One of the most interesting aspects of researching teacher professionalism in England and Sweden has been trying to understand what a collective voice sounds like. Who are the collective? How do they organise themselves? Do they speak louder together or, despite their number, only in a whisper?
What I have discovered is that, in the teaching profession, the collective is actually very complex. There are many different collectives in many different jurisdictions. They speak many different languages and emerge from many different cultural, political and educational traditions. Sometimes their voices sing in unison. Other times they clash resoundingly.
Take the two main Swedish teacher trade unions. The origins of the Swedish Teachers’ Union (Lärarförbundet) lie in the nineteenth century folk school movement, a social project to bring education to young children in the rural communities of Sweden. In contrast, the forerunner of the National Union of Teachers in Sweden (Lärarnas Riksförbund) was founded in the learning institutes of the same era. Here, adjuncts and lecturers prepared the sons of wealthy families for university studies.
Today, each union represents a much more diverse teacher community. But, the historical legacies of their teaching traditions are still evident in divergent approaches to policy and political allegiances. In fact, recent reforms to Initial Teacher Education caused significant professional tensions between the two trade unions.
Despite these differences, however, some common concerns have recently brought the teacher unions together. As national and international studies point to increased educational inequity in and between schools and municipalities, the Swedish Teachers’ Union and the National Union of Teachers in Sweden have adopted a more united front to advocacy for social justice. Together with the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (Landsorganisationen), they have produced an Equity Agenda (Likvärdighetsagenden) to fight to ‘give all pupils the same chance’.
Tensions have given way to compromise. Solidarity has replaced division. New alliances are being formed. The collective voice of teachers has been strengthened by looking outward instead of inward. Looking forward to the kind of society teachers can help create rather than backward to the societies they emerged from. Democracy is not just a value, it’s a driving force and an overriding ambition for schools and the future of Sweden.
Yet, consensus is not absolute. It is worked at and worked through. And, occasionally, a small gain for some means a loss of ground for others. Still, professional differences are put aside for long enough to reflect on a common purpose.
So, here, the collective voice represents collected voices. Each voice is unique but that doesn’t mean the social and educational goals are so divergent. And finding the points of convergence is key to a more democratic professionalism which puts the public good at the heart of education.
Alone, one voice can speak up, start a conversation, engage in debates. But together, many voices can put those spoken words into action to bring about real progress and change for everyone. Alliances do not drown out individual voices. They merely make them stronger, louder and more likely to be heard.
‘Each person shines with his or her own light. No two flames are alike. There are big flames and there are little flames, flames of every colour. Some people’s flames are so still they don’t even flicker in the wind, while others have wild flames that fill the air with sparks. Some foolish flames neither burn nor shed light, but others blaze with life so fiercely that you can’t look at them without blinking, and if you approach you shine in the fire.‘
Excerpt from ‘The Book of Embraces’ by Eduardo Galeano