Lingon Stories

Reflections on new identity creation – a career change from academic scientist to primary school teacher in Sweden.

The Decision

Nothing went as planned. Not that I had Plans, but there were aspirations, hopes, goals, directions that I attempted because no one else was piloting this life so my best efforts were just going to have to do. It is easy to look back and admonish myself for short-sightedness or blame my failure to launch on a general lack of knowledge on how things work. However, the heart of the matter rests on a few inescapable realities of the Life Is Not Fair variety. The first was that the professional path that I should have could have taken was not open to me at the time in which I should have could have taken it. The third being marriage to the wrong person and general naivete on exactly how catastrophic that sort of mistake can be. I jumped over the second reason because it's a bit trickier to succinctly summarize and I'm sure it will come up in good time.

Launch as what? Well, I was supposed to be a scientist. The bachelor's degree. The master's degree. The PhD. I spent a decade training to be an environmental toxicologist. All of this training was in my native language, English, despite living in a few different countries. Divorce with a child in Sweden for me meant two choices: abandon my child with my ex or stay in the county and get a local job. That Ted Lasso chose option A in the same scenario is to this day, the only character choice the series has made that is absolutely unfathomably out of character.

A local job for someone with such high credentials requires both extremely high fluency in Swedish and the right connections— as well as a strong enough passion for the profession to be able to do a decent job. Ah yes, also the ability to travel. I failed on all four counts.

After 10 years in Sweden, I could certainly speak the language. But reading the newspaper and following a reality TV series without subtitles is not the same level of fluency as writing government reports. The long hours and intensity of years of academic research and volunteer activism endeavors (more on that later) combined with the emotional distress of a cataclysmic divorce in 2018 left me a burned out shell of a person with single parenting responsibilities for a neurodivergent kid. No one was hiring me and I didn't blame them (okay, maybe I did a little).

My priorities became healing from all the trauma, improving my Swedish and taking care of my kid. I chose to study full-time in Sweden various courses that I found interesting at the time. I could do this because university courses are tuition-free in Sweden and anyone who wants to study is entitled to a certain number of years of study stipend. That these courses should lead somewhere, was not the point. The goal was language learning. However, I did manage to start-up a fledgling freelance business as an anti-discrimination educator. This came out of my years of involvement in the LGBTQ rights movement. Then the pandemic hit so I was going to need to pivot into something more stable. Credentials are important in Sweden, so I signed-up for a one year master's in intersectional gender studies to launch a career in corporate DEI – Diversity Education and Inclusion. I even took some courses in Swedish labor law.

While I was doing all that, a funny thing happened. I landed a part-time job as a kind of school librarian at a little school in a rough part of town where nearly all the children have refugee backgrounds. I got the job through word of mouth. A close friend was offered it but didn't want it and he knew I was looking for part-time work. There was no library at this school and my job was to manage a reading promotion grant acquired by the previous principal. The new principal had her hands full and gave me a very long leash.

I have never loved a job so much in my entire life. I learned as much as I could about Swedish children's literature and built a library. I brought in new audio book technology, started up a podcasting club, developed a partnership with the local public library, and ran a couple VR projects. I read up on trauma-informed pedagogy and started taking kids on field trips and getting deeply involved in the school's afterschool care program (fritidsverksamhet).

I fell in love with the kids and in love with working in a school. For the first time since childhood, I felt deeply integrated in my local community. No more living in an academic bubble. So I started looking at teaching job announcements. A local gymnasium (grades 10-12) needed a part-time science teacher substitute for a year. I decided to give it a go: 2 days a week at the elementary school and 3 days a week at the high school (to use the American terms). That year is now coming to a close and it's time to decide what to do in August.

On account of the rather dramatic teacher shortage, a few universities have recently launched 1-year teacher certification programs for folks who already have degrees. I am 37-years-old and have applied for the program to earn a teaching certification for kindergarten to third grade (f0-3) with a STEM focus (behörighet i NO, Teknik och Matematik). I could have chosen high school level certification. There is even a particularly nice scholarship stipend program available for teacher candidates with PhDs to become certified high school science teachers. There is a lot I like about teaching young adults. But at the end of the day, it does not fill me with the same joy as working with small children.

Back in 2004 when I started college in the US, I took “Introduction to American Education.” I enjoyed it immensely and thought I would really enjoy being an elementary school teacher. I didn't pursue it because I'm bisexual and transgender. I knew it then even though I hadn't come out as trans. I knew I would someday. And I knew that I would not be allowed in US schools. Not as an openly queer person. With hindsight, I imagine I could have navigated that profession anyway as long as I kept to more liberal states and school districts. But it didn't feel possible to me at the time.

When people ask me why I moved to Sweden, I seldom answer with the truth. I came out and started my life as a man in January 2009. A few months later, Sweden passed anti-discrimination legislation that included the strongest protections for trans people than anywhere else in the world. All gender confirmation healthcare was already covered by the Swedish national healthcare insurance. That is why I moved to Sweden. For the freedom and support to be myself and be welcome in society.

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