rubrics, not having to be fully qualified to teach... But something stood out way more than any of these things: the work/life balance Sweden insisted we respect.
Coming fresh off of my student teaching experience in Pennsylvania, where I was one of the last to leave school each day, this idea was completely foreign to me. What was the principal going to think? Well, she was already gone for the day. She left her work at work and left when she needed to. What were my other colleagues going to think? Well, they had left after their frametimes wrapped up. The message was clear.
Though every school, wherever it is in the world, will always have its issues, struggles, and weaknesses, and while teachers in Sweden are bound to leave the profession or move away eventually, the healthy work/life balance in rigor here has helped to prevent extensive teacher turnover due to overexhaustion and unrealistic expectations for teachers. There are certainly other things that cause teacher turnover here, but this is not one of them!
Teaching in Sweden with these guidelines and having Swedish colleagues exercising positive peer pressure has helped me realize that in teaching, there is always something else to do. There will always be something else to plan, produce, print, or prep. But in order to take care of your students, you have to take care of yourself first. There is nothing wrong with going the extra mile—people here still appreciate that and love it!—but you don’t need to ignore your own needs in order to do so.
Of course, there are plenty of times when I stay late or arrive early for a parent meeting or to finish up a time-sensitive task. There are still lots of days I bring work home or plan on the weekends. Each and every day I am thinking about my students, my teaching, a new activity to try, an interaction that occurred, or reading up on the latest teaching practices or studies—which I think is very normal for a lot of teachers. But the difference in Sweden is, I am highly encouraged to leave these things at the door of the school on my way out. I don’t feel pressured to lose sleep and break my back just to get ahead or to complete a task (even though sometimes I still do). If I need a break, I take it. If I don’t want to think about work, I don’t. I do not feel bad about not working outside of my frametime. My colleagues understand that we are humans and not machines.
Moving to Sweden was initially just meant to be a post-grad travel experience, and it turned into many years of bettering my mental health, finding my wants and needs as a teacher, and most importantly, creating a work/life balance within my teaching that will ensure I continue teaching for many years to come.
Jaime Ellenberger is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and is currently a middle school English teacher residing in Stockholm, Sweden.