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40 Hour Workweek

Podcast Articles   |   Jun 9, 2024

How Danish schools embrace the slowdown and foster work/life balance

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

How Danish schools embrace the slowdown and foster work/life balance

By Angela Watson

As an educator who’s lived and taught in both the US and Denmark, Pernille’s story is a revealing look into two vastly different education systems. Let’s unpack her journey and what it tells us about work-life balance, societal values, and teaching philosophies.

Read or listen as we discuss:

  • Why Pernille’s family moved to Wisconsin from Denmark when she was a teenager, how she became a teacher in the U.S., and why she and her American husband made the decision in 2022 to move with their four children to Denmark
  • The cultural differences Pernille has noticed living in Denmark, particularly in relation to families, children, work, and school
  • How the Danish school system is set up, including how students are not formally taught to read until the equivalent of 2nd grade in the U.S, and how high school (as Americans understand it) ends around age 15 so students can focus on career training
  • What the school day looks like for Pernille, who is looping with her students through multiple grade levels, including how much instructional vs planning time she has and why Danish teachers are not permitted to work more than 40 hours a week
  • The aspects of the Danish approach to work/life balance that U.S. educators might replicate to make teaching more effective, efficient, and enjoyable

She shares, “In Denmark, being a teacher is about nurturing well-being first—both for students and educators. It’s about giving your best within working hours and then fully embracing life at home.”

“And, education here isn’t just academics; it’s learning through play, community building, and practical skills that prepare children for real-world challenges from an early age.”

I’m always curious about what it’s like to teach in different countries, and if you feel the same, I think you’ll find this informal conversation is a fascinating deep dive into values, priorities, and what it means for kids and teachers to co-thrive.


Sponsored by Understood Explains


The journey from the US to Denmark

ANGELA: So, Pernille, we need a short backstory here for context. Tell me about your family connection to Denmark and how you ended up moving there after teaching in the US.

PERNILLE: So I was born and raised in Denmark. If you had told me as a child growing up that I would actually end up with the majority of my adult life being in America, I would have laughed.

After all, Denmark is pretty consistently ranked the second happiest nation in the world. But, my mom was a teacher and is a teacher, and had a wandering heart. And so when I was 18, she moved our entire family to Wisconsin, which I definitely had to look up on a map. And I thought I was going for a year.

I thought it was kind of like the sabbatical year, and then I was going to go back. But, of course, that’s never how the story goes. I met a boy and that boy introduced me to a much better boy — thank God — who became my husband. And he was a red, white, and blue American. So life slowly just kind of built its path over there. I think once I realized, in my 20s, that I wanted to be a teacher, it was, Okay, well, America is where I’m going to be a teacher. And I went back to school and got my degree and we had kids and all of a sudden this whole life had unfolded around us.

Yet in my head, every time we went to Denmark to visit — because we still have family here and friends — it was like coming home. And it was coming home. It was this idea of being able to sink your shoulders a little bit, to hear your name pronounced correctly, and also to have your name everywhere. And there was something in that feeling, that I started longing for a lot more. It wasn’t ever, Oh, my God, let’s get out of America. It was always, let’s run towards this opportunity if we can make it work. Let’s go and try and transplant this very American family into Denmark as educators and see what happens.

But I also thought a lot about this question because there were so many factors. There was absolutely the burned-out stress factor from teaching, never feeling like I had enough time for my own children who were getting older. We have four kids. There was also politics, my oldest is trans. Sto o thinking about the policies and the hatred surrounding the trans community in the US was really scary. School shootings, thinking about how crazy it was that we had a tourniquet kit hanging in my ELA classroom that just showed up with no PD, no staff training, like here you go. All of those things.

And then also recognizing that my children only knew what it meant to be Danish in name alone. The traditions that I had brought into our family, but they didn’t really know what it felt like to be a part of the Danish culture. And so after a long Memorial Day weekend, we looked at each other and I was, Is it now? Do we start looking at this opportunity?

Is there an opportunity for us to go and try this? Not as a permanent goodbye to America, but as a let’s try this. And also because I’m curious, what is it like to be an educator in Denmark? When I would visit my family here and they’re talking about this work-life balance, I was like, there’s no way. That’s gotta be your corporate job and all of those things. So we were both really, really, really curious, and we jumped into this job search with both feet. I didn’t know if my husband would even get a resident permit. So it was me, all of a sudden, looking for a job, could not get an education job to save my life, and ended up in marketing instead, but got a job that was enough to move us back here.

When the job offer came through, it was a big decision, because all of a sudden I wasn’t going to be a teacher anymore, or at least not in that moment. And it was also obviously a huge sacrifice for my husband as an American moving to a country where he had no rights at all, and couldn’t speak the language. They had already denied his degree as a teacher. They were like, That’s nice. We can see you’re a teacher but you’re not a teacher in Denmark. You have to go back to school in Danish.

He gave up his whole career knowing that I was moving my own children away from a life that was really good and very close to our family, in a job that I loved, in a district that I loved, in a community that I loved, just to chase this dream of what it meant to be Danish again, was a big decision. But, I remember my husband, Brandon, saying two things to me as we were sitting and making the decision. And one of them was, “Let’s just do it for a year and see how it goes”. And the other was, “You’re still a teacher even if you don’t have a classroom”.

So those two things were really important. Then we said yes on the 7th of July, and I had to be in Copenhagen at my job on August 25th. And so it was it was 6 weeks. Sheer insanity. Selling our house, selling almost everything we own. Obviously, quitting jobs, getting stuff shipped, finding a place to land in. And I’m so glad that that was how it went because I think if we had had more time, we would have been really scared.

Here it was just like a crazy train that we had to stay on. And, we showed up in Denmark like, What did we just do? But now we’ve been here nearly coming up on two years, in August. And, we didn’t go home after a year. I think it’s going to be a while before we go home.

So it was an idea of going home and certainly also wanting to see what’s it like to work in a country that is significantly different than the US, especially around education, knowing that the work really is central around the same themes, but performed quite differently. And also, would my own kids understand why their mom was the way she was? I think there’s been a lot of instances now they’re, this makes so much sense now. Why you have the personality you have. I love that. I don’t know if it’s good or bad. So that’s the connection to Denmark. And I will say, if we hadn’t had that connection, we couldn’t have moved here.

Denmark is notorious for making it impossible for anyone outside of the EU. It took my husband nine months to get his permission to breathe the air here. And in those nine months, he had no rights. He had no bank account. He had nothing. He couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t even volunteer.

They are very, very closely guarded. And it’s such a shame because I think about all of the people who come here, the migrants, and all of the things, and the immigrants, and what they bring to the country. But we can cross our fingers and try to push the boundaries of politics in any way we can, because I wish there were more people that could come to Denmark and experience life here. But until then, we’ll just keep exporting our ideas and hoping to help people that way.

Cultural differences

It’s been really interesting hearing your stories about the transition because I really only understand the American system. Here, we have tons of people immigrating from all different places all the time, and that’s really been the design of our country from the very beginning. And so I just assumed it was that easy. That if an American wanted to just pick up and move to Denmark, they could just do that. And talking to you, that is not the case. So to be clear, this is not an episode about, let’s all move to Denmark and teach because it’s not happening like that. That’s not our purpose here.

No. It really isn’t because we couldn’t believe how hard it was. We started thinking about moving home in 2010. And at that point, it was just this crazy idea of maybe we should go home for a little bit, obviously, not for Brandon. But we couldn’t. At that point, even though he was married to a Dane with Danish children, had an education, have a job to pay the bills, they were like, Nope, you don’t fulfill the requirements. It wasn’t until 2018, that he fulfilled the requirements, and the visa that he has is contingent on the fact that he has Danish children. So when they turn 18, he’s out of the country unless he changes and gets permission for a different visa. And Denmark only allows that because the EU came in and said, By the way, you can’t keep parents away from their children just because they’re Danish. The Danish government was like, darn it.

And we see it. I love Reddit, for all of its flaws. And always in the Danish/Denmark subreddit, they’re always like, my grandmother was Danish. And people are like, They don’t care. Unless you have a Danish passport, get a really good job that we really want, try marrying a Dane, but even then, it may not work. It’s really wild.

So tell me about the cultural differences that you’ve noticed living in Denmark, particularly in relation to families, children, work, school.

It’s it’s wild. I think it’s finally starting to sink in now because I’m taking it so much for granted. And I realized that today as I was driving home, and it was 3:30, which was late for me. And I was like, I’m gonna go home and not work. And my kids were running around the yard, and they had friends over. In Denmark, the whole system and mind you, there’s always going to be people that are outside of that intended system, is set up so that you work to live, not live to work. And it is very, very protected.

Obviously, both in my marketing job and also as a teacher, I work 37 hours. You don’t work 40, but you work 37. And in my first week of school, I was told very strictly by not just my union rep, but also my colleagues and my principal that I had not to go over those 37 hours. So it’s 40 hours with breaks and stuff in school. They were like, if you do, please let us know. I was like, sure. That’s what everybody says. But the following week, I ended up sending a message saying, I’m drowning a little bit. There’s so much to do. And I’m taking over this class in the middle of the year. And he pulled me in the next day and said, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to get sub coverage for you for the next four weeks, for this feeds two hours so that you have more prep time during the day. I also set up these meetings with these people who are going to show you so that you have less prep.” And I was just like, Wait, what just happened?

And it truly was. But it was so serious. And he was like, we have to protect you because we don’t want you to burn out. But it’s society-wise. I was just talking to my colleagues that my kids had an art show at school and we were told two days before, because it wasn’t intended for parents. Then it opened up for parents. My colleague goes, Well, you know you have the right to go to that. Right? That you can just go down to the office and say, I’m going to my child’s thing. And you can go. And I was like, Really? And they’re like, Oh, yeah. Yeah. They can’t stop you from that.

Or when I was asking one of my friends, “How many sick days do we get?”. And she looked at me, “What do you mean sick days?” And I was like, “Well, you know, how many days can we take sick?”. And she goes, “However many you need”. And I was like “Really?”. She was like, “I’m sure. Well, if it’s three months then your doctor needs to be involved, obviously”. Then when I got my job, they were like, “The way it works is you call in sick and then we just assume you’re sick until you call in well”. I can take as many sick days as I need. If your kids are under eight, then you automatically get extra days for them for doctor’s appointments and whatever. That’s just paid. With children, you automatically get their first day off sick free. That’s always paid for.

I know my husband even gets the second day. And then you could just kinda figure it out after that. It’s remarkable how much in society is set up that, of course, your family comes first. And we see it in the education system because it is limited in its capacity of what it’s supposed to take on. The society is set up so that parents or home adults can care for their children.

And we end the school year with three PD days. The students leave. We get three days. And I, again, asked my colleagues, “What do we do on those days?”, and they’re like, “Well, we plan. We sit down and we make like an outcast and a draft of next year and then we leave”. And I was like, “Do we have a lot of meetings?” and they’re like, “No, no. We have to clean our classrooms and set up. We move rooms so we move our rooms, and then we plan. And then remember, we have five PD days before the beginning of the year”. And I said, “Oh, well, that’s where the meetings are” and they’re like, “No”. Sometimes there’s stuff. But most of the time, it’s just prep time.

So again, it’s this idea of how can we give you a job that’s sustainable, where you can pay your bills, but you can also be parents? Or you can just be adults if you don’t have children? And how can you be a happy, productive member of society? And so I think about it all the time, how that shows up. We had to call an ambulance the other day to my school. And at no point did anyone say, well, can the family afford this? It was just an automatic — of course, we’re going to call an ambulance. We’re not sure what’s going on with this child. So we’re going to get them the medical care that they need.

I didn’t realize how stressed I was chronically until I moved here because one thing we do well in America is shoulder burdens. We just take it on. And we keep taking it on. And we cry at home behind closed doors. And we fight. I mean, if you want to talk about something that’s so great in America, it’s that fighting spirit of how do we keep fighting even against all odds. I haven’t had to do that in Denmark. And it’s been weird. I don’t know what to do with the fight in me because I don’t have to. I can channel into creativity instead? I have to have hobbies now that aren’t teaching. And that’s so weird because I haven’t had hobbies since having children.

Now I have all this time, and I’m in my garden, and we’re winter bathing, and I’m trying to convince my husband to buy a kayak. What a life this is. But that’s how that’s designed. Now, it’s not like that for everybody. There are absolutely people that don’t have resources in Denmark and that struggle. But we also have such a safety net that it’s very hard to end up homeless, for example. It’s very hard to end up on the streets. It almost has to be by choice if you’re a Danish citizen or a Danish resident.

Work-life balance and societal expectations

So when we’re looking at this culture of work-life balance, it’s not just the schools. It’s the whole society. The society is a reflection of the school, and I definitely see the same thing here. The culture in teaching very much mirrors our larger culture and that, work comes first and ambition comes first, and somehow you’re supposed to just make it happen with families. But at the same time, we turn around and blame parents for not being as involved as they should be. They’re not doing a good enough job. Why aren’t they here?

Why aren’t they volunteering at the school? And thinking about how the systems are set up to be pro-family or support families, it’s remarkable how much more family-friendly Denmark seems to be. And, again, by design, this isn’t a coincidence. It’s a core value that we claim to have as Americans, but our systems and structures don’t support that. Because if you can’t even get off work when your child is sick, then how can we say that we value children?

Right. Exactly. Or even afford after-school care or the sports that your kids want to do. Like, I was asked, like, what about school sports? I was like, that’s not a thing here. Everything is club sports because you pay like $80 for 6 months. The access here is so ingrained. I couldn’t believe it when my kids were coming home and they’re like, I wanna do this. I was like, we can’t afford anything. And then I’m looking at the prices going, Oh, my gosh. You can do them all. We can do sports in America with two full-time teacher salaries. We couldn’t afford it. Like, with four kids, that wasn’t going to happen. And I think about the deprivation that we’re constantly or not deprivation, but maybe it is. But that limited access to opportunity that we so often are forced into in a system like the US’s, that is really removed in many ways in Denmark.

Now you still have social orders and ranks and some people have a much sweeter life. But the piece of the pie for everybody is so much bigger. And I think about how we are so quick to blame kids right now. Again, like, we do this every generation. Kids these days don’t know anything. Kids these days are running crazy. And I think about how much patience and, and well-being it takes to parent well when you’re also under fire, and when you also feel chronically stressed, and when you are just trying to survive paycheck to paycheck. And I think that’s been one of the biggest differences is that Brandon and I, my husband and I, as our kids now are in their preteens and teens, we now have the mental health capacity and the well-being capacity to parent the way we wanted to all those years in America.

And in America, we did the very best we could in the system that we were in, but we didn’t have more time in the day. We didn’t have more resources, and we were drained. And over here, I can still have stressful days, but it’s normal stress. It’s not stress on top of stress. And so that’s not to say that there aren’t issues — there are a lot of issues over here. There is as well. We’re seeing a lot of the same thing there in the US. But I think there’s just a different capacity to take it on, at least from the parental standpoint, because you’re not under so much stress.

School responsibilities in Denmark

I think about how we are asking so much of schools, such limited staffing, budget, and resources, but yet we’re transporting kids. We’re feeding kids. Even when schools were shut down during the pandemic, schools still fed kids because we had no other institution to feed them. We’re providing mental health services, doctors, and nurses, school psychologists, the after-school programs, clubs, or everything comes through the school, and the burden that that places on teachers to provide the unpaid labor to do that. Tell me how these things are different in Denmark.

So that has been a lot of unlearning for me because in Denmark, schools are schools. We are absolutely an essential piece of the puzzle of a society that is well educated and children who are doing well. But we are not the main care point. We are in community and in connection and in collaboration with the government that surrounds us so the municipality that we are in as well as the family themselves. And there are very clear lines of what a school provides versus what social services provide versus what home adults provide. And we don’t cross those boundaries. So we wouldn’t feed children, for example. Like, I had my snack drawer in the US that was either funded by the home adults or it was me buying extra boxes of granola bars because it was needed.

That’s not a thing. Even my students, who I know are not accessing a lot of resources, come to school with a fully stocked lunch. We’re not feeding children. We’re not transporting children because everything is local schools. You are biking to school. You may be taking the bus if you’re over a kilometer. But it’s public transportation that gets you to the school that you are walking to school. Some kids are driven. But that’s just because their parents can do that. But everybody is in a community school unless it’s by choice. And then you’re in charge of your own transportation.

We do not have psychologists at school. We do not have social workers at our school. We do not have, any of the wraparound services. Later on, we’ll have some kind of guidance counselors, but that is career guidance counseling. It is not how are you doing, what social services do you need. There’s both a good and a bad to that. I think it means that we’re very departmentalized when it comes to what are we in charge of. You are in charge of the academic and the well-being of the children when they’re with you. But it’s from an academic sense.

I think it’s hard when you then run into a family that’s standing in a resource need. And you’re like, where do we go? You actually have to pass it on. You don’t have that person that can make some phone calls and help them out. You have to connect them to other people. But what it does is that, as a teacher, I don’t feel the burden of trying to play psychologist, trying to play counselor, trying to go, Oh, my gosh, where are these kids going to sleep? How are they going to eat? I notice that all their clothes are filthy and need to be replaced or taken care of. That doesn’t fall on me because it’s not my job. And it’s been really hard to turn that off in my brain.

In a meeting this year, I said to a family, “The winter coat is really dirty. We can always wash it”. And afterward, one of my leaders was like, “Oh, no. No. No. We don’t do that here. That is not our responsibility”. So I think there’s also a very strong upholding of what our lines are. And I think it’s good in a way because I’m expected to teach. I’m expected to care for these children and to give them the very best educational experience I can.

I don’t have to sit and also worry about, whether they are getting access to the counseling they need. I’m a part of that. I’m a puzzle piece in that. I’m writing the things that need to be written so that they can get counseling, etcetera. But I’m not the one going to my team meeting going, What are the social services we need to get this child connected to?

And it’s a relief in a way to be able to say, this is someone else’s responsibility. Because I can then focus on being incredibly present with the kids that I have and planning really meaningful educational experiences. But it’s also a very different system. You couldn’t replicate that in the US because you don’t have the resources to do that. It’s a necessary evil for schools to be this community hub because it’s one of the only places where everyone has free access. We see it at the public library, but schools where you’re being transported to, we can feed you, we can clothe you, we can keep our eyes on you in a way that you can’t really anywhere else in the US society. In Denmark, there are so many different safety nets, that you don’t need school to be a community hub in that way. And I think it just changes the whole experience of what we’re expected to do and how we’re expected to carry the weight of what it means to be [a teacher].


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Comparing teacher contracts: US vs. Denmark

You and I have spoken about this in one of our many conversations. In Denmark, you’re not on contract for a school year. You’re just on contract like any other job. So you can also quit the job at any point, and you just follow the resignation rules, which is usually the month you’re in plus another month. And so there isn’t also this, I am now locked into the school in the same way. It’s just a job. And that’s also both good and bad because, of course, that can create more instability for the children.

And a lot of educators do try to kind of wrap it into vacation. So I’m leaving after this time or after summer. But at the same time too, they’re also kind of like, it’s a job and if I get a different opportunity, I’m going to pursue that much like you would outside of education. And so I think there’s also some of that heaviness removed that we automatically are given in America. We do the job because of the children, which is why we don’t ask for a lot of pay because then you’re not doing it for the children, which is why we shell out thousands of dollars because it’s for the children. That’s why we work extra hours because it’s for the children. In Denmark, that is not your job. Your job is to be the very best teacher. And to be the very best teacher that you can be, you need to have your home life in order. And in order for you to have your home life in order, you treat teaching as a job.

It can still be a calling. And you can go all in for the kids and be an incredible teacher that is incredibly present in those 40 hours. But then, you better go home and be present for your own family and be a productive member of society in maintaining the peace and happiness in your own family. And I think that that’s so interesting because for educators, we have always been kinda surreptitiously told to sacrifice our own families for the benefit of other children.

And it was one of the hardest things that I stood in as a parent. But I’ve seen it to even people who don’t have their own children, right? They were expected to sacrifice those that they loved and the time that they spent with them and the peace that they found within their own lives in order to be more for those in their care. And yet when we do that, we’re just pouring out of empty vessels.

But that’s not that’s not the way. It’s like, we need you to come here, and we need you to give 100% when you’re here. And then please go home and recharge so you can come back and be 100%. That’s been a wild, wild permission to begin. Because we talk about it in the US all the time. Oh, self-care. I remember feeling so guilty about not being able to self-care right. It was like, I don’t force self-care. I need more like you care. Like, don’t give me a mandated walk with a colleague. Give me time to clean up my classroom. Right? Like, and so it’s that’s it’s been a head trip for me in letting go some of those, this is what it means to be an educator, the sacrificial Olympics we all seem to be in, how much can I sacrifice in order to prove that I am a teacher who cares?

That is not a thing over here. They would look at you like you were insane. Why would you do that? You’re just going to burn out. I mean, we also have a medical diagnosis that’s called going down with stress. And you would be out. And it happens to teachers quite a bit. But it’s basically, you are exhibiting signs of chronic stress. So then you go on sick leave with pay for 3 to 6 months until you can come back. Can you imagine how many teachers in the US already today could be like me? And could you imagine what benefits it could have if people could say, You’re right. I am beyond my capacity. And I do need to go on sick leave and get better so I can come back and go back to being the teacher that I dreamed of being. That I know I can be if I can just get my feet back onto me. I mean, how many times did we hope for that? It’s a different society.

Let’s talk about how the Danish school system is set up. In our conversations, two of the things that have been most intriguing for me is how kids are not formally taught to read until first grade and also how high school looks so very different than it does in the US. So what is schooling actually like? What is that experience like for kids?

Well, if you ask my own American children, my American neighbors should do, like, School sucks. My 10-year-old was saying, “School’s a prison”. I was like, Oh, we’re at that stage.

Early education and learning methods

So that’s just a universal thing. School just sucks no matter what we do?

Yeah. I’m like trying to compare it to what her American schooling would be right now. And she’s like, I don’t care. I’m here. This sucks.

Yes. So first of all, Danish children typically don’t start school until they’re six. So when they go into 0 grade, which would be kindergarten, it is really all about community and how to be together. How are you in a learning environment? They may get a little bit of like letter recognition, maybe some, phonics, a little bit how to hold a pencil because we’re drawing and we’re playing and, and their days are fairly short.

It used to be until, 11:30, 8 to 11:30 for, for 0. And then they went to after school, which every school that has those younger grades has to have and it’s quite cheap. Or they would just go home if there were someone home. Now, after the reform we had 10 years ago, modeled after the American system, where everybody was like, What are you doing? They have to be in school, at least at my school, until 1, which the teachers are like, that is much too long.

There are lots of movements in the day. There’s lots of play-based learning. And there’s very, much this belief of like, we’re going to let kids come into the learning. And if they’re showing signs of readiness, then we will challenge them to make sure that they’re still interested. But no one is handing a 0 grade teacher a reading curriculum and saying get on it and these kids better be reading by the time they’re 7.

So it’s also interesting, I teach 1st, but I’m teaching 7, 8-year-olds. So that would be more like second in the US. So by the time they come to me in first, most of them know their letters, they know some sounds, and then we start working on reading. And it’s very, very, slow. It’s very exploratory. It’s very play-based. Our schedules are not like the US schedule at all. Every day is different so you have a different schedule for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and  Friday. The times are the same. We’re in school from 8 until 12 minutes after 1, which is brilliant.

We have two breaks, obviously. We have a morning recess, and we have a lunch. But I don’t have math every day. I have math three times a week. I have science once a week. I have art once a week. I have music twice a week. I have movement every single day. I have Danish probably every day, but we’re doing different things. And so what it means is that you have this much more comfortable pace of teaching. Because I can adjust course at any time in my classroom.

My students are wackadoo. Let’s go outside. Nobody’s going to come by and go, why aren’t you doing math right now?’ My students need a break where we’re just sitting and coloring. Awesome. Please do that because that’s what your students need. My students need extra recess every single day that’s not on the schedule because that’s just how they’re going to learn best, then you’re going to do that. And I think, like, having that kind of freedom ingrained in a system where it’s not the same schedule every day means the kids are excited because they look forward to different days. They don’t get us sick of subjects as quickly because we don’t have them every day except for Danish.

And at least in my school, and it’s different from from municipality to municipality. We have a lot of freedom to do play-based learning, and not just in the younger grades. And that’s a focus in general. We also just like I’m a classroom teacher, but I don’t teach all the subjects. Like like, right now I do because I’m kind of on an emergency schedule. But like next year, I’m going to share the responsibility of my class with one or two other teachers. So I’m not the only one carrying the academic responsibility and the social well-being of my students for my classroom. I’m the main person but there are other teachers coming in, teaching in their way and it’s the students’ rooms, it’s not the teachers. So we go in and out. And that’s something you and I have spoken about too.

Risk-taking and independence in students

Danish children are expected to be left alone for short periods of time without adult supervision and they’re expected to behave. Because if not, then it’s not the fault of the teacher. It’s the fault of the child. So I leave my classroom, not for long periods of time, but it’s wild to me. That was not a thing we did in America ever. Or they’re expected to take risks. So we have trees that they climb at recess. They have a tendency to walk around with huge sticks, and we’re fine with that. Just don’t hit each other. Or like rocks. Like, 0 graders were walking around with rocks yesterday. I was like, what are you doing? And they’re like, Oh, we’re building. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. And I’m like, okay. When a child falls in Denmark, it’s not, why weren’t you supervising? It’s, oh, well, how can you make sure you don’t fall next time? And I think that that mentality is embedded in everything we do.

Trade schools and specialized education

And so we’re very, very focused on short school days that are high impact. In fact, we just had another educational reform come out, which is awesome because they’ve basically undone all of the things that they pushed through 10 years ago. And they said again, we need shorter days, and we need a lot more hands-on learning, and we need less screens. And so they’re very much like, how can we give more practical classes? How can we get infused the technical traits into school earlier so that kids who want to be done after 9th grade and that’s what we’re talking about high school experience. So in Denmark, you’re done with school, officially, after 9th grade. And then you can start to specialize or you can just be done. You’re done. You’re 15. You’re done.

But you start to specialize. So if you want to go to the trades, you’ll go to a trade school. And we were just at this event where they were showcasing the trades. I mean, cleaning assistants, that’s a trade degree. Fitness therapists, that’s a trade degree. Dental hygienists, like, all of those things. Bricklayers, bakers, butchers, all of those things. That’s a trade degree that you can go and take. Or you can do the college prep route, which is three years, which is more like an American high school, but it’s really elective-based. And you have a course area. So you might go for, like, engineering focus or journalism focus or create creative arts focus or humanities, or something. So you’re already starting to specialize at the age of 15 or 16. What it means is that a lot more people stay in school, because it’s a lot more interesting. You can also go to business school, obviously, if you want to farm. Like, there’s all these things that you can do to start specializing after 9th grade.

And then, of course, we have the big boon, which is school is paid for by the Danish government. You can take up to three degrees full degrees, paid for by the Danish government. And they will pay you while you’re in school. So someone had mentioned that almost everybody in Denmark has a master’s degree. Yeah. Because it’s free. We pay for it through our taxes, but it’s free. And so I think what we see in the school system is that most people stay in school and most people have multiple degrees.

So they might finish a degree and go, I didn’t want to be a carpenter after all. I’m going to go back and do engineering. Or I didn’t want to be in marketing. I’m going to go back and take my teaching degree. And I think what it does is also that it puts an urgency in our hands of making sure that we’re exposing children to as many different things as possible. We want to get them into messing with the sciences really early just like in the US.

But we also want to get them using saws and hammers at a very young age. In fact, in my 4th grade class, they’re standing there sawing and hammering, and I’m thinking, Oh, my lord. What are all these 4th graders doing with saws? But at the same time, we were two teachers to 60 kids and then other teacher, the veteran teacher is like, Make sure you don’t cut yourself. And I was like, this is so wild.

My system is overloaded. But because I am not expected to police the children, The parents, the home adults are supportive of us taking risks, which are not even seen as risks, and taking our other children out into the world. Like my own kids go on field trips and I don’t know until after. Like, I once drove by my child downtown and I was like, What are they doing? And later I asked. He’s like, Oh, we were walking to wherever to do whatever. And I was like, that’s so weird. I didn’t even know that was going to happen. And so I think living in a society like that puts, this incredible urgency of creativity into the school. How can we compete against screens?

We’re one of the most digitalized nations in the world. They love their screens in Denmark. They love their iPads and their phones. So how can we make school a place for exploration where all kids feel like they can thrive and have something to connect with? And when I was hired for my job, it was like, how are you going to bring play into it? How are you going to help them play through everything? And it has been a blast. It has been so much fun. And not in a, here’s the textbook, and you’re going to follow this. It’s, show us what you got, and what are you interested in, and get the kids involved.

We’re given a lot of freedom over here. But honestly, if there was one thing that I could get any kind of American administrator to think about is why does your schedule have to be the cookie-cutter schedule every day? Why do we place so much emphasis on having ELA blocks every single day when we know for some students it is the worst part of their day? We can achieve literacy in many ways. How are we making room for just more flexibility in schedules?

Because also the fact that our education minister is saying we want shorter school days so kids can be kids. That shouldn’t be revolutionary. My own kids are home at 1:30. They are tired by the time it’s bedtime because they’ve been playing and hanging with friends, and they’ve had a whole life outside of school that we don’t offer children in America. I was saying that to my own kids. I was like, Man, if you were in elementary school in the US, chances are you’d be going until 2:30, 3 o’clock. They’re like, Man, that’s really long.

It is. Because we in the US feel this urgency to continue to expand, expand, expand without recognizing that kids are not ready for that. And neither are the adults. And so I think this idea of how we make the precious short time we have together high impact by recognizing that we need movement and play has been a relief to teach it. Because I know that all my crazy ideas can fit in somewhere.

So much of the sounds like the way that that school used to be in America, particularly when you were talking about in the younger grades. You know, my dad did not start school until the 1st grade, and he knew nothing when he walked in. He’d never had a school experience before. He did not know how to use the water fountain or raise his hand or anything like that, and that was fine. That’s when they first started to learn how to read. And I think about it now, all of that has been moved down really to kindergarten and even younger.

If your kid is in preschool at age three, they’re learning letter sounds and numbers at three. And kindergarteners in the US really are expected to be able to write a paragraph. And that’s just wild to me because even when I first started teaching in the nineties, that was not an expectation.

That has changed even since I entered the field. The idea of a 5-year-old writing a paragraph and reading entire books on their own. They are expected to be reading, writing, adding, subtracting, and what gets missed there (that I hear you saying is happening in Denmark) is the piece that we are all complaining that children don’t have, which is social skills, independence, risk-taking skills, knowing how to advocate for yourself, express your needs, collaborate.

These are all things that kindergarten used to be for. It used to be for socialization. That was the primary reason: to get kids to know how to get along with other kids. And we skip that now, and it’s like, “No, you need to be writing a paragraph.” But wait a second. I never learned how to tell Johnny I don’t like when he pulls my hair.

Social skills vs. academic pressure

So we get these kids into 4th, 5th, 6th grade, and they still have not had any formal instruction really on how to do that because we’ve been so bogged down with teaching them how to read, write, do math, and everything else that’s on the standardized test.

And it blows my mind thinking about how different that would be if kids were not expected to enter school already knowing these things. And if formal instruction and reading didn’t start until 1st grade — which is actually the American equivalent of 2nd grade — so you’re talking about a full two developmental years later.

I’ve taught I’ve taught Pre k, 2nd, and 3rd, and I would pull my hair out trying to get kids to meet benchmarks that they were not developmentally ready for. And at that age, a kid who’s born in September versus a kid who’s born in March, they’re just completely different developmentally. Six months makes a huge difference at that age.

And I just remember doing things with them and feeling like, if the school could just let this kid go play for a year and send him back to me a year from now, he’d get all these concepts, just like that. It would be so fast and easy. It would be effortless. But instead, I’m sitting at this table with these stupid flashcards, forcing it because I have to.

If you just gave them one more year, they could have learned the social skills first. They could have developed their vocabulary, a love of learning, a love of books, a love of exploring and learning through play, and they would have been so much more ready.  And that is the part of of how our schools have changed over the last few decades that troubles me the most, and I think that creates a whole domino effect where kids are already burned out on school by 1st grade.

Yeah, and already feeling like failures because when we start to add in the opportunity gap of who comes in already ready for the rigor of school and for the teachers’ pace that is not dictated by the teachers. Most often, it’s dictated by school. I have already failed in kindergarten. School’s never going to be the place for me. I’m never going to be able to achieve because I’m already falling behind. And then the home adults start feeling that pressure. Why is my kid not achieving? And the teacher then starts to internalize that pressure going, why can’t I? I’m doing all the things miss Johnson next door is doing and it’s working for her kids. It’s not working for mine.

We are in such a rush, and we’re getting nowhere in the US. The kids that can, because they’ve had the access and have had the safety to do so, they will continue to get ahead and leave the other kids in the dust. And instead of saying maybe we should slow the system down, and still find ways to differentiate and of course, offer opportunities. And so we’re like, Well, how can we cram more in because clearly we’re not teaching them enough. Rather than going, could we cut about half out of what we teach so that they can have the time to digest it and actually find their ground below them and feel confident that they too belong in learning environment?

I think that’s what is so beautiful in Denmark. I had a student come in and transfer into my classroom, and one of the first things that he told me was, but I can’t read Pernille because, of course, they call us by their first name here. And I said, you’re not expected to. We’re about to learn that. I am? Yeah. You didn’t need to read to be part of our classroom. But I think of the kids who already are knowing that by the time they enter kindergarten, well, I’m expected to be able to do x, y, and z. Why why am I not? How are they standing there feeling?

And so I think it just makes no sense to me that when we’re seeing a system that’s already putting too much pressure on children and too much pressure on the adults surrounding children, why we’re then adding more pressure. And I’ll tell you one of the wild things living in Denmark is having a functioning government. And I don’t mean that as a slight towards all people in government. I think there are many people fighting for change in the US. But we have a government because it’s small that actually enacts change that we feel the very next school year.

It’s been so wild to be like, wait, that was a law. And it’s now impacting us. And we’re actively changing our teaching because of that. I think about how much, if we could have a government that actually was given power in that way, and it was a government supported by child psychology and developmental psychology, of what incredible areas of freedom and learning that we could finally establish in our learning communities. Because we see teachers do it all the time. And we see them do it under the radar. We see them closing their doors. We see some schools who often end up as pockets of excellence, right? Because they’ve been given freer reins, given the permission to slow down.

Imagine what it would do for education as a whole if we could slow it down. And the pressure valve that we could finally release. I think that was honestly one of the biggest gifts of Corona. And there are not a lot of gifts in Corona in any way. But it was the fact that I was finally told to do less than what I was supposed to do before, as far as the curriculum. We had lots of other things to do. But the curriculum, I was specifically told to slow down. And I remember going, here we are. I can finally take the time that I need to truly do this in a fun way.

I also am really struck by what you were saying at the secondary level because when we look at one of the main problems that secondary teachers are facing, it’s student engagement. Kids are not motivated. They don’t want to pay attention. They’re not doing their work. They’re cheating, all that kind of stuff.

How different would it be if school ended when you were 15, and after that, you go right into your job training? I don’t know how many other countries are like this, but I know it’s that way in Switzerland. It’s that way in Norway. There’s a number of Western European countries in which you’re basically treated like a college student would be treated in the U.S., where you’re not required to be in school six hours a day. You might go for two hours on Tuesday, and then Wednesday, you have an internship, and then Thursday, you meet with this adviser, and then you go to classes after this other training.

And that right there fixes the whole engagement issue because the kid is doing the thing that they want to do, that they’re interested in pursuing, their passion. It’s paid for so they don’t have opportunities closed off to them because they know they can’t afford them.

The idea of making a 15, 16, 17, 18-year-old person sit in a room for 6 hours a day and do what they’re told is just like it is so different from what happens after they graduate because there’s not anyone standing over your shoulder anymore. We’re not preparing them in any way for the unstructured nature of college or for the level of self-motivation and self-determination that’s required in order to be successful in the workforce or in college because you’re so micromanaged. And they rebel against the micromanagement, and we respond with more micromanagement. 

If there was one thing that I would change about the American school systems in addition to what you’re saying about the slowing down, it would be this piece of restructuring the entire way we do school at the secondary level.

Actually, one of the things that they just came out with this new reform is that 8th and 9th grade should also have the opportunity to do work studies and to have internships because they’re saying we’re already losing kids by 8th grade. And so how can we get them hooked into local businesses so that they can actually go out and start learning trades if that’s what they want to do and start having that as part of their schooling, applying the maths that they’re doing, applying all of the classes that they’re doing.

I just think it’s so powerful to also recognize that that is also education. That is also an incredible livelihood. And again, how can we help you achieve what you want to achieve to have the life that you want to have? So instead of going, Well, why aren’t the kids going out and figuring it out? Us going, Okay, how can we change the system so that it’s a lot more accessible and has a lot more opportunities embedded at a much younger age.

It does add pressure to the kids. I will not pretend it doesn’t. All of a sudden, like 15, okay, what do you want to do with your life? And so a lot of people do do the gymnasium route. And then they might drop out and say, I’m going to pause.mI’m going to go work. And then I’m going to come back and restructure. But I think that the door doesn’t slam shut in your face because of the financial aspect. You can always come back. And there are always different opportunities for how you re-enter into the education game.

And even the way you get into university here, because it’s open to everyone, they set the grade years, the GPA every year. They’re like, in order to even apply for being a doctor, it’s usually a very high GPA. And then you either get in on quota A, which is just the GPA. Did you get in or not? But let’s say you don’t have that GPA. You can go and work and have experiences and then come back and say, okay, here’s why I think I would make a good doctor. Here’s why I think I should be accepted into your program. And they have a certain amount of people that they take through that as well. Where they’re like, no, you didn’t have the school experience that we normally look for in this degree. But you’ve shown us through all these other life experiences that you’re going to be an amazing doctor. So we’re going to open up the degree to you too, and it’s going to be paid.

I just think that there’s just a rounder sense of what a human being is meant to be over here. There are more opportunities. There isn’t so many, only chances. I feel like in America, if you don’t get that scholarship, or if you don’t get that GPA, if you don’t volunteer so many hours, well then that door is shut. And then what are you going to do? Here, it’s like, oh, you didn’t get that? Well, here’s another door, and another door, and another door, and another door. How can we get you to a point where you’re a productive member of society?

They want you to pay the taxes, right? Like, how do we get you productive and happy? Because if you’re happy, you’re not going to need as many services. And they mean that, like, I know we’re told the same in the US, but then we kinda look at our taxes and go, wait, what is it going towards? But over here, it’s like, okay. Yeah. You just took a big chunk out of my money, but man, my four children can have three degrees each. Like, okay. You can have it. I can call an ambulance anytime I want. My kids need braces. Like, that’s paid for. Thank god.

So that low-level anxiety is just gone — that constant feeling like any little emergency can completely wipe out your savings or bankrupt you.

I think of one of my dear, dear, dear friends whose child got very sick and ultimately passed away and how she was forced to beg for sick leave in the US. How gross and sick that was. And over here, it’s like, but of course of course you’re going to be home. Of course you’re going to be with your child. Even if it’s just the flu. We get to be the kinds of parents that we dream of being, in a society that takes care of you like this. And that’s the biggest gift. I and I tell that to my own children all the time. One of the main reasons that we moved here, besides all of the fun stuff, is so that I could be the kind of parent that I wanted to be and that I tried so hard to be in the US. But that the US system just simply makes really hard, especially when you’re an educator, expected to also care for all of these other children.


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Teacher work-life balance in Denmark

What does the school day look like for you now as a teacher?

Oh, it’s so much fun. My students get there at 7:50. I usually show up at, like, 7:30. I found out, primary great teachers, it’s all about the laminating and the printing and copying. It’s not the grading. It’s, I need to produce all the things, which I appreciate. It’s so much fun. And then the students kinda roll in, and we have our day. And at 1 or 12, I’m done.

My students are gone. So it’s a marathon. I don’t have prep during the day because you’re just teaching. Out of my 40 hours a week, I am expected to teach 20 hours. So I am in front of students 20 hours and the rest of the 20 hours are prep, meetings and, all those phone calls.

If I go above 40 hours, then they get very mad because then they have to pay me extra. They don’t so they’re like, don’t go over that. We’re also told at my school anyway that, we have to be 35 hours in the building, and 5 we can use outside of building. So I can sit and prep at home.

I can prep, obviously, earlier in the morning and count that and be done earlier. I have never had a day end at 1:12, and my contract time is done at 3:45, which is very typical of the US too. So I get two and a half hours of prep every single day. And it’s amazing how much I can do. Obviously, if they have to do meetings during the day, then it’s a sub plan and then you’re just pulled for that meeting. And then it’s not extra time. They would never put meetings outside of that time. And so because I’m only expected to come up with or to only be responsible for 20 hours. And that’s not even those 20 hours, I’m only responsible for coming up with all of the teaching.

Well, it used to be 15 of those hours. Right now, it is all 20. But, next year, I’m going to teach 15 hours with my students. Then three hours I’m going to be supporting co-teaching with another teacher where I’m not in charge of any prep or planning. I’m just there to be another adult. And then two hours, I’m resources for other teachers. But it’s a 40-hour work week. I think about how much that time allows me to be creative and to find freedom or to send those messages. And that’s the other thing too. They really don’t want you over-communicating.

Even our prime minister has come out and been like just hold back on the communication. Parents, you need to trust teachers. Teachers, you’ve got it. We’re not going to be contacting you. I’ve been laughing about that because one of my colleagues is on my messages thread of the messages I get from homes. And they were like, “Man, you’re getting a lot of messages”. And I was like, “I am? I think I got 3 this week”. And they were like, “Woah, woah, what’s going on with all those messages?” This is so wild.

In the system, it’s this balance. Right? We’re not going to have you teach more than 20 hours because then you can’t be a good teacher. Your subject area is not going to be well thought out. Your prep is not going to be well done. You’re not going to feel good. You’re not going to be able to go in front of that child and feel good. Instead of we’re going to squeeze every minute out of you, and you’re going to get a 45-minute prep. But it’s not really a prep because it’s really meetings half the time or you’re putting out some burning fire, or you have emergency phone calls to make, or you’re hunting down new shoes or snacks, or you’re getting a hold of the guidance counselor. That’s not my day at all.

Implementable takeaways for U.S. educators

Is there anything that’s really great about the Danish approach to work-life balance or education that you think US educators could replicate? What could someone take away from the Danish approach that might make their teaching more effective, efficient, or enjoyable?

I had to think about this a lot because I think back to how much of the things are simply embedded into the system and handed to me, and I’m now benefiting. I think one of the things that I would encourage, and I see so many educators already doing, is encourage each other to stay within your work hours. And I don’t mean by not prepping, but about sharing a lot more than we do. I also would incur because I think so often, we’re always like, Oh, we don’t have time to prep together. And what I see a lot in Denmark is one teacher will say, I’ll prep all the math for all of us so that you don’t have to. And then trusting that that colleague is going to prep the right materials.

Of course, you can put your own twist into it or whatever. But a much broader sharing of responsibility in order for all of us to stay within our contract hours. And I know that’s so hard to do in the US. But I would also say within my own personal experience of allowing yourself to trust your gut more when it comes to the kids-need-movement breaks.

I just wrote about doing nothing breaks because we’re big on let’s do a brain break. That’s not doing nothing. That’s again asking a kid to be activated. Now they have to follow movements or talk about something. No. Embracing the quiet and embracing the slowdown. And I know how hard that can be when you have an administrator that’s sometimes breathing over your shoulder going, you better be teaching to Fidelity and why are you not on this page? But somehow tweaking your own schedule. So even though it says ELA 90 minutes, that you are pretending that you’re only covering 45 minutes of ELA within 90 and trusting the process there. Slowing down to go further. And play especially for older students.

Because like you said, we still do it somewhat, if we have permission in the primary grades. There’s a lot of body movement. We’re up and doing games. We’re always thinking in playful learning, or at least I hope we are, if we can. How do we do that with the older students? I think about my middle school. So I’m a middle school teacher at heart. How they were just expected to sit down 45 minutes at a time from 8:30 until 3:45 with one break, one recess, and a 3-minute hallway passing time. And then we wondered why they came to us and were so checked out and so disengaged and would much rather try to be on their phones because they were so overwhelmed.

So I would say, if you can’t bring Denmark to you, steal the mentality of it’s much better for children to slow down. And fight, keep fighting. I have seen so many educators have brave conversations with their admins, taking the opportunities to say, hey, I piloted this. That’s always been my favorite. I piloted this idea, and I would love to share about it, and not being afraid to share.

I think we’re often so scared and with reason to share when we’re going outside of the mold or outside of the supposed expectations. But I have met so many administrators that have loved when their staff have come to them and said, I piloted this thing or we did this and it was actually really, really beneficial to the students. Look at the test results or whatever you need to prove, right? Or talk to the students themselves. Come in and see how this works.

Because I think right now, just like educators are under an immense amount of pressure in the US and in many other places, so are administrators. And they don’t have the time to sink into the genius of what’s happening around them. Unless we’re the ones going, Hey, look at this. This could benefit more than just my class. I don’t want to be an island. I don’t want to be the teacher that closes my door. I want to open up for these practices. And then for, I mean, I think also what we’ve been allowed to do in Denmark is just to have very few focuses. We don’t have a 10-step vision plan.

Next year, we’re working on differentiation in all the ways. And how does that apply to our teaching? And what does differentiation mean to me as a practitioner? So I think we also just can take and strip away all the goals. There’s just too many things on our plate. So I would say more movement, do less, slow down, open your doors, and be brave in sharing your stories. And, of course, just like in the US, I would share over there and listen to the students. How are we getting student voices in this? My first graders have a lot to say, and I love it. So how are we plugging into that? What is their body saying, but also their voices?

Which questions are we asking them? I constantly ask them, like, did you like that? How was that? How can we change it? Or like, Oh, I liked it. Or, No. I hated it.  We’re constantly having those conversations. And you can do that in the US too, and it can lead to quite profound change.

But, yeah, I think just also just fighting for yourself and fighting for your own mental health and recognizing that you can’t self-care your way out of feeling burnt out. And that’s not on you. That’s the system working the way it’s supposed to. And, I found a lot of peace my last two years as a teacher in the US with good enough with recognizing that something was good enough, and setting really hard boundaries, which is something that you have taught me. And we’ve spoken at length about you and I, Angela, in our years of friendship, that it’s never going to be perfect.

I’m never going to reach the level where I feel completely done. So which boundaries am I setting for myself in order to achieve good enough so that I can go and have a life and come back and be a full person in my classroom rather than someone who can’t wait to almost be done because I’m so exhausted and can’t even enjoy what I’m doing.

What’s something that you want every educator reading or listening to this to remember?

I think, for me, the recognition that we’re only humans and that even if we’re in a society that calls on us to be superheroes, we don’t need to be. I think the most thing that we can do for kids is simply to show up and be present and be there as an adult who cares about them and cares about their education in the present and above all, loves the kids that are in our care. But to do that, you have to take care of yourself. And you have to be willing to set boundaries. And you can’t self-sacrifice to where there’s nothing left.

And the students wouldn’t want that either. They are desperate for educators who think it’s fun to teach. And when you’re constantly being battered and there are so many educators just being battered in the US right now because of so many forces. How do we shore up our walls? Well, that starts with having enough energy to do so.

How can how can you replenish your own energy? And I think also just, like, give yourself grace. I think we are so hard on ourselves as educators. We are so quick to say we have failed a child or we have failed at something, when really we went in there and gave it everything we could. And it wasn’t us that failed, And maybe it wasn’t even a failure in the first place, but it was a system that was set up to drown us.

I think that you can’t stay an educator in America without recognizing that you’re not the only one in the system and that this is a group effort and that you can’t carry the responsibility for every single child on your shoulders. That’s really hard because that’s what we teach under in the US. So I think, for me, coming home to Denmark has been about discovering my own humanity again. My humanness, and how vulnerable I really was, but how I pretended not to be for so many years. And I think rediscovering that vulnerability has given me strength in saying no, in shutting my computer, in saying good enough, and going into my administrator and saying I can’t do this, I’m drowning, and demanding that someone hears me. And for all of those of you who have been demanding for so many years and nobody has listened to you, switching jobs, moving out of district, protecting yourself.

It’s easy to say it’s hard to do. When I left teaching, I cried because I felt like I lost an identity. I lost who I was. I felt lost. But then I came back to it, and I’m so much better for coming back to it because I stepped away and recognized that teaching didn’t have to be my whole life.

It could just be a really good part of my life.


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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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