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Christer Holmlund: Teachers' psychological strain a theme for NLS

Christer Holmlund: Teachers' psychological strain a theme for NLS

| Text: Bengt Östling, photo: Finland-Swedish Teaching Union

With the reopening of Nordic schools post-Corona, there needs to be more focus on teachers’ working conditions. They made a big digital leap with distance learning and this has been tiring, says Christer Holmlund, the new Secretary-General for NLS, the Nordic Teachers’ Union.

Teachers and students will remember the strange lessons of 2020 for a long time. Now they are preparing for how the autumn might become. As everything changes so rapidly, things are going to be tricky whatever happens. The teachers’ “long” holidays – or non-teaching time – is particularly well-earned. This year it might be students who long to meet up after the break.

Home schooling has been difficult for some children, notes Christer Holmlund. The Coronavirus forced many teachers to move in just a few days from normal classroom teaching to a completely new way of teaching – online, at a distance.

This had never been tested, but it has gone largely well. A majority of Finland-Swedish teachers told a survey that moving to distance teaching went surprisingly well. It even surpassed the teachers’ own expectations. But working hours have increased a lot for most of them. 

Work environment issues important post-Corona

The Nordic Teachers’ Union considers work environment issues to be important for the future of work. Christer Holmlund hopes that discussion can now be part of teachers’ strategic work going forward.

“There are expectations both from society and from parents. Education institutions have been given an increasing mandate, beyond only passing on knowledge. This is part of a necessary social development, and schools cannot just stand still while the rest of society develops around them,” according to Holmlund. 

Meanwhile, all countries are struggling economically. Schools lack the funding that is necessary to live up to the demands of society. Nordic teachers have spoken up and drawn a line. The issue of psychological strain has been highlighted. But speaking up does not always lead to the necessary action.

A worrying lack of teachers

Holmlund sees that the teaching profession is not as popular as it used to be in the Nordics. He fears the decline could increase without government action.

There is a great risk of a lack of teachers, and it is already a major problem in Sweden. Some teachers are abandoning the profession, and it is then too late to compensate by improving working conditions. It is good to highlight psychological strain within the profession, but teachers should also get paid according to their education and the amount of work they do. 

The situation is better in Finland. Many still apply for teacher training, although numbers have fallen in Finland too.

Nordic differences?

Feelings of inadequacy and psychological strain seem to be the same across the Nordics. Working hours are roughly the same, and so is the education system.

Holmlund is in doubt whether there is enough focus on support services in the Nordics. 

“Are the teachers really in a position to focus on their core task – to create a safe social space in the classroom and being a teacher? Or are they also doing the job of a psychologist, curator, police and social worker, wonders Holmlund.  

Controversial privatisation

So the systems are quite similar across the Nordic countries. School starters’ ages can vary, but most have nine years of elementary school. The upper secondary system differs slightly more, as does vocational training. The biggest difference is in the debate surrounding the privatisation of education, which is happening mainly in Sweden.

“Our view is that school should not be a for-profit enterprise in the Nordic region, especially as they are funded by taxpayers’ money. This is debated in Sweden and it would be good to know which negative impact private schools might have. It can lead to segregation and schools with different status,” thinks Holmlund.

Schools reopened in the end, there was no choice

All the Nordic countries reopened their schools towards the end of the spring semester. Sweden’s recommendation for distance learning is removed from 15 June in secondary schools. Primary schools never closed. Sweden has also returned to normal teaching in upper secondary schools. Denmark’s schools also reopened at the end of May.

Christer Holmlund thinks things are moving back to the normal way of teaching in the Nordics, even though changes will be made. Schools and trade unions will be spending the summer preparing for a possible second wave of Covid-19. NLS will debate this during its summer meetings. The union is very worried about a second wave and how teaching would then be organised.

Norway has been following a green, amber and red traffic light model. The system has been amber since 2 June, similar to the Finnish system. People are asked not to come to school if they feel unwell. Schools also clean more, increase hygiene measures and limit the physical contact between students and teachers. 

All countries face challenges when it comes to kindergartens and the first years of primary school. These must be open since it is not possible to completely close schools down. That would paralyse the country. 

Key workers like those in the health service, police and other emergency services must get their children to kindergarten. Therefore, it has been possible in all the Nordic countries for small children to be looked after, although the main recommendation has been to stay at home.

Vulnerable teachers

The challenge from school teachers’ point of view is how to manage the risks they face – how can they avoid physical contact with students?

Holmlund feels this is being respected in the Nordic countries. Member organisations have raised the issue, and nothing alarming has emerged. Vulnerable teachers should not have to enter classrooms and carry out face-to-face teaching, but can perform other duties during the Corona crisis.

Many schools only have one teacher in one classroom. The rooms are not big enough to create a larger space around each student, if all students are present.

All the countries are now proposing outdoor teaching. At this time of the year, it is possible to stay outside as much as possible, which will help.

There has been a lot of talk about the students who have managed the transition to home schooling well. Parents have also been praised a lot for taking on the teaching role on top of their own home office work. But it is important to remember that teachers too had to make great changes in a short space of time.

Teachers have also had different starting points in view of which digital tools their employers have been able to offer them. Hopefully research will be done into what schools should be able to offer. In many Finnish schools teachers have been using their own mobile telephones to get work done, for instance.

The Nordic model works in the school sector too

Christer Holmlund has noticed that government ministers and trade union leaders have been discussing the Corona crisis both in the Nordics and the rest of Europe.

In the Nordic countries, of course, the close cooperation between governments, trade unions and educational authorities is a positive thing. Also in difficult times the Nordic model has proven to have the capacity to gather people around a table to negotiate which measures are possible to realise. This has also worked for schools, says Holmlund.

He believes the Nordic model has been a strength and a cause for progress which has allowed the countries to face tough times.

This year’s holidays particularly important for teachers

The school systems are similar in many ways, also when it comes to what is sometimes called the too long summer holiday for teachers. 

The number of days teachers work is actually fairly similar across the Nordics, says Christer Holmlund. But the holidays are laid out in different ways in the different countries, and even between municipalities.

Finland might have the longest summer holiday out of all the countries. But Sweden has considerably fewer inset days for teachers – 178 compared to Finland’s 190. The summer holiday has actually been shortened in Finland. The sports holiday in winter is a tradition, and now there are calls for a week’s autumn holiday too. The total number of weeks with no teaching in Finland is between eight and nine.

Holmlund is exasperated with the critics’ of teachers and their short working days. In the world of schooling you cannot postpone answering a parent’s question, the contact hours for teachers is considerably shorter than in other sectors. That is why it is good to be able to switch off and recharge the batteries for next year. 

It is particularly important for teachers to rest after this stressful winter and spring, says Holmlund. This year he is not certain that students would benefit from a longer break. In Finland, the number of child protection cases increased after schools reopened. Perhaps students should receive the support that school can offer this summer. 

Schools, alongside parents, are responsible for looking after students. Right now, parents are having to take a particularly big share of that responsibility, and sometimes certain issues are better identified and dealt with by schools, according to Christer Holmlund.

“From the students’ perspective, there will be challenges if they have to wait right until the autumn before schools reopen,” says Christer Holmlund.

The Nordic Teachers' Union


  • One of the main tasks for the Nordic Teachers’ Union NLS is to promote educational development and to elevate teachers’ status in society.
  • The presidency changes annually between Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. In 2020, Steffen Handal from the Union of Education Norway is the chair.
  • NLS comprises 17 member organisations and represents nearly 600,000 teachers and leaders.
  • The secretariat is in Finland with the Trade Union of Education in Finland in Helsinki. Christer Holmlund began his tenure as NLS Secretary-General on 1 May. He was previously the President of FSL, the Finland Swedish teachers’ union, and has been a form tutor and headteacher.
  • Like in schools and other trade unions, all NLS activities have been suspended. Nordic activities have been postponed until the autumn of 2020, or next year, because of the Coronavirus.

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