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Caught between expectations: Swedish student teachers’ experiences of working with gender and sexuality issues

School of Historical and Contemporary Studies, Södertörn University

SE-141 89 Huddinge, Sweden

Phone: +46 8 6085041

E-mail: maria.zackariasson@sh.se

The author is also affiliated with the Department of Teacher Education at Södertörn University.

  • Side: 217-232
  • Publisert på Idunn: 2015-12-15
  • Publisert: 2015-12-15

This article examines how student teachers experience trying to work with aspects of gender and sexuality when doing their practicum periods in local schools, focusing on the relation between the student teachers and their mentors. It is based on written reports from 73 student teachers, which are analyzed through the concepts of norms, norm conflicts and power. The findings indicate that the mentors have quite different opinions about if and how one should work with such issues, and show how this in some cases puts student teachers in a difficult position between the demands of the university and the views and recommendations of their mentor.

Keywords: student teachers, teacher education, Sweden, gender, sexuality, LGBT issues


During their education, student teachers come across a whole range of educational theories, didactics, methodologies and ideas, which are communicated to them through lectures, seminars and the literature they read. Some of these are new to them and expand or change their way of thinking and regarding the world, while others reinforce what they already take for granted. When they get out into schools to do their practicum periods, this newfound knowledge and way of looking at the world might, however, be challenged by the practice, views and traditions they encounter in the workplace. What has been taught and emphasized by teachers and lecturers at university may not be as highly valued by the mentors out in the local schools. This is particularly true when it comes to issues and attitudes that can be seen as controversial and where there might be strong and differing opinions. One example of such a potentially controversial field consists of questions surrounding gender equality, sexuality and LGBT1 issues.

During the last few decades, there has been a distinct focus on gender and gender equality within the educational sphere in the Nordic countries (Brunila & Edström 2013). Such aspects are for instance evident in the Swedish national curriculum in which it is stated that schools should work with gender equality and that no one should be discriminated against on the grounds of gender, transgender identity or sexual orientation (Skolverket 2011, 9f). However, as has been shown in several studies, despite the goals and ambitions in the national curriculum, it is far from certain that gender awareness actually permeates the day-to-day interaction within the classrooms (e.g. Bjerrum Nielsen 2009; Nordberg 2008; Odenbring 2010; Öhrn 2009). According to Kristina Brunila and Charlotta Edström, there has also been a tendency to focus on a few particular aspects when acknowledging gender issues, such as encouraging more girls to choose science and technology, providing male role models for boys, or how to handle boys’ underachievement (Brunila & Edström 2013, 304f). Other issues, such as sexuality or gender identity, have been given less attention or been regarded as more problematic (cf. Knudsen 2012; Martinsson & Reimers 2008).

To what degree are gender issues then addressed within teacher education? Elina Lahelma describes in an article on gender awareness in Finnish teacher education, how difficult it has been to include ideas of gender equality and gender awareness in teacher education in Finland (Lahelma 2011, 264). A brief review of the course plans of a number of teacher education programmes across Sweden indicates that gender issues in most cases do seem to be addressed to at least some extent, but that it is not necessarily a recurrent theme throughout the education.2 My examples in this article come from the teacher education at Södertörn University, where gender is comparatively evident, as a result of that, the teacher education programmes there have an «intercultural profile» and thus focus on aspects such as gender, ethnicity, class and generation. Gender perspectives are, consequently, present in different courses, seminars and course literature. It is, at the same time, not necessarily an uncontroversial topic since the students come from different backgrounds and may have quite differing opinions about gender roles, LGBT issues or the importance of gender equality (cf. Lahelma 2011, 269ff.).

When the student teachers venture out into their practicum periods, they thus bring with them a lot of ideas and attitudes surrounding gender and gender work in school, anchored in their own personal views, but also founded in ideas and theories which they have come across during their education. Once in the schools, they are met by a variety of ideas about what gender equality work might comprise, as well as about how and to what degree this should be done, ideas and opinions which may be in opposition to what the students have just learnt. This may put the teacher candidates in a difficult position, since, on the one hand, they are required to fulfill the demands of the various courses, but, on the other hand, must adapt to the expectations and ways of working in the local school, where they are placed.

In the article, I will examine and discuss this potential problem, using as an example the reports from a number of Swedish student teachers, who worked with gender and LGBT issues as part of their assignment for a practicum period. The focus is on the relation between the student teachers and the mentors out in the local schools, and the article thus particularly highlights the intersection between the academic part of the student teacher’s education, i.e. what they learn and discuss at the university, and the practical part, i.e. the everyday practice, attitudes and norms they encounter in the local schools. Since the relation between the student teacher and the mentor is quite influential for how the students experience their education, as well as for how they might look upon and work with various issues in the future, this risk of being «caught between expectations» warrants further investigation. The material will be analysed through the theoretical concepts norms, norm-conflicts and power.

Power, norms and anticipated norm-conflicts

Several researchers have pointed out that the school may be regarded as a norm producer, where various unwritten rules and expectations surrounding what is seen as «normal» or «deviating» are both transmitted and created (eg Arvastson & Ehn 2007, 23; Bromseth & Darj 2010, Kimmel 2008, 175ff; Knudsen 2010; Miceli 2007; Pascoe 2012; Ryle 2012, 104ff; Røthing & Bang Svendsen 2009). To a certain extent, such norms are communicated and produced through official documents, such as the national curriculum or the steering documents of the local schools (cf Martinsson & Reimers 2008). The phrasing in the national curriculum for the Swedish comprehensive school makes it appear relatively norm critical, when it comes to issues surrounding gender, gender identity and sexuality. For instance, in addition to clearly stating that the school should further equal rights and opportunities for men and women, it also declares that: «The school has a responsibility to counteract traditional gender patterns», which takes it one step further than promoting equal rights and opportunities (Skolverket 2011, 10 my emphasis).

However, the prevailing norms within the school are also produced through the everyday interaction and communication between the various actors within the school system. Here, a great variety of norms and attitudes regarding children, gender, gender equality and sexuality become significant, as a consequence of that the various individuals interacting in the school, both teachers, pupils, school leaders and parents, come from different backgrounds, have different experiences and different world views. And, as a number of studies have shown, the norms surrounding masculinity and femininity in Swedish schools and pre-schools may be quite narrow. There are, according to these studies, often distinct limits for how boys and girls are expected to act and behave, and the transgression of gender boundaries is frequently seen as something threatening, particularly if boys appear to act in a way that is regarded as too feminine, or if heteronormative thinking is challenged. (Arvastson & Ehn 2007; León Rosales 2010; Martinsson & Reimers 2008; Nordberg 2008; Odenbring 2010)3.

The norms and norm-critical perspective communicated through the official steering documents, can thus not be expected to be automatically accepted and embraced by all of the actors within the school arena. Instead, there exists a number of different and diverging norms, surrounding gender, gender equality, children and sexuality, which may give rise to norm conflicts, sometimes quite visibly and explicitly, but often on a more implicit and unspoken level. Moreover, I want to argue that not only actual norms and experienced norm conflicts are significant for the everyday work and practices within the school, but also anticipated norm conflicts and imagined norms. Through our notions or conceptions concerning various (constructed) groups or categories of people («immigrant parents», «middle-class Swedes», «feminists», «Christians», «Muslims», etc.), we sometimes assume that they «have», or share certain norms, as a result of them belonging to that particular category. An individual might then act in relation to such «imagined norms», in order to avoid getting into potential or anticipated conflicts with them, without having actual or previous experience of such norm conflicts.

Norms and norm conflicts are thus central concepts in this article, and so is power. Power relations within the school system have been given attention in various studies of classroom interaction, both in Sweden and internationally, often with a focus on the power relations between teachers and pupils (eg Bartholdsson 2007; Bartholdsson 2008; Bjerrum Nielsen 2009; Hess 2009; León Rosales 2010; Samuelsson 2008; Walsh 2011; Wester 2008). My point of departure is that power relations exist not only between teachers and pupils, but also between the mentors out in the local schools and the student teachers.

One of the ways to discuss power processes within the school system is through the idea that there is a «hidden curriculum» (Broady, 2007; Snyder, 1971). This hidden curriculum encompasses the things pupils are expected to learn when in school, which are not clearly stated in the national curriculum or course plans. It can be a question of how to behave and how to act, how to move your body, use the space around you, how to take responsibility for your school work etc. (Ibid). I want to argue that not only pupils have to relate to such a hidden agenda, but also teacher candidates. When doing their practicum they encounter a whole range of implicit rules and guidelines concerning how they should behave and act within that particular school. Even if professionalism and codes of conduct are normally taught within the teacher education, there are many aspects which are never explicitly discussed, and many situations which the students cannot imagine or cannot relate to, until they come across them in the daily practice of the schools. Hence, the mentors out in the schools not only teach the teacher candidates how to create good learning situations, but also, to a large extent, communicate expected attitudes and views.

This is, furthermore, related to the particular situation in which the teacher candidates find themselves, where they are part of a work team in the local school, but where their position as student teachers is based on that they should listen to and learn from their mentors and other colleagues. This can be understood from the idea that power is related to knowledge, pointed out by Michel Foucault among others (Foucault 2003; Inda 2005). Since the student teachers are in the process of obtaining the knowledge needed to become full-fledged teachers, they are still in a subordinate position in relation to their mentors.

The power/knowledge relation between the mentors and student teachers can be understood through the concept of «benevolent techniques», which Åsa Bartholdsson writes about. She defines this as techniques for disciplining and normalizing people without it being obvious that power is exercised. Such benevolent government harmonizes with the democratic values of the Swedish school system, as well as with the caregiving aspects of the daily work in the schools, and is therefore not recognized as power as such (Bartholdsson 2007, 28ff). Bartholdsson’s focus is directed at the power relations within the classroom, between the teacher(s) and the pupils. My argument is that a similar kind of power relation exists between the mentors and the student teachers. The power exercised by the mentors may be seen as «benevolent», in the sense that it is directed at helping the candidates improve their skills and knowledge, but, even so, it might restrict how the student teacher can act in a particular situation, and may in various ways be both disciplining and normalizing. A similar kind of benevolent power is exercised within the teacher education, all under the aim of making the student teachers into good, but also suitable teachers. This may also be seen as part of a process of disciplining and normalization.

When doing their practicum, the student teacher encounters the norms produced and prevailing within the specific school, and has to relate to potential norm conflicts that might arise. Their position, and, consequently, possible ways of acting, is influenced by the existing power relations, and, more specifically, by the student teacher’s role as not yet a fully qualified teacher (which I will return to in the analysis of the material).

Background and data material

The empirical foundation for my analysis consists of written reports from a number of students, who attended a course on the body, gender and sexuality, given within one of the teacher education programmes at Södertörn University in Sweden.4 In this multidisciplinary course the students learned basic scientific facts about how the body works and the didactics for teaching this to small children. But they also discussed societal and cultural aspects of the body. Parallel to learning about nutrition and metabolism, they had seminars discussing anorexia, obesity and how to talk to children about eating healthy without adding to moral panic about children and overweight. Parallel to learning about x and y chromosomes they had seminars on gender roles and gender equality as well as on sexuality and sexual orientation.

During the latter part of the course, the students were sent on a one-week practicum. Part of their assignment for the practicum period was to plan a lesson where they used a children’s book to talk about different kinds of families. The books suggested by the university were selected based on that they show family constellations which differ from the nuclear family, and, further, that they were suited for initiating discussions around different kinds of families generally, and around having two mothers or two fathers more specifically. The recommended books are quite different in character, and the student teachers were encouraged to select one which they found relevant for their particular purpose with the lesson. They were then responsible for organising and leading the book discussion in the direction they wanted it to go, to fulfil their purpose, and thus had relatively large freedom regarding how to complete the assignment. Besides reading a book to the children and discussing it with them, the students also interviewed their mentors about how they worked with gender equality, and investigated what the equality plan for the school looked like. Finally, they were asked to observe the teacher-student interaction within the schools and classes where they did their practicum, focusing on how the mentors and other teachers treated boys and girls – if there were any differences and if so in what way.

As part of the examination of the course, the students wrote a short paper (5–6 pages) on their experiences during the practicum period, and it is 73 such reports that constitute the data material for my study. Using student reports as empirical research material poses certain problems, since they have not been written with the aim of being used in this way, and since the observations they have done have been carried out during a relatively short period of time. The reports from the students can thus, quite obviously, not be viewed as giving a complete picture of what it was like in each school or classroom. Still, since the students have done their practicum in different schools, with the direct aim of looking at how the teachers work with gender issues and gender equality, the material does give a valuable insight into how these issues might be handled in Swedish schools.

The reports have been analyzed with qualitative content analysis, which means that I identified a number of themes relevant for my aim and research questions, and systematically categorized the material according to these. The themes concerned the students’ descriptions of the mentors’ attitudes towards, and work with, gender issues, but also how they described the reactions to the book talk assignment. In the following, I will start with giving an overview of how the student teachers described the gender equality work in the classrooms and the mentors’ attitudes towards this, and then look more closely at a couple of examples of how the book talk assignment was received. The reactions to the book talk assignment exemplify how the student teachers experienced the mentors’ attitudes towards issues surrounding sexuality and sexual orientation, and how this appeared to be more controversial than gender equality work more generally. In the subsequent sections, I will discuss this from the perspective of norms, norm conflicts and the various power relations that could be discerned.

Gender equality – an important issue?

All schools in Sweden are required to have a local plan for equal treatment, and, as mentioned above, they are also expected to work towards gender equality and the counteracting of traditional gender patterns. The observations made by the student teachers indicated, however, that practices and attitudes which reinforce traditional gender patterns, were still present in many classrooms. They gave, in their reports, several examples of how boys tended to get and take up more space in the classroom interaction, but that the attention they received was more likely to be negative. Or how the teachers tended to talk to boys and girls in different ways, using different language, phrasing or voices. These are patterns which have also been noted in a number of earlier classroom studies of pupils of different ages (Connell 2005,169; Forsberg 2002, 281f; Kimmel 2008, 178f; Odenbring 2010; Sadker et.al. 2000; Samuelsson 2008; Wester 2008). Students also gave examples of how some teachers were inclined to divide the group of children into clearly distinct categories of boys and girls, and ascribe certain attributes, tastes or preferences to them (cf Arvastson et al. 2007; Forsberg 2002; Holm 2008,130; Nordberg 2008). For instance, through categorizing all the boys in the class as unruly and all the girls as shy, or giving pink notebooks to all of the girls and notebooks with Batman on the cover, to all of the boys.

Some of the schools where the student teachers were placed, had an explicit focus on equal treatment, with ambitious goals for how gender issues should be recognized and equality between the sexes achieved. But even in those schools, the teacher candidates described examples of individual teachers who were reluctant to work with gender issues, or quite unreflectively talked to boys and girls in different ways. Neither were there, in the reports, any remarkable differences between schools in different socio-economic areas. The students reported examples both of schools in high status areas, with predominantly pupils of Swedish background, which did not put a lot of effort into these issues, and schools in multicultural areas or with low socio-economic status, which worked very consciously and successfully with this.

According to the reports, the mentors in many cases appeared quite unaware of the differences in how they treated boys and girls. Their explicit ambition might be to treat boys and girls equally, but differences still became evident when the student teachers carefully observed the everyday practice in the classroom. However, in other cases, the mentors or teachers in the schools demonstrated a general dislike of the whole idea of working actively with gender equality. As when one student teacher described in her report how, when she first presented her assignment at the school where she was doing her practicum, one of the teachers present in the room loudly exclaimed that it was useless to talk about gender issues, since everyone already knows that boys and girls are born different.

This particular teacher was not alone in displaying such an attitude towards gender issues, even though it was not frequently so explicitly expressed in front of the student teachers. More common was that students, when interviewing their mentor, were told that gender issues were not prioritized in the everyday work in the classroom – as they did not see it as important. This kind of attitude from the mentors could be interpreted as part of a hidden curriculum (cf Broady 2007; Snyder 1971). The «message» to the student teachers says something about the expected attitude towards gender issues and the work with gender equality. The hidden curriculum could in these cases also be viewed as including a certain attitude towards the ambitions expressed in, for instance, the national curriculum, and thus towards the role of steering documents within the daily practice of the school.

Even though several students observed examples of how traditional gender patterns were sustained rather than counteracted, the material also contains examples of how student teachers throughout their practicum observed the interaction in the classroom carefully, but nevertheless did not manage to notice any differences in how the teacher treated boys and girls. Sometimes the interview with the mentor yielded that this was an active strategy – the mentors stated that they saw gender issues as very important and something they put a lot of effort into. In other cases, the mentors distanced themselves from the whole idea of working with gender issues and emphasised that they looked only to the individual child. They explained how they did not want to see the children as boys and girls, but simply as individuals.

Although this in some cases may be a successful strategy for actually seeing the individual and not that person’s gender, I want to point out that there is a risk that such an attitude could lead to blindness for differences and, in the long run, could end up reinforcing existing norms. Or, to agree with Lahelma, aiming for gender neutrality in school does not automatically mean that you achieve gender equality (Lahelma 2012). The teacher might aim at treating the children as unique individuals, disregarding differentiating aspects such as gender, but if the norm critical perspective is lacking, there is a distinct possibility that established gender norms, categorisations and expected behaviour connected to masculinity and femininity get to dominate nonetheless (cf Bromseth & Darj 2010; Martinsson & Reimers 2008).

No, you can’t do that in our school

Although the student teachers thus noted that certain teachers did not work actively with gender issues, the mentors still in general expressed recognition of the fact that these were issues they were expected to be aware of, and expressed an ambition to treat boys and girls equally. It did, in other words, seem to be a relatively uncontroversial topic, according to the students’ written reports. This attitude, where the mentors in principle were positive to gender equality within the school, but still did not necessarily prioritize it in the everyday work, can be compared to a Norwegian study, where the goal of gender equality was ranked lowest of all the goals in the Norwegian school (Støren et.al. 2010). That it is a recognized and quite uncontroversial goal, does not automatically mean that a lot of time and effort is spent on achieving it.

In comparison, the part of the assignment that comprised reading a book about different kinds of families to the children, appeared to be more controversial. There were cases in the material, where the student teachers were actively discouraged from fulfilling that specific part of the assignment in the way they had been instructed by the university. In the following, I will analyse two of these examples in more detail.

In one such case, the teacher candidate described the reactions she met when she wanted to read the book Malin’s mother marries Lisa 5 (Lundborg & Tollerup-Grkovic 1999) to the children. This is a rather straightforward and explicit book, about two women who get married and decide to have a child together. When the student teacher showed the book to her mentor, she reacted negatively and explained that this was not a suitable book to read to the children in this particular class. The mentor justified this by saying that the topic of the book was too distant from the everyday life of the children. It would give rise to a lot of questions, questions that in her opinion did not concern these children, since they all came from «traditional» families. She also reasoned that the idea of two women getting married and having a child was an issue that evoked many reactions in society, and she thus feared receiving negative responses from parents and colleagues, if they used the book in class.

The student teacher reflected in her report that as a teacher you should be prepared for different opinions from parents and colleagues regarding your teaching, and argued that the important thing is to be able to justify your choices. However, during the practicum she nonetheless felt that she had to follow the lead of the mentor and thus decided to choose another book instead, a book which the mentor regarded as less controversial and more suitable for the children.

The book she decided to use instead was called My family (Swedish title: Min familj) and is written by Anna-Clara Tidholm (Tidholm 2009). In this book, a whole range of different kinds of families are presented, and it thus offers a good starting point for talking about various family relations, as well as questions such as who can be said to belong to a family. The book is quite different in character and style from Malin’s mother marries Lisa, where the whole story revolves around having a family with two mothers, but, even so, it was not seen as uncontroversial by all of the mentors. One reason for this was that one of the pictures in the book, with two women, two men and a child, could be interpreted as a lesbian couple and a gay couple having a child together. In one of the student reports, the teacher candidate described that when her mentor saw this picture, she strongly suggested that the student did not show that particular page to the children. The mentor had explained that such issues should be treated very cautiously, and that the candidate had better not discuss them with the children.

The student teacher wrote in her report about how she followed the advice, and skipped those pages. Instead, she read about a single mother, about pets in the family and about grandparents, among other things. After having finished the book, she asked the children to tell her about their own families. One boy immediately raised his hand and explained that he knew a family with two children, where there were two mothers but no father. Another child chimed in and exclaimed that she also knew a family with two mothers. Remembering the advice from the mentor, the student teacher did not elaborate on this, but returned to talking about the children’s own families. In her reflections in the report, she noted that even though families with homosexual parents appeared to be something unusual and strange to the mentor, who claimed that this was something she had never come across during her years as a teacher, it was apparently not so for all of the children.

Irrelevant or inappropriate?

If we look at these examples from the perspective of the school as a norm producer, it becomes clear that the assignment the students have been given from the university, contributes to that certain usually implicit norms become visible. For instance, regarding when, where and with whom it is considered appropriate to talk about LGBT issues. Both of the mentors in the previous examples, expressed the opinion that this is an issue which should not be discussed with children, or at least not with the children in their particular class. One reason given for this, was that the topic was too distant from the children to be relevant to them. The analysis of the whole material shows that this was an attitude that several of the other student teachers had also come across. The mentors could for instance, when interviewed by the student teachers, explain that they did not talk about LGBT issues in their class, since the children all came from «normal» or «traditional» families, which in this case would signify families with one or two heterosexual parents.

One way to interpret this, is that the heterosexual norm is so strong that it is not regarded necessary to teach children about relations and families that differ from it, despite the fact that Swedish law gives same-sex couples the right to both get married and adopt children. That this is actually something quite natural to many Swedish children today is evident in the second example above, where the children immediately let the others know that they were acquainted with families with gay or lesbian parents. Similar examples occurred in a number of the other written reports, where the student teachers noted that the children in the book discussion turned out to be well aware of the fact that two women or two men can get married and have a baby; or they had personal experience of same-sex couples with children among their or their parents’ friends and relatives.6

Apart from it being regarded as «unnecessary» to teach the children about LGBT issues, based on the idea that it was not relevant to them, it was in the above examples also seen as inappropriate. This was another standpoint that several of the students encountered and noted in their reports, and one argument for this was that the children were too young to learn about such issues. However, the Swedish school does have a long tradition of sexual education, also for children in the lower grades. Children of this age would thus not automatically be regarded as too young to receive sexual education as such. There is, as Jenny Bengtsson and Eva Reimers have pointed out, a certain kind of sexuality that is uncontroversial or even encouraged to teach children about in school, namely, heterosexuality within long-term relations, primarily directed at child conception. To talk about any other kind of sexuality, whether heterosexual or homosexual, may however be seen as much more problematic, partly because all other kinds of sexuality are perceived to be in a sense more sexual (Bengtsson 2008, 51f; Reimers 2008, 116f; cf Knudsen 2012, 414). The examples from the students’ written reports, where talking about LGBT issues with children of this age is viewed as something controversial, can be related to such a norm.

In a difficult position

The above examples not only say something about the attitude towards discussing LGBT issues with children in the lower grades, but also something about the power relations that are present in the situation. Even though the student teachers had a specific assignment from the university, which they were expected to complete during their practicum period, the mentors in these cases limited the way the assignment could be carried out, and put restrictions on how the candidates planned their lessons. In the given situation, the two student teachers reacted by accepting the recommendation from the mentors, to such an extent that one of them did not even expand on the issue when the children themselves started to talk about families with two mothers or two fathers. These two examples were not isolated cases. The student reports contain other examples of student teachers who changed the book they were planning to read, or avoided certain topics, after having listened to their mentors.

The described experiences can thus be seen as an illustration of how student teachers might find themselves in a difficult position when doing their practicum, since the university expects them to fulfill the course requirements and assignments, but they, nevertheless, have to listen to, and follow, what their mentors say, while they are in the schools. The fact that student teachers listen carefully to their mentors and do as they are told may be understood as a consequence of their status and position. They are «guests» in that particular class and classroom, while the mentor is the regular teacher, and they are still university students while the mentor has a teacher’s degree and has been working for several years. Through long-term experience of being a teacher, the mentor can, in other words, be said to hold the power of knowledge (Foucault 2003; Inda 2005). The mentors are, furthermore, supposed to evaluate the student teachers after the practicum period, and the evaluation influences the grade they get on the course. All these differences in position and status contribute to the existing power imbalance, and may be factors influencing why the student teachers do not readily oppose the recommendations of the mentor, even if they do not agree with them.

The disinclination among the student teachers to object to the suggestions and recommendations of the mentors – even when they collide with the assignment they have been given by the university – may, however, also be understood in relation to the idea of benevolent techniques (Bartholdsson 2007, 28ff; Bartholdsson 2008). The relation between the mentor and the student teacher is built on the idea that the mentor should continuously work towards helping the teacher candidate develop his or her skills. In addition to holding the power of knowledge, she or he is supposed to forward this knowledge to the student teacher (cf Bartholdsson 2007, 31). Since the student teacher does not yet possess the full knowledge of how to be a good teacher, they to a great extent rely on the example of the mentor. To not object to the decisions or recommendations by the mentor is thus not necessarily a sign of fear or powerlessness, but might just as well be an indication of trust in that the mentor aims to help the candidate in every possible way. This «benevolent» aspect of the power the mentor possesses in relation to the student teacher, makes it in a way even more powerful, since it becomes less obvious and thereby more difficult to object against.

Adjusting one’s behaviour

Age is not the only factor that may contribute to making it appear «inappropriate» to talk about sex and sexuality in general and sexual orientation in particular. Ethnicity and religion were other aspects that influenced how these issues were regarded. Certain students could, for instance, in the weeks preceding the practicum period, express apprehension of doing the assignment in a school where they knew the children had different ethnic backgrounds or religious belonging. When the student teachers later on described their experiences in the written reports, there appeared, however, to be no striking differences between those who were placed in schools with a diverse student population and those who were placed in schools with a predominance of middle class children from Swedish-speaking homes. In both instances, there were reports of how the book assignment was not at all seen as controversial, and how the school worked actively with LGBT issues. Or quite the opposite – reports of how the assignment was regarded as very problematic, and how questions surrounding sexuality and sexual orientation appeared to be actively avoided.

Still, as in the works of Knudsen and Öhrn, norms and ideas surrounding gender and sexuality appeared to be intertwined with norms and ideas surrounding ethnicity or ethnic background, but also with norms and ideas surrounding class (cf Knudsen 2010; Knudsen 2012; Öhrn 2009). This came to view, for instance, in how the mentors, according to the students’ reports, often related to the background and upbringing of the children, when explaining to the student teachers why they did not address issues like sexual orientation or families with same-sex parents. In one report, the teacher candidate described how her mentor declared that since they only had middle class children at their school, they did not have a lot of norms there, and, hence, no need to work with gender or sexuality issues. In another report, written by a student teacher in a school with a diverse student population, it was described how the mentor explained that parents even reacted against the fact that all the children, both boys and girls, were expected to participate in baking activities and in cleaning the tables after lunch, and that counteracting traditional gender patterns or talking about LGBT issues would be quite unthinkable.

One way to understand the apparent apprehension among some of the student teachers concerning the assignment, and the explanations of some of the mentors regarding why they did not talk about LGBT issues with the children, is that they were relating to imagined norms or anticipated norm conflicts. They might, as in the examples above, assume that children and parents with certain ethnic backgrounds or religious belonging would find these issues problematic, or that parents would find it inappropriate to discuss sexuality with children of a particular age. Raising the issue would mean challenging such imagined norms, something which, potentially, could lead to negative reactions and conflicts.

As a consequence of such an anticipated norm conflict, the student teachers in some cases adjusted their actions and behaviour in advance. They could, for instance, contact the course administrator and ask for permission to choose another kind of book to read to the children – assuming that the ones selected by the university would be much too provocative in a particular setting. The mentors and teachers in the schools could, in a similar manner, adjust their behaviour and actions in relation to conceptions and assumptions about how the parents of the children in that particular school, or in some cases their colleagues, might react if they would discuss sexuality and sexual orientation with children of this age. Strategies to avoid such anticipated conflicts included distributing information leaflets about the assignment, and/or getting the permission from all the parents to read the book in question, before the teacher candidate was allowed to carry out the book talk.

Another noteworthy aspect of this, is the way the whole book talk assignment was formulated. There was an ambition to keep it quite open, with a focus on different kinds of families and family constellations, rather than LGBT issues explicitly, to make it possible for the teacher candidates to navigate around the potential problems they might come across. Even though this approach was partly experience based – every semester there were students whose mentors did not approve of them reading a particular book - it might also be seen as a way of relating to anticipated norm conflicts and imagined norms, in the sense that it was based on preconceptions concerning children and diversity, and the implicit idea that these issues might be problematic in certain schools and environments. From one perspective, the ambition to keep the assignment open may thus be seen as an effort to make it easier for the student teachers to handle the position they could find themselves in, where they were both expected to meet the demands of the university, and keep up good relations to their mentors. However, from another perspective it may be seen to reinforce stereotypical assumptions concerning children, gender, sexuality and ethnicity, and, consequently, can be said to exemplify the difficulties with keeping up a truly norm critical or gender aware approach within teacher education (cf Lahelma 2011).

Concluding discussion

Even though 73 written reports from student teachers obviously cannot give a complete picture of Swedish schools, the analysis of this empirical material, nevertheless, illustrates how traditional gender norms may still be strongly present in Swedish schools, with certain teachers seeing no need to work actively with, for instance, gender equality. The analyzed reports also indicate that there are strong norms surrounding children and sexuality, where, for example, talking to children under a certain age about sexuality may be seen as controversial, at least if it concerns other kinds of sexuality than child conception within long-term heterosexual relations.

When the student teachers were given the book talk assignment from the university, such norms concerning children, gender and sexuality, were suddenly put in the spotlight. Talking to the children about LGBT issues could be presented as inappropriate or irrelevant, and it became clear how norms and ideas surrounding gender and sexuality could be interconnected with norms and ideas surrounding ethnicity or class. Furthermore, the analysis shows not only how the student teachers and mentors might adjust their behavior to handle real, or anticipated, norm conflicts, but also how the anticipation of norm conflicts may have consequences within the teacher education, for instance, when it comes to the formulation of assignments.

The various examples from the student teachers’ reports also illustrate how the student teachers may be caught between the expectations of the teacher education and the expectations, views and opinions of the mentor. The student teachers in several cases found it quite difficult to challenge the recommendation of the mentor, even when it concerned an assignment given by the university, something that can be interpreted as a result of differences in position and status. However, as I have argued, it could also be seen as related to how the relation between the student teacher and the mentor is characterized by the benevolent exercise of power, where the apparent aim is to make the teacher candidate as good as possible at his or her future profession (cf Bartholdsson 2007; Bartholdsson 2008).

In addition to saying something about the power relations between the teacher candidates and the mentors, the given examples say something about the power relations between the teacher education at the university and the mentors in the local schools. On the one hand, the university has quite a lot of influence over the practicum period. The teacher education has the power to decide which candidate the mentor will receive and what assignment the students are supposed to carry out during the practicum period. From the perspective of the mentor, it might also seem quite intimidating to have a student teacher in the classroom; someone who is supposed to interview you about plans for equal treatment and observe how you work with gender issues and who is updated on the national curriculum. It may, to a certain extent, appear as a test or an evaluation, where you must show that you do things «the right way», in other words, as if the university is checking how well you are doing your job.

On the other hand, as we have seen, the mentors do have quite a lot of power once the student teachers are out in the schools, and there is a strong pressure on the students to adhere to the views and expectations of the mentor when in his or her classroom. Using Snyder’s concept, one can see this as a hidden curriculum that concerns for example how the national curriculum should be viewed and to what extent it is desirable or possible to try to fulfil the aims and ambitions there, whether it involves working with gender equality and LGBT issues or other aspects (cf Broady 2007, Snyder 1971). I would argue that this kind of hidden curriculum that the teacher candidates come across during their practicums, might be just as influential as what the university is trying to convey to them during seminars and lectures, considering how important the example of the mentor generally is for the teacher candidates’ professional development.

To conclude – in my article I have discussed the difficult position teacher candidates might find themselves in, when trying to adhere to demands and expectations from the university and, simultaneously, to the opinions and expectations they come across when doing their practicums. The difficulty of the position becomes especially evident when the teacher candidates are given assignments related to issues that may be regarded as controversial. As I have argued, gender issues, and in this case particularly issues surrounding sexuality and sexual orientation, can be such a controversial field, where usually hidden norms become visible, and where norm conflicts and power relations play a role. Lahelma discusses the difficulties with implementing gender awareness within teacher education, and my results indicate that one important area to concentrate on when working with this, is the intersection between the academic and the practical parts of the education (cf Lahelma 2011). To learn about gender, gender equality and a norm critical perspective through course literature, in lectures and in seminars is important, but in the end the teacher candidates are also to a large extent influenced by the attitudes and the practices of the mentors out in the local schools. How to develop the work with these issues not only in the academic parts of the education, but also in cooperation with the mentors and practicum placement schools is thus an important question to address in the future.


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1LGBT: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.
2I have in this case looked at but not carried out a close examination of the course plans from 2014 for the teacher education programmes for the years 0–3 at Karlstad University, Mälardalen University, Stockholm University, Umeå University and Uppsala University.
3That the same might be said of Norwegian and Danish schools has also been noted in previous studies (eg Røthing & Bang Svendsen 2009; Knudsen 2010; Knudsen 2012).
4I was involved in this course for several semesters, as a lecturer and seminar leader, although not during the semester in 2011 when these particular reports were produced. The idea for the article originates from my experiences of the course, and the study is not connected to a larger research project.
5Title in original: Malins mamma gifter sig med Lisa
6There were also a number of cases where all or some of the children appeared to be unaware of this possibility, or where they reacted with saying that it was disgusting or unnatural. See Bengtsson (2008) for a further discussion on children’s view of sex and sexuality as disgusting.

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