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Could hygge solve the teacher retention crisis?

Teachers in Norway value happiness over career progression, says Paul Middleton – and perhaps that’s why they tend to stay in the profession...

  • Could hygge solve the teacher retention crisis?
  • Could hygge solve the teacher retention crisis?
  • Could hygge solve the teacher retention crisis?

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The Danish/Norwegian word ‘hygge’ refers to a feeling of togetherness, wellbeing and personal wholeness. Whereas in Britain it’s merely a marketing tool to flog scented candles and scatter cushions, our Scandinavian neighbours apply it to every aspect of their life, including education.

With this in mind, earlier this year I travelled across Norway to see whether teachers in Britain could learn anything from our Nordic cousins’ relaxed way of life.

Trust and flexibility

The first thing that struck me was the complete feeling of togetherness, trust and flexibility that permeated throughout the entire teaching system.

Teachers are free to teach however and whatever they like (within reason), and there are huge gaps in the timetable to allow for collaboration and reflection.

Every other hour there seemed to be another meeting going on, with teachers coming together to share resources and divide up workload. Had it not have been for the extortionate price of beer, I would have thought I was drunk.

Teachers within the profession also seemed to have whole days off each week or, at the very least, days where they would only have to come in for one class or a staff meeting.

Marte, an early-career teacher working in Oslo, explained that, “you are completely free to arrive late and leave early… nobody is checking when we are in”. It is no wonder, then, that attrition rates in the country are so low – around half of that of England.

With such open timetables and focus on collaboration, Norway seems to be ahead of the curve in providing the work-life balance that so many of us now expect.

No progress?

However, the more time I spent in Norway, the more my disbelief turned to frustration. I questioned whether this laid-back approach was in fact just putting an arctic freeze on the development of new members of staff.

Although NQTs receive two years of mentoring as part of the country’s early-career framework, formal development and progression of staff after this point is pretty much non-existent.

There seemed to be very few CPD opportunities available to teachers, and staff talked about the ‘16 year ceiling’ when pay progression ends.

Yet it became clear from my conversations that a constant focus on five-year plans and professional trajectories was not necessarily something that educators in Norway would desire.

Sigrun, a mentor for new teachers, explained how “It would be quite embarrassing to stand out from your colleagues… the best thing is to be average”; compare this attitude to the cut-throat world of pedagogical politics that can exist among British teachers.

Light the fire

So, is there anything that we can learn from our Scandinavian neighbours? Well, the clear takeaway from my trip was the importance of collaboration, both formal and informal.

Every early-career teacher I spoke to was overflowing with praise for their colleagues and mentors, who supported them week in, week out. This ultimately allows time for greater flexibility within the classroom, which I think is something we are moving towards in Britain, albeit it at a glacial pace.

I also think we could follow Norway in taking a step back to bask in the soft glow of cosiness that comes from educating young people, instead of constantly worrying about progression, performance or pay.

There, I saw teachers who were trusted to be professionals, without colleagues and senior leaders breathing down their necks – and overall, I can safely say our friends across the fjords were some of the happiest teachers I have ever met.

Now, I am off to go light a fire and make a hot chocolate…

Paul Middleton is head of history at a secondary school in Hertfordshire. Earlier this year, he was announced as a 2019 Churchill Fellow and is documenting his research project at teacherbreakdown.co.uk.

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