May 7, 2021


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The complexity of professional integration: An investigation of newly arrived teachers’ initial process of establishing themselves as teachers in Sweden


Currently, the labour integration of newly arrived immigrants is given high priority in countries throughout Europe hosting large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers. The unexpectedly large numbers of refugees, primarily from Syria, arrived in 2015 prompting host countries to establish labour integration measures for those that were granted asylum.1 This group has a diverse range of educational backgrounds and skills, some of which are highly educated, and includes, for example, teachers (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2015). Consequently, the European Union (EU) recommends earlier and better integration of immigrants into the labour market than is currently being practised by its member states (European Parliament, 2016). Labour market integration policy expects that the skills of immigrants and refugees can complement domestic labour, but also contribute toward solving structural labour shortages (European Commission, 2016b). Highly educated immigrants are underemployed to a greater extent than their native-born counterparts (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2018), and, therefore, policy suggests specific supports be designed to fit highly skilled immigrants (European Commission, 2016a). This is, however, dependent on the education and skills they can demonstrate. Policy suggests that governments should provide varied institutional support approaches, for example facilitating the validation of skills and qualifications, and training and upskilling, ‘to ensure that individuals’ skills are used to their full potential’ (European Commission, 2016a: 9). This suggestion seems to be supported by ideas of investing in professionally trained immigrants.

In line with European policy and as a response to integration practices relating to the high influx of refugees in 2015, the Swedish Government launched a labour market programme called ‘Fast-track’ for occupations where there is a labour shortage. The goal of the Fast-track programme is to support newly arrived immigrants who have previous professional training to quickly find employment relevant to their education and experience.2 Like many European countries, Sweden is suffering a teacher shortage. Furthermore, in connection with increased refugee intake, the number of newly arrived pupils has increased. Accordingly, policy also suggested newly arrived teachers to be a resource for these pupils (Statens Offentliga Utredningar, 2016; Swedish Government official reports). In response, one of the Fast-track programmes is aimed at newly arrived teachers.

Our study is limited to investigating a group of newly arrived teachers, mainly from Syria, who participated in the Fast-Track for Recently Immigrated Teachers and Preschool Teachers (hereafter ‘the Fast-track programme’) provided at Stockholm University in 2017. Participating in the Fast-track programme, they begin the process of establishing themselves as teachers in Sweden. Given that the newly arrived teachers in this study are professionally trained teachers, their establishment as teachers in Sweden concerns professional integration into a new educational system.

As studies about immigrant teachers have shown, these teachers endure many challenges when establishing themselves as teachers in a new country (e.g. Fotovatian, 2015; Jhagroo, 2016). With a focus on the pursuit of newly arrived teachers establishing themselves as teachers in a new educational system, we draw attention to formal and informal institutional conditions that constrain or promote their professional integration. By the term ‘institutional condition’, we refer to formal and informal regulations regarding what are appropriate and desirable attitudes, behaviours and practices, and how these are enacted and form the basis of what is considered to be legitimate within schools (cf. Scott, 2014).

The purpose of this study is to examine the professional integration of newly arrived teachers, and what institutional challenges they encounter in their initial phase of establishing themselves as teachers in Sweden. We pose the questions: How do teachers participating in the Fast-track programme perceive, handle and negotiate the institutional conditions of Swedish schools? What are the main challenges for these teachers in gaining legitimacy as professional teachers?

Previous literature

In educational literature there is an increased interest in the topic of teacher migration and teacher mobility. The majority of the empirical studies focus on three areas: firstly, access to employment and the process of requalification; secondly, problems specific to immigrant teachers regarding their professional integration such as language and understanding the local school culture; and thirdly, immigrant teachers’ lived experiences of reconstructing their professional identities (Bense, 2016; Niyubahwe et al., 2013). Taking these three areas as a starting point, the following description of the literature primarily concerns immigrant teachers.

In research concerning formal institutional obstacles for immigrant teachers, it is demonstrated that the formal requalification process for immigrant teachers consists of numerous additional courses, which can be costly, but this also creates uncertainty among immigrant teachers about when they are sufficiently qualified for teaching in the new country (Beynon et al., 2004; Myles et al., 2006). The procedures for validating formal qualifications are meant to ensure certain quality in the teaching profession, but the descriptions of these procedures by immigrant teachers reveal that they perceive that their prior skills qualifications are de-valued (Andersson and Osman, 2008).

Teaching is a language-dependent job (Remennick, 2002) and teachers are required to have knowledge of the official language of the country. As a consequence, language proficiency is commonly a formal requirement for requalification. However, language barriers persist even after immigrant teachers have passed language proficiency tests and try to find a position. In studies discussing this problem, attention is drawn to the connection between language and understanding local school cultures (Abramova, 2013). For example, teachers lacking colloquial language contributed to an experience of marginalization in their daily work in the school (Fotovatian, 2015). The question of being included or excluded in the profession is raised in a study of immigrant teachers who have obtained teaching positions in Swedish schools (Bigestans, 2015). This study shows that the language ability of immigrant teachers influences how they are regarded as professional teachers, which has consequences for their self-perception as teachers.

Other studies identify challenges for immigrant teachers when they begin working and undergo enculturation into a new school culture. Challenges involve issues that are related to adjustment to a new curriculum (Jhagroo, 2016), and differences in values, classroom management and managing student behaviour (Collins and Reid, 2012). Difficulties in the adjustment process are discussed in relation to boundaries and barriers within the professional community of national teachers (Kostogriz and Peeler, 2007). In a longitudinal study of four teachers who participated in a bridging course for recertification and employment in Canada (Janusch, 2015), it is demonstrated that to relearn professional norms, practices and behaviours can both dismantle and increase professional confidence.

According to Fotovatian (2015), barriers in schools could hamper the possibilities for immigrant teachers to be valued members of the teacher community, and that in order to include all members within the teaching community, institutions, as ‘social containers’, must adopt new strategies for raising awareness of heterogeneity within the profession. When immigrant teachers are labelled on the basis of their differences, due to their language and ethnicity, there is a risk that their cultural background determines whether they are regarded as insiders or outsiders (Bascia, 1996). Immigrant teachers negotiate this problem differently. In Virta’s (2015) study, teachers with migrant backgrounds are ascribed the role of cultural mediators to support immigrant pupils, despite them wanting to be regarded as teachers instead of interpreters. It is argued that this position produces a weak professional identity. While some immigrant teachers accept the role of being a multicultural resource for immigrant pupils, others seek to avoid it and emphasize that their teacher education and pedagogical competences are similar to that of their colleagues (Bressler and Rotter, 2017).

The professional transition of immigrant teachers into a new educational environment, which often concerns translating their previously acquired knowledge, competences and experiences, could be facilitated by mentorship (Peeler and Jane, 2005). In this translation process a transformed teacher identity evolves, which can be related to both self-image and their roles as professionals and finding a place for themselves in a new school culture (Elbaz-Luwisch, 2004).

A majority of studies exploring problems specific to immigrant teachers concern challenges they experience in the workplace. Fewer studies have examined their experiences during the initial phase of establishing themselves as teachers through their participation in complementary education. Within the Swedish context, a study into identity work of immigrant teachers in the Fast-track programme in the south of Sweden demonstrates that maintaining previous knowledge and convictions was important in reconstructing a professional identity (Ennerberg and Economou, 2020). This resonates with Käck’s (2020) study that concerns immigrant teachers who are studying in the Complementary Education for Foreign Teachers programme in Sweden.

Our study is informed by the literature addressing the challenges immigrant teachers encounter when re-establishing themselves as teachers, and pays special attention to contextual aspects. The previous studies show a tension in the process of professional integration between how immigrant teachers gain recognition of their teaching professionalism and their adaptation to new requirements in their new school systems. By focusing our study on the institutional conditions within the process of professional integration of newly arrived teachers, we seek to contribute to the understanding of the challenges they encounter in gaining legitimacy as professional teachers.

Institutions and professionalism

To investigate processes of the professional integration of newly arrived teachers in a new country, we draw on institutional theories and theories about professionalism. We understand teachers’ processes of professional integration as being not only conditioned on formal regulations of the teaching profession, but also on, and mediated through, norms and values concerning teacher professionalism.

Scott (2014) argues that institutions, as social structures, constrain and control behaviour through regulative, normative and cultural-cognitive elements together with activities associated with them. The three elements shape distinguishable bases of legitimacy within an institution. The regulative element emphasizes rules and formal requirements. The normative element has a prescriptive character in that it defines what is considered correct and appropriate behaviour through values, norms and expectations. The cultural-cognitive element includes shared beliefs, generally embedded in established attitudes and habits. Although institutional elements are of a symbolic kind, they influence social behaviour and are ‘reflected in activities, relations, and resources’ (Scott, 2008: 222). In education, these elements ‘both shape the conditional context for how teachers perceive their own practice and are shaped by the behaviour of the actors within an institution’ (Rye Ramberg, 2014: 361).

In Sweden, the Education Act and Teacher Certification constitute two examples of formal conditions for being considered a legitimate member of the teaching profession. Informal institutional conditions involve normative and cultural-cognitive elements, which are played out in daily activities in school, and in pedagogical and collegial relationships. In this process, professional legitimacy is constructed and reconstructed. Scott’s definitions of different institutional elements and their bases of legitimacy form a theoretical approach in our analysis of the institutional challenges newly arrived teachers encounter while entering the teaching profession in a new country.

Professions take part in shaping institutional legitimacy by collegial control and, in the end, deciding who is recognized as a member of the profession (Scott, 2008). Having in mind the wide range of theoretical perspectives on professionalism, in this study we assume that professionalism is shaped through norms and values about appropriate behaviour and that it ‘is reproduced at the micro level in individual practitioners and in their workplaces’ (Evetts, 2013: 780). Importantly, professionalism is always enacted in a specific institutional context and regulated by ‘common experiences, understandings and expertise, shared ways of perceiving problems and their possible solutions’ (Evetts, 2006a: 134). In other words, professional relations are characterized by trust based on recognized competencies and knowledge (Evetts, 2010: 126). Thus, what is considered teacher professionalism in the newly arrived teachers’ countries of origin may well be different from that in Sweden.

Agency is an important part of teachers’ professionalism (Biesta et al., 2015; Priestly et al., 2015). Additionally, as Priestly et al. (2015) suggest, agency is conditioned by structures and cultures in that they might hinder or enable the possibilities to enact teacher professionalism. Regarding the teachers in this study, teacher agency is about regaining recognition as professional teachers by Swedish society, as well as from pupils and colleagues in the local school context. In this sense, the process of professional integration of newly arrived teachers can be understood as a specific form of professional socialization into ‘certain values and attitudes according to organizational cultures’ (Evetts, 2006b: 538). For the teachers in this study this involves negotiating new institutional conditions for teacher professionalism

The educational arena

The Swedish school is formally regulated by the Swedish Education Act and a national curriculum. In the national curriculum, course syllabi stipulate the purpose and objectives for teaching in each subject. The curriculum guides teachers about the norms and values relevant to their subject. For example, democracy is framed as the equal value of all people and gender equity (National Agency for Education, 2011). Strong emphasis is put on pupils’ rights and their agency in the learning processes. Teaching is meant to promote personal responsibility among pupils, and ‘democratic working forms should also be applied in practice and prepare pupils for active participation in the life of society’ (National Agency for Education, 2011: 8). A sociocultural perspective on learning predominates, making communication and problem-solving important skills for pupils to develop both independently and together with other skills. These core values are also institutionalized in Swedish teacher education.

In Sweden, universities provide conventional teacher training programmes aimed at teaching in pre-school, compulsory school and upper-secondary school. The teacher education programmes consist of three parts: subject studies and didactics, educational science, and workplace training. After completing teacher education, the students are required to apply for national teacher certification. Only teachers certified in the Swedish system may receive permanent employment and are permitted to set grades.3

Recently, the teacher category, ‘teacher assistant’ has been introduced in Swedish schools. As part of the labour market integration policy (SOU, 2016), the teacher assistant category is described as an option for newly arrived teachers to serve in supportive roles for the increased number of newly arrived pupils in Swedish schools. However, teachers with foreign qualifications who have obtained a Swedish teaching certification do not necessarily fall within the category of assistant.

Teachers who have a foreign teacher education diploma can apply for a national teaching certification. If the formal professional qualifications of a newly arrived teacher are not certified, they can study in the Complementary Education for Foreign Teachers programme, initiated in 2007 and provided at six universities in Sweden. In order to be admitted to this programme, the applicant must have Swedish language proficiency equivalent to the third year of Swedish as a second language at the upper-secondary school level.

Newly arrived teachers can also take part in the Fast-track programme, which is a labour market education programme established in 2016 in collaboration with six higher education institutions, trade unions and employer organizations and the Public Employment Service.4 Its purpose is to shorten the time from arrival in Sweden to employment in school. The Fast-track programme offers an introduction to the Swedish school system and runs over 26 weeks. Besides knowledge of the Swedish school system, school law and the curriculum, the education includes language training in Swedish and workplace training at a school with the support of a teacher as a supervisor. The Fast-track programme can be described as an initial step for newly arrived teachers to become certified teachers in Sweden. Participation in this programme does not normally lead to immediate teaching certification, and therefore many of the participants continue studying the Complementary Education for Foreign Teachers programme.

The Fast-track programme is directed towards newly arrived Arabic-speakers with a post-secondary teaching degree.5 There is no formal entry requirement for Swedish language proficiency, but language training in Swedish is part of the programme. To facilitate participant understanding of course content, teaching is in both Swedish and Arabic. In the Fast-track programme in Stockholm, several teachers are bilingual and some have a migrant background from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine or Iraq and therefore are acquainted with the education systems in those countries. In a recent study of the Fast-track programme for a group of newly arrived teachers in Malmö, Economou and Hajer (2019) show that bilingual teaching about the functioning of the Swedish school system was particularly supportive for the teachers to understand the norms and values within Swedish schools.

Method and empirical material

The current study is part of a recently completed research project (2017–2018) about the Fast-track programme. This qualitative study is a case study of a group of newly arrived teachers participating in this programme in Stockholm. The group of teachers included 56 participants, a small majority of whom were women. All the teachers are Arabic-speaking and had a basic knowledge of Swedish. The group averaged 11.5 years of experience within the teaching profession.

The empirical material of the study consists of focus group interviews and observations. We conducted seven focus group interviews. Five of them were with newly arrived teachers, one was with three teachers from the Fast-track programme and one with three local teachers who served as supervisors at the workplace training in a school for grades 4–6. Each of the focus groups with the newly arrived teachers consisted of 3 to 5 participants, with a total of 10 individual participants for these various focus groups and interviews. The first interview was conducted at the beginning of the Fast-track programme and the second interview was conducted at the end. A majority of the teachers participated on both occasions. We also conducted a follow-up interview with four of the newly arrived teachers in January 2018, which was six months after the participants had completed the Fast-track programme.

The observational material consists of four half-day observations of Fast-track classroom lessons and four full-day observations of workplace training at two compulsory schools in Stockholm (grades 4–6 and 7–9). Combining focus group interviews with these observations widened our understanding of the narratives that emerged in the focus groups. Additionally, the observations of the workplace training gave us an opportunity to observe the newly arrived teachers interacting with both pupils and their local teacher supervisors in the school environment. In this aspect the newly arrived teachers’ own understanding was accompanied by not only the focus group utterances of the supervisors and university teachers, but also by observations of how they handled institutionalized practices during the Fast-track training.

In principle, the discussions that arose were supposed to provide an occasion to explore the focus group’s attitudes, perceptions, experiences and ideas (Bloor et al., 2001). This is one reason for our choice of focus group interviews. Another reason is that focus group discussions offer interaction within the group. Furthermore, gathering discussions in focus groups with the newly arrived teachers provides a possibility to interpret a common ‘professional narrative’ (Morgan, 1997), which allowed us to understand how they think and talk about teacher-related topics, perceptions and experiences related to themselves as teachers in the new school context of Sweden. In our study we did consider that dissenting opinions could be held back in focus group interviews, but the main purpose was to gain insight into common thoughts in relation to the process the newly arrived teachers went through in the Fast-track programme.

The choice of participants was based on the purpose of the study and our research questions. For the composition of the focus groups with the newly arrived teachers, the main criterion was common experiences from participating in the teacher-specific Fast-track programme. The educators and supervisors were selected based on having a professional relationship with the participants and for their insight about the Fast-track programme.

Before participating, the interviewees were informed about their option to withdraw consent at any time and that personal information would not be made public. The newly arrived teachers were informed that an Arabic-speaking interpreter would attend if requested. Those newly arrived teachers who volunteered to participate in the focus groups were also given written information about ethical considerations in both Swedish and Arabic.

The authors conducted all focus group interviews together, and acted as moderators in shifts.

Each focus group interview lasted 60–90 minutes. All interviews were recorded and transcribed. Most of the interviews were done in a seminar room at the university, except for one that was conducted at one of the schools providing workplace training. Since knowledge of the Swedish language varied among the newly arrived teachers, an Arabic-speaking interpreter assisted when necessary in two of the focus groups with the newly arrived teachers. This option facilitated participation for those who were eager but who doubted their ability to speak Swedish and, consequently, allowed for them to better make their views heard in the focus group discussions.

During the observations, we paid attention to situations and encounters related to the aim of the study and the research questions. We organized the observations at the workplace training by separately following one of the newly arrived teachers during a full day. We made field notes in order to apprehend how they handled different situations, practices and relations within the school context. We were also able to observe how colleagues and pupils related to the newly arrived teachers in different institutionalized situations; for example, during lessons, school breaks and in the teacher staff room.

Observations of lessons at the university included the whole group in the Fast-track programme. As the group was divided, we made observations and took field notes in two separate classrooms. In our observations of these lessons, we noticed how the Fast-track participants worked with different tasks concerning the Swedish school system.

All field notes were shared and discussed, which benefited our understanding of the newly arrived teachers’ encounters with norms, values and practices in the Fast-track programme and day-to-day work in the Swedish school. The field notes were also incorporated into the overall data analysis which we as researchers conducted together.

Drawing on Kreuger and Casey (2000), we used a thematic analysis that was organized in three steps. The first step was to listen to the recordings and to read the transcripts and the field notes several times. In doing so, we compared and contrasted the relevant information by sorting, arranging and rearranging the empirical material based on the research questions and our theoretical basis. Thereafter, we analysed content, concepts and ideas as well as the frequency of statements and isolated quotations. During this process, we identified common categories that reflected the research questions and clustered those in themes. We labelled pieces of the empirical material as categories related to the ways the newly arrived teachers perceived, handled and negotiated institutional conditions, which in turn identified a pattern. We created themes from these categories. The last step involved the interpretation of consistency of statements and the relationship between quotations and the research questions. We did not correct language errors in the quotations.

While this study is limited by the number of participants, and the interviews were based on the informants’ subjective perceptions and experiences, the problems they encountered were similar to those found in previous studies.

Transition into a new school system

By participating in the Fast-track programme, the newly arrived teachers were expected to integrate former knowledge and experience within the specific institutional conditions in the school system of Sweden. As Niyubahwe et al. (2013) remark, in the transition to a new school system, immigrant teachers have to undergo an adaptation process to become familiar with teaching models in the new country. In what follows, we focus on institutional challenges that the newly arrived teachers in our study encountered in their transition process.

In most cases, the newly arrived teachers perceived that formal institutional requirements for the teaching profession were unproblematic to understand. However, as the programme proceeded they became aware that being recognized as a professional teacher requires more than meeting the formal requirements of obtaining a teaching certification. Participating in the Fast-track programme gave them an opportunity to gain insight into informal institutional conditions regulating practices, relations and teaching in Swedish schools. In order to comprehend the specific nature of the teaching profession in Sweden, both supervisors and teachers at the university emphasized the importance of workplace training:

Well in the beginning, when I arrived in Sweden, I found it very difficult to continue my work as a teacher here. I don’t know anything about Swedish schools, pupils, history . . . When we have been together with pupils every week, twice, the work becomes easier and easier. (Newly arrived teacher, focus group 2)

The behaviours of the teachers and pupils the newly arrived teachers met during their days at Swedish schools guided them through this process of understanding and handling norms and values about how to behave as a ‘Swedish teacher’.

In the focus group interviews, the newly arrived teachers discussed what characterizes a Swedish teacher and their opportunities to work as teachers in Sweden. They expressed a degree of confidence in quickly achieving teacher positions in Sweden. On the other hand, the teachers in the Fast-track programme at Stockholm University emphasized that despite being professional teachers, the participants accepted that entering into the teaching profession in Sweden takes considerable time and requires them to change:

When they started here they informed us that they know a lot, and they do. But over time, slowly but surely, they discovered that ‘this is something that we have not learned, which we did not know before’ …. They are aware that if they want to work as a teacher in the Swedish school, they have to start thinking in a completely different way. (Teacher, focus group)

Rather than pointing to a lack of knowledge, the teacher pointed out the participants’ willingness to both reflect on and adjust to norms in the Swedish school. In this respect they were supposed to enter a socialization process where they were expected, above all, to adapt to the Swedish way of defining teacher professionalism. However, these newly arrived teachers have considerable teaching experience and express a strong professional identity. In the focus groups, it was important for them to position themselves as professional teachers:

It is not easy to start from scratch. Total new language, entirely new . . . No problems with teaching, it is not difficult. All of us have great experience I think. ‘Rana’, how many years have you worked up to now? ‘Maria’ has worked 30 years as a teacher, it is not difficult for her to teach. (Newly arrived teacher, focus group 5)

In this quote, the newly arrived teachers emphasize not only their own competences, but also each other as professional teachers. We understand this as a way of strengthening their collective position as professional teachers in a new institutional context.

Workplace training provided the newly arrived teachers with an opportunity to observe and become familiar with teaching methods, which are predominantly based on a sociocultural view of learning, differing from their former experiences. After encountering a variety of institutional practices in Swedish schools, they discovered that what defines teacher professionalism in Sweden is not the same as in their countries of origin.

The pedagogical approach within the Fast-track programme included having the newly arrived teachers compare similarities and differences between the Swedish school and their prior teaching experiences. This comparative approach can be regarded as a way to facilitate the newly arrived teachers’ comprehension of and adaptation to the Swedish way of enacting teacher professionalism. At the same time, the newly arrived teachers were encouraged to make use of their competencies during the workplace training, especially in relation to their subject matter. In this sense, the process was both about adaptation and about maintaining professional competences. Above all, they tried to make use of, and make visible, their previous knowledge and professional experiences. In other words, participating in the programme was a process of professional integration, which includes drawing on prior experience in reconfiguring the new context (cf. Kostogritz and Peeler, 2007).

Teaching in a new school culture

Several studies about immigrant teachers raise the issue of institutional challenges when beginning to work as a teacher in a new country (e.g. Bense, 2016; Collins and Reid, 2012). Institutional conditions regulating the teaching practice take effect when they are enacted. Norms and shared values concerning conflict resolution, teaching methods and pedagogical and collegial relationships, for example, are context-based and often taken for granted. Therefore, newly arrived teachers become challenged when internalizing and making sense of them.

University lessons placed considerable attention on aspects of the Swedish national curriculum where norms and values about teaching and the teacher–pupil relationship are dealt with. On one occasion, the university teacher, who had a background from the same geographical area as the newly arrived teachers, explained that ‘(t)he goal is not to punish’, but ‘(i)n Sweden, the goal is to prevent’. She talked about limits to teacher authority and that physical punishment is not allowed in Swedish schools. Thus, she aimed at teaching the newly arrived teachers, using shared experience, what they had to understand and adapt to in order to be able to enact teacher professionalism in situations she thought could become difficult.

In line with this supposition, one of the supervisors remarked that the newly arrived teachers, having teaching experiences from more authoritative institutional school systems, were not used to being questioned by pupils: ‘They are probably not used to pupils being able to question them. They are probably used, I think, from Syria, to get more respect from their pupils, that it is the teacher who has status and authority’ (supervisor, focus group). By comparing with their previous teaching experience, one of the newly arrived teachers stated that they now needed to shift from a teacher-centred approach to a pupil-centred approach: ‘There is a difference between here and Syria. In Syria, it is the teacher who actually controls everything for pupils. . . . It’s the pupil who controls, and the teacher is involved’ (newly arrived teacher, focus group 1). It was apparent that it was important for the newly arrived teachers to be regarded as professional teachers, and their engagement with the shift of teacher roles appeared to be a method of attempting to gain recognition as teachers in a new school culture. Concerning pedagogical communication with pupils, they observed how their supervisors engaged pupils in the learning process through social interaction. This approach is based on the curriculum’s promotion of the pupils’ active involvement in the learning process. One of the newly arrived teachers gave an example of a situation when pupils worked in groups to solve an assignment in mathematics:

For example, now they have their last projects in math. . . . They have projects about the volume of the room. They have to fill balloons. They have projects, all the pupils have to think about how many balloons they have to put in the room to fill. And then they are fetching the material, they measure. They do everything, they have no information from the beginning. . . . It’s not easy. If the same thing (occurred) in my country, teachers give (information) to the pupils, as example ‘the room is this high, this broad, like this. Then the balloon is like this and you have to do this.’ It’s just that. They do not need to think or measure. (Newly arrived teacher, focus group 2)

By observing teaching activities, the understanding and ability of the newly arrived teachers to handle their role in facilitating pupil learning became apparent. Understanding the facilitating role was a challenge for them since they were most familiar with the teacher-directed approach to transferring knowledge. Adapting to this new perspective, which is based on a pupil-centred curriculum, involved a rethinking of their approach to teaching and relating to pupils both in the classroom and throughout the entire school environment.

In our observations at the workplace training, we noticed the encounter the newly arrived teachers had with routines in Swedish schools, such as teachers and pupils having lunch together in the school cafeteria. They told us that at first they found it peculiar, but after participating in these shared lunches they appreciated the opportunity to have informal conversations with pupils and colleagues. Thus, they realized that these informal activities gave them the opportunity to talk and create contact with pupils.

In the classroom, the newly arrived teachers primarily assisted the teacher by handing out papers and helping pupils in need of learning support. Most of the pupils seemed to accept them as teacher assistants. However, their acceptance seemed to cease when the newly arrived teacher took the lead teacher role. When one of the newly arrived teachers was given the opportunity to teach a small group of pupils in mathematics, the pupils related to her in a different way. They did not respect her as a teacher and expressed frustration with her shortcomings in Swedish. Thus, there appeared to be a difference in how the pupils recognized the newly arrived teachers depending on in which role and in what context they taught the pupils.

From our observations and the interviews, we noticed that communicating in Swedish was a challenge for the newly arrived teachers and that it affected their relationship with pupils, and how the pupils perceived them as teachers. In the first focus group interviews, they thought improving their Swedish language proficiency was a key aspect for being recognized as professional teachers. It is noted in this way: ‘I saw teachers, the whole time, sit beside the pupil and talk.’ They talk and talk all the time. So I have to learn Swedish, how will I else get contact with pupils?’ (newly arrived teacher, focus group 1). Successively, they changed their previous perceptions of pedagogical communication and discovered that communication with pupils is an important part of the teaching practice in Sweden. Since communication with pupils and colleagues is essential in sociocultural ideas about learning, it affected their self-confidence as teachers. This finding also demonstrates that the relearning and transforming of the newly arrived teachers’ professional knowledge were dependent on receiving trust from their pupils and colleagues in their school practice.

To be employed

As described earlier, it was not primarily the formal requirements for obtaining a teaching certificate that the newly arrived teachers described as challenging, but rather whether or not they would ‘fit in’ in the profession at Swedish schools. Their uncertainty concerns the expectations of the schools when recruiting teachers and what is required for them to be employed.

The participants in this study, who were still non-certified teachers after completing the Fast-track programme, could apply for temporary teaching jobs such as substitute teachers. This was an option for some of them but, based on their levels of professional experience, others were dissatisfied with working in short-term substitute teaching positions. As one of them put it: ‘And prior to the Fast-track I tried but it was very tough to not play the role as a teacher, just a person who guards or helps’ (newly arrived teacher, focus group 5). This teacher’s experience of working in short-term substitute positions was disappointing because she felt that she was not recognized as a professional teacher, but rather as a teacher assistant. It was a position that she did not accept. As a consequence, she enrolled in the Complementary Education for Foreign Teachers programme at Stockholm University. Another participant did not see further studies as an option and instead considered applying for jobs as a teacher assistant and other jobs unrelated to teaching.

In the focus group interview with supervisors, we asked if they would recommend the newly arrived teachers for teacher positions in their school after they completed the Fast-track programme. One of them said:

Let’s say that (if) my principal would say: ‘Could we hire them? Could they handle a class in the fourth grade this autumn’ then I wouldn’t reply yes. No, and then I think, why I cannot say yes? Then I feel disloyal to them. But then I think, no, because they are not ready to manage a whole class and everything that happens in schools. (Supervisor focus group)

The supervisors at this school for grades 4–6 emphasized that teaching at this school entailed responsibility for a number of different school activities, not merely classroom teaching. In their opinion, the newly arrived teachers were not yet ready for taking on this role in Swedish schools. In contrast to the newly arrived teachers focusing on language ability to get a teacher position, the supervisors had a focus on competences used in communication and leadership in handling disturbing situations and managing the wide range of school responsibilities.

Concerning the newly arrived teachers who were participating in the workplace training, the supervisors recognized their specific subject knowledge abilities in addition to agreeing that the newly arrived teachers could handle small groups of pupils, and particularly pupils who speak Arabic. However, regarding perceiving newly arrived teachers as a resource for pupils with migrant backgrounds, they discussed possible consequences of this role:

I would also like them to dare to challenge themselves to have a larger group so that not everyone (would) merely be a mother tongue teacher, do you understand what I mean? Because I think there are many who will be that, and they have small groups and travel between schools, but do not become a teacher at a school, a class teacher. (Supervisor, focus group)

At least in this initial phase of seeking a teaching job, some of the newly arrived teachers accepted part-time jobs as a mother-tongue teacher and also being a teacher assistant. For these positions, they were ascribed lingual and cultural competences to primarily support newly arrived pupils. Other research has highlighted the linguistic and intercultural competences, and the role of cultural translators ascribed to immigrant teachers supporting pupils with a migrant background, and the risk this poses for downplaying their pedagogical competences. This may affect both their teacher identity and their options for employment (Bressler and Rotter, 2017; Virta, 2015).

The supervisors in this study underscored that it requires self-confidence to take on the teacher role in a new environment, but that it also required involvement in lesson planning in teacher teamwork, administration work and communication with colleagues and the pupils’ parents. In order to be part of the collegial work in a school, they suggested that the newly arrived teachers should have the opportunity to work with a teacher as a mentor for one year.

This point of view is in accordance with the considerations that mentoring facilitates professional transition and benefits the entire school community (Peeler and Jane, 2005). Given that enacting teacher professionalism is context-based (Priestly et al., 2015), it seems that a gradual socialization process is a condition for the newly arrived teachers to be recognized as professional colleagues.


Professional integration into the teaching profession of a new country involves challenges. In this article, we have raised the issue of institutional challenges that newly arrived teachers encounter during their participation in the Fast-track programme. Overall, our findings show that in order to gain legitimacy as professional teachers, they have to both meet formal requirements and internalize attitudes, competences and behaviours, which are considered parts of teacher professionalism in Sweden. Based on these findings, the main institutional challenges for the group of newly arrived teachers are learning Swedish, adapting to norms and values in the formal curriculum and its associated teaching methods, and learning and practising news ways of communicating with pupils. These challenges are linked with prospects for finding employment, which was the main purpose of the Fast-track programme.

Previous research on the professional expectations of immigrant teachers has paid attention to how these challenges affect their teacher identity (e.g. Bressler and Rotter, 2017; Ennerberg and Economou, 2020). Rather than focusing on identity work, we have highlighted the newly arrived teachers’ pursuit of legitimacy as a professional teacher, which for them involved an interplay of negotiating institutional conditions and gaining recognition of their competences and experiences.

It is notable that the newly arrived teachers were highly concerned with the issue of gaining recognition as professional teachers. The newly arrived teachers had knowledge of the principle of pupils’ rights and agency in their learning processes as stipulated in the formal curriculum, but, based on the findings, it was evident that they experienced some uncertainty about how to handle this principle in concrete teaching practices. In response to this, their supervisors provided a cultural framework to facilitate a common understanding of the different ways to relate and communicate with pupils and colleagues. Informal everyday interactions at school create challenges for immigrant teachers, and not living up to norms about appropriate behaviours (for example, how to speak proper Swedish) can contribute to lost confidence in positioning themselves as professionals (cf. Fotovatian, 2015). The language barrier does not merely concern knowledge of Swedish, but all dimensions of communication such as meaning-making and socializing. This is in line with Bigestans (2015) who emphasizes the significance of immigrant teachers’ language ability in their acceptance as teachers and not merely as teacher assistants.

For the newly arrived teachers, institutional conditions concerning involvement and communication with pupils entail integrating prior knowledge, competences and experiences into a different kind of teacher professionalism. Consequently, the norm of pupil-centred learning challenged the newly arrived teachers to negotiate teaching practices that were unfamiliar to them. Some were uncertain how teacher authority could be exercised in the role of a facilitator. Others appreciated the novel relationship to pupils as part of their learning process. They handled this in different ways. On the one hand, they blended new teaching methods with methods familiar to them when teaching in their main subject knowledge. On the other hand, they hesitated to take the leadership role in teaching and expressed discomfort concerning the handling of disciplinary matters in the daily work at school. Additionally, it seems that they were not trusted concerning these aspects.

The newly arrived teachers had been part of a teaching community in their countries of origin, but in Sweden they are positioned outside the teacher community. Since they are not yet employed, they are not included in the set of practices and interactions that empowered teachers to use their capacities to decide methods and reflect upon their behaviour in the specific local school context (cf. Ennerberg and Economou, 2020). In other words, they are not in a position that allows them to be actively involved in decision-making that is afforded to professional teachers or for enacting their professionalism.

For the group of teachers in this study, it is evident that there are limits for what is negotiable during the process of professional integration. Their professional knowledge and competences are sought after; however, mere transfer of knowledge does not suffice to gain legitimacy as a member of the teaching profession in Sweden. For professional integration, they are expected to understand and negotiate the Swedish school’s institutional conditions, which form the basis of legitimacy (cf. Scott, 2008). Through participation in the Fast-track programme, a specific form of professional socialization was initiated involving a process of relearning and re-contextualizing their teacher professionalism. Their socialization process is complex and requires time, and, in this respect, it is an important process that involves an interplay of acculturation and recognition of their skills and competencies in the daily work within schools. Otherwise, they might lose confidence in establishing themselves as teachers, or even choose to exit the teaching profession (Bengtsson and Mickwitz, 2019).

This conclusion contrasts with the quick-fix view of European integration policy regarding the integration of highly educated immigrants into the occupations and professions for which they have competences and experience. Policy assumptions seem to be that once they have obtained a teaching certificate and learned the native language, immigrant teachers could fill the gap in teacher shortages.

If we are to seriously consider the contribution of newly arrived teachers’ professional integration into the education systems of European countries, it is vital to account for the role that institutional conditions within schools play for understanding the challenges that newly arrived teachers encounter while establishing themselves as teachers in a new country. Additionally, it is important to be attentive to the specific school context in which institutional conditions are played out, while relating them to the country’s education system.

Declaration of conflicting interests
The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship and/or publication of this article.

The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship and/or publication of this article.

Anki Bengtsson

Larissa Mickwitz


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Anki Bengtsson is a PhD in Education and is currently working as a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Education at Stockholm University, Sweden. Her research interests include educational policy, teacher profession and migration.

Larissa Mickwitz is a PhD in Education and is currently working as a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Education at Stockholm University, Sweden. Her research interests include institutional theory and migration with a special focus on questions concerning the teaching profession and teacher professionalism.