When I grow up, I’ll be a… science teacher

This is a follow-up article from a talk organised by the PhD Careers Beyond Academia Club, given by PhD-turned-science-teacher Sanja Ranica. I was in the audience and Federica Santoro interviewed Sanja after the talk.

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It isn’t hard to see how a researcher might want to go into teaching. A crucial part of research is communicating knowledge, although not every PhD programme includes formal pedagogical training. Today we shall hear from Sanja Ranica about becoming a teacher after a PhD. Sanja did her PhD in developmental biology at the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology in Karolinska Institutet. Today she is a maths and science teacher at högstadiet in a grundskola (grades 7-9). What happened in between?

Before we talk more about the transition from academia to teaching, let’s see what the average day in the life of Sanja looks like.
“According to my contract, I am obliged to work 45 hours per week: 35 in school and the other 10 wherever I want. Classes take up 18.5 hours; the rest is planning, grading and mentorship, which varies from school to school.”
Needless to say, classroom management is often a challenge.
“You cannot demand respect, you have to build relationships with your students and through them earn their trust and respect.”
One also has to think about the best way to impart knowledge.
“You have to organise your subject so that every student can understand it at their own level.”
As a teacher now, Sanja has a different view of her students.
“I thought my job was to make the students learn my subjects. The biggest challenge for me was to realise that’s not the case; my job is to make them grow.”
And in the end the reward is worth it:
“I grow with them. When they grow, I grow.”

So, how did she get there?

Sanja shares that teaching is a spark of passion that she carried for a long time, but only tended to it seriously in recent years. Looking back, she found that she always enjoyed teaching, even as a fifth grade student.
“I’ve always liked teaching. The first time I held a lesson I was in a fifth grade as a student, and was asked to give a mathematics lesson to another class as a teacher.”
She also enjoyed her teaching experience as PhD student.
“I did some teaching at KI, which we have to do, which is a good thing for us.”

However, Sanja was not too thrilled with the job market after she graduated.
“The first thing I did after finishing my PhD was to travel for 3 months. Then I spent another 3 months looking for jobs.”
As a temporary measure, she signed up to be a substitute teacher (lärarvikariat), but she liked teaching so much that she decided to switch gears and obtain a teaching license to become a full-fledged teacher.

The way to obtain a Swedish teaching license (lärarlegitimation) after you finish your PhD is to take the postgraduate Master’s level teacher education called kompletterande pedagogisk utbildning (KPU, 1.5 years). Note that it is only offered in Swedish, so Swedish proficiency at SAS level (Swedish as second language) is required. Sanja points out that there is also a KPU programme specifically aimed at researchers called KPUFU, which requires a licentiate or PhD degree in a STEM field and comes with a 25000kr/month stipend (read more here).

Talar du inte bra svenska?
“Go to international schools and ask for temporary employment until you know enough Swedish. A lot of international schools also have a shortage of maths and science teachers. Mind you though – if you don’t get the pedagogical education in Swedish, the schools cannot give you a permanent position,” Sanja advises. Temporary employments are typically given for one school semester, i.e. half a year.

Sanja chose to obtain her license by enrolling in the 2-year long Teach for Sweden programme, where one receives pedagogical training (KPU) and works at the same time. You teach for 80% of a working week and you do studies at 75% speed on your free day. However, you do receive 100% salary. The strength of this programme is its vision for equal opportunities in education regardless of the child’s background. This implies that the candidates will receive placements in neighbourhoods with lower socioeconomic status and more challenging schools, where passionate teachers are actually most needed.

Sanja finds the programme gave her good training in teaching.
“Teach for Sweden helps you understand how to be a good leader, because that’s what you need to be. You also train your didactical skills, that is, how to teach a subject, not just the subject per se but how to make it understandable – how to explain why 2 + 2 is 4. Through the programme you also receive a coach who once a month visits your lessons and gives you feedback to help you understand what went well and what you can improve. What I like the most about Teach For Sweden, apart from all the support you get, is that you do practical work at the same time as you study, so whatever you learn you can implement it directly in your classroom and see whether it works for you or not.”
But she also cautions that it is a difficult programme.
“You’re placed in tough schools and it’s almost like working 200%.”
Sanja also emphasises the social mission of Teach for Sweden – that she felt duty-bound not only to teach, but more than that, to contribute to the education of less privileged students.

Does her research background help to be a good teacher? Sanja points out that first and foremost, the experience of interacting with many different people in a lab helps her now to deal with her students.
“In schools, you don’t get respect straight away from kids, you have to socialise with them for them to respect you. After you earn their respect, then you can teach them.”
Being a teacher comes with a lot of duties: organising lesson plans, grading and dealing with students, parents and bosses; and that has some parallels to research life too.
“We have a lot of endurance. You know how to deal with multitasking.”
Of course, a PhD is not a requirement for pedagogical training, but Sanja observes that a sizable number of her fellow trainee teachers had one, about 6 out of 24 people. There is also a position in school called lektor that does require a PhD. The position involves some research activities, but this depends on the agreement with the school.  

Sounds like a good fit for you? Sanja has some practical tips: first, learn Swedish. Also start volunteering or applying for short temporary positions.
“Take a leave for a few months and try it out.”
Besides testing the waters, the experience will be an advantage if you go on teaching in the future. Testing the waters is important in itself.
“Not everybody can do it. Not everybody can deal with kids. But if you do like children, it’s definitely a job you should consider.”
And Sanja is optimistic about future prospects.
“Right now, people don’t consider teaching a good job, but I think it’s changing. Salaries are increasing and people are rethinking how important the schools are.”
Last but not least, let’s not forget all the perks that come with the job.
“You get 12 weeks of vacation!” she says smiling.
“And presents at the end of the year. If you can find a good school, you can have a really fulfilling job. It is a profession that makes you feel good.”

Want to know more?
Check out these links for additional info on becoming a teacher in Sweden:
Skolverket // Swedish National Agency for Education
Pedagog Stockholm

About Sanja Ranica
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Sanja earned a PhD in developmental biology from Karolinska Institutet in 2013, but upon realising that teaching was her true calling she enrolled in the programme Teach for Sweden. She obtained her teaching degree in 2016, and now teaches maths and science at Blommensbergsskolan primary school in Stockholm.
Find her on LinkedIn here.

Illustrations by scientist-cartoonist Pedro Velica. Find more of his artwork at Pedromics.

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