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The loss of meaning in the teaching profession

Researchers discuss the loss of meaning for teachers in a new book about everyday life in Scandinavian schools.

Images of a teacher in a classroom
The Norwegian teachers interviewed in the book were pleased to see their pupils develop and felt happy about working with children. However, they were also concerned about increasing pressure, lack of influence and less time with their pupils. (Illustration photo: iStockphoto)

Many countries struggle with a shortage of teachers. There are fewer applicants for teacher training courses, and many trained teachers leave the profession. In Norway, this is something we have noticed over the past two years especially, but it is part of a trend that has been ongoing for a long time in our neighbouring countries.

Norwegian teacher training has seen a decrease in the number of first-priority applicants by 21.9 per cent this year. The number of applicants to teacher training has not been this low since 2008. In addition, figures from Statistics Norway show that in the fourth quarter of 2020, close to 18,200 primary school teachers had not completed teacher training.

In the book Professionsuddannelser i krise? Rekrutteringsproblemer, meningstab og meningsdannelse i nordiske lærer”og pædagoguddannelser (Professional degree progammes in crisis?), a number of researchers go into more detail about the recruitment problems, the loss of meaning, and shaping of meaning in Nordic teaching and education training courses. The book is a result of the Erasmus+ project, MeShape.

Facts/About the project

  • MeShape is a strategic partnership project under the EU Erasmus+ programme.
  • The project lasted from 2020-2023.
  • The partners were the University of Southern Denmark (DK), VIA University College (DK), the University of Agder (NO) and University West (SE).
  • The project's aim was to rethink the Nordic educational and training traditions; strengthen recruitment for teacher training programmes in the Nordic region; and increase the recognition and legitimacy of these professions.

“Making a difference in a child's life is one of the fundamentals of the teaching profession. We are concerned that this aspect is becoming less strong,” says Professor Aslaug Kristiansen.

Together with colleagues from Denmark and Sweden, she is the editor of the book that will be published by Syddansk universitetforlag in the autumn. The book consists of nine chapters, all of which revolve around meaning and motivation in the teaching profession.

Foto av forskerne

Assistant Professor Åse Haraldstad (left), Professor Aslaug Kristiansen and Associate Professor Kristin Endresen-Maharaj have examined teachers' sense of meaning in their profession.

Salary and holidays aren't enough of an incentive

In one of the chapters, which draws on an empirical study, Kristiansen and her colleagues wanted to find out what contributes to the retention of good teachers in schools. They conducted three focus group interviews with a total of twelve teachers who were happy in school. The teachers were at various stages in their careers and came from both urban and rural schools.

“The teachers said that they were motivated by being able to make a difference. They wanted to work with children and create a better school than the one they had attended themselves. Nobody said they became teachers because of the long holiday or the salary,” says Assistant Professor Åse Haraldstad.

As Turid, one of the Norwegian teachers in the book says:

You meet so many different people, and you just want to embrace them. They arrive (as) such cute little eighth-graders. Then you’re lucky enough to follow them for three years, then you become very fond of them, and then comes the professional part and you want them to succeed. You think it's so much fun to make it and see that development.”

It was often the sense of community with other teachers, the feeling of mastery, and flexibility in the job that contributed most to teachers staying in the job.

“In our conversations with the teachers, we hear that the encounter with other people is what gives them joy,” says Associate Professor Kristin Endresen-Maharaj

Not recommended

The researchers found that even though they asked the teachers about the positive aspects of the profession, the teachers brought up challenges. They mentioned things like:

  • Having less time for the pupils
  • Waning trust from society
  • Lack of flexibility
  • Challenging changes in schools
  • Concern for colleagues who are struggling

Many of the teachers also said that they were worried about the future of the profession, and that they would not recommend their children to become teachers.

“When even teachers who enjoy their job say this, it is quite serious. Then how would young teachers who have just started their careers think?” Haraldstad says.

In need of more flexibility

One of the reasons why teachers feel a loss meaning in their profession is that they no longer have time to work well with their pupils. Instead, they spend more and more of their time reporting and testing.

“We know from other research that pupils like teachers who do things differently. But all the administration, reporting and requirements for written reports tie up the energy of the teachers. They need freedom and the opportunity to decide for themselves how to work well with their pupils, but instead they face a high pressure of work combined with a lack of influence,” Kristiansen says.

The teachers felt that they had limited influence over their own work, and some felt hesitant to talk about the teaching profession in public.

“It is important to take teachers' voices seriously and encourage them to participate in public debate about schools. Mastery, autonomy, good relationships and the opportunity to work well with people are key factors for the teaching profession to be meaningful,” Kristiansen concludes.