During spring orientation for student teachers, Madison Lauer heard something she could not get off her mind. There were job opportunities in Sweden, a faculty member explained in the Zoom session full of graduating seniors. The STEM Education major from Campbellsville was unsure about making such a move, but decided to put caution aside to see how far she could go. She begins working in Sweden in August.
Lauer was not the only aspiring teacher daydreaming about Sweden at the University of Kentucky College of Education last semester.
Allie Gregory’s plans to study abroad in Italy in summer 2020 were halted by the pandemic. To make up for the missed opportunity, the middle level education major applied to complete her student teaching in Sweden in spring 2021. Due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, that, too, was cancelled. On the cusp of graduating and still in search of a way to step out of her comfort zone, the Lexington native decided to pursue a teaching job in Sweden. She and Grace Brittingham, of Terrace Park, Ohio, walked across the Commencement stage in May and will work together teaching mathematics to fourth and fifth grade students in Sweden this August.
Since the mid 1980’s, one UK College of Education faculty member has been a common thread among the stories of education majors who have gone overseas for student teaching and job opportunities. Dr. Sharon Brennan directs the college’s Office of Clinical Practices and School Partnerships.
“The overseas student teaching program was created in the late 1960’s because faculty felt that teacher candidates who had the opportunity to immerse themselves in another culture would bring what they learned back to their classrooms. The experience teaching abroad provides a way for participants to develop a global mindset and skillset,” Brennan said.
While the majority of UK’s teacher education program graduates will go to work in Kentucky schools this fall, and several will take positions across the U.S., a handful will begin their teaching careers overseas. In total, six of UK’s May 2021 graduates were offered teaching jobs in Sweden, and five have accepted. None of them has ever stepped foot in the country.
“The more I think about this, the crazier I think it is that I did not do much research. I did not even look up pictures of Sweden before accepting the job offer. That speaks to the fact that I just wanted to go and was ready to accept whatever adventure gets thrown at me,” Gregory said.
The UK College of Education has long been part of a consortium that offers student teaching in Australia, China, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Netherland, New Zealand, and South Africa. In addition to offering travel through the consortium, the college developed its own student teaching programs with school partners in Barcelona and Valencia, Spain, several years ago.
More recently, UK faculty created the program in Stockholm, Sweden, that is now drawing both student teachers and those applying for full-time positions. They are drawn to Stockholm for the opportunity to experience a different culture while living in a country where English is widely spoken. They are also comforted by knowing that UK has a relationship with the school where they will work.
Any apprehension about going abroad can be alleviated through a conversation with Brennan. A world traveler, she and her UK mathematics professor husband previously lived in Sweden with their young children. She shares information to allay parent concerns and provides students with social connections to help ease them into the experience. With a mental Rolodex of former students living abroad, Brennan steps in long enough to make introductions, then gives students the freedom to make their own connections and experiences with fellow UK alumni.
Among the countless partnerships Brennan has cultivated across the globe is one with Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES), a group of schools with several locations across Sweden. Brennan connected with an administrator through a UK alumna who student taught in Sweden and later decided to move there permanently.
As soon as Ellen Ward, an elementary education major from Owensboro, learned that the Swedish schools Brennan had talked about in class were scheduled to be at the college’s online teacher recruitment fair last spring, she signed up to speak with a representative.
“UK was on spring break, and the school in Sweden was too, so she told me I probably would not hear back for a while. But, ten minutes later, I had an email to set up an interview and took the job a week later. I will teach science, technology, and mathematics in a year three classroom,” Ward said.
UK College of Education students are trained to address educational inequities and focus on cultivating diversity, equity, and inclusion in their teaching. For many, this becomes a strong focus as they head into their careers.
“Among the things I am passionate about are global teaching and addressing educational inequity and being culturally responsive,” Ward said. “I think my time in Sweden will help me gain a global competency that will assist and benefit my future students, regardless of where they are in the world.”
Quinn Kirkpatrick, a middle level education major, feels the pandemic spurred her desire to take opportunities when they come along. Her job interviews helped seal her decision to take the leap of faith and sign on to teach 8th and 9th grade mathematics in Sweden.
“I really liked the people I talked to, who came from all different backgrounds,” said Kirkpatrick, who is from DuQuoin, a small town in southern Illinois. “Teaching abroad will make us more globally aware and open our perspectives. And we will be exposed to new teaching methods. Teachers at IES come from across the globe. Everyone will be bringing what they have learned in college and through their work in schools, so it will be a chance to keep an open mind and keep learning.”
All five UK graduates moving to Sweden this summer are on the hunt for a place to live. Sweden, like many places in Kentucky and across the U.S., is experiencing a housing shortage. They have made connections with potential roommates and landlords via UK alumni, churches, and Facebook groups, and even school principals have offered to help them look.
Lauer will be the first to arrive in Sweden and already has her plane ticket for July. Her mother is making the trip with her from Campbellsville to Stockholm.
“She told me ‘I will get to see what you see when you wake up in the mornings and see your school, so it will help me know you will be fine,’” Lauer said.
Over the years, a handful of UK graduates have opted to remain overseas, but most eventually return to their roots. UK Education alumna Cassidy Breeding has been teaching in Whitesburg, a small town in the heart of the Appalachian mountains, not far from where she grew up. Before landing her teaching job in Whitesburg, Breeding spent her final semester as a UK student doing her student teaching in Sweden. Along with UK’s five May graduates moving to Sweden, Breeding has accepted a teaching position in Sweden this fall. Her students back home in Kentucky were a driving force behind her decision to teach abroad.
“I wanted my students to be able to say, ‘This girl came from a small town like me, and she was able to see the world, and maybe someday I can, too.’”