• Sweden's news in English
The millionaire teacher who leads by tough love
Barbara Bergström, founder of Internationella Engelska Skolan. File photo: IES

The millionaire teacher who leads by tough love

The Local · 27 May 2015, 09:45

Published: 27 May 2015 09:09 GMT+02:00
Updated: 27 May 2015 09:45 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Barbara Bergström simply can’t resist.

Never mind that most people in Sweden her age have long-since retired, spending their days toiling in the garden or tending to summer cabins.

Never mind that she’s made millions founding and building the Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES), one of Sweden’s most successful free-school juggernauts.

And never mind that she rarely shies away from giving orders and getting others to act according to her wishes.

Despite all that, the 69-year-old Bergström simply can’t resist stooping over to pick up scraps of paper as she roams the halls at one of “her” schools, which as of this year now tally 30 in number and enrol 20,000 students across Sweden and the UK.

Bergström, who was raised in Buffalo, New York, arrived in Sweden in 1968 to marry a Swede she met in the United States, but whom she eventually divorced.

“It wasn’t so much that I was looking for adventure, but maybe it was more an expression of my can-do attitude,” she explains when asked what prompted the move. “Sweden was a very different place then. I set about learning the language, but it wasn’t easy.”

Swedes also seemed to be a bit put off by her American energy and attitude.

“I was told that I smiled too much,” she recalls with a laugh.

International flair

Indeed, these days Bergström has plenty of reason to smile, having built IES from a single elementary school in a south Stockholm suburb to a sprawling network of schools often cited as an example of why Sweden’s “free school” model of school choice works.

IES students consistently score above average on national standardized tests, and more than 90,000 students are queuing on wait lists in hopes of gaining admission.

Read also: Kristin Amparo: 'Swedes are afraid to be proud'

And finding the right personnel to ensure new IES schools live up to their “international” reputation often means traveling beyond Sweden’s borders.

Bergström at the opening of IES in Huddinge in 2013. File photo: IES

“We hire some 500 new teachers a year,” she explains. “We attend recruitment affairs in the US and Canada and England. In Canada alone this year we interviewed 170 people.”

Bergström is quick to add that more direct flights from Arlanda to teacher recruitment hotspots like Toronto, Minneapolis, and Vancouver would make it easier for IES to find and attract talented teachers to Sweden from across the Atlantic.

Whether travelling to and from her home in south Florida, visiting IES schools scattered across Sweden, or spending time in her summer home in western New York, Bergström takes to the air herself several times a year.

“I fly a lot,” she says.

And the importance of international air connections doesn’t end with the recruitment process, as many of the international staff that eventually move to Sweden to work at IES also do so with the understanding that they too will be able to travel back to their home countries without too much trouble.

“Recruiting people to Stockholm isn’t too much of a problem, but for our schools in smaller communities like Hässleholm or Umeå or Gävle…things can get much more difficult,” she explains. “These are all qualified people, and they are coming with a tremendous amount of young energy to bring a real international flair to the schools.”

Thus Bergström hopes very much that plans to shutter Stockholm’s Bromma airport don’t come to fruition, as it represents an important node that helps her and the staff at her schools stay connected.

“I don’t want Bromma to shut down. I often fly to Gothenburg and we’re setting up a new school in Umeå—that’s a long drive. Bromma makes getting there much more convenient.”

She also welcomes the prospect of Arlanda becoming a US pre-clearance airport, meaning travellers from Sweden could avoid customs hassles upon landing in the US and more US airports could receive direct flights from Stockholm.

“It’s a quality of life thing. The easier it is for our teachers to visit family back home in the US, the easier it is for them choose to stay in Sweden,” she explains.

Tough love

Bergström started her Swedish career as a science teacher in the public school system, a rewarding experience at times, but one that also taught her “a bunch of things I vowed I would never do” if she were in charge.

And she put those lessons into practice when the opportunity arose to start a school of her own in the wake of 1992 “free school” reforms that paved the way for public funds to be used to run privately managed schools.

Bergström’s “tough love” approach with students and backing her principals “like a lioness protecting my cubs” proved a winning formula, but also drew criticism that pitted the fiercely committed educator against a suspicious establishment. 

The school’s success has also brought Bergström unexpected wealth and recognition. She was named Entrepreneur of the Year in 2009, and in 2013 was named Swedish businesswoman of the year by consultancy EY.

Read more in the ConnectSweden series

In 2012, she reported income of 691 million kronor ($81.5 million), the highest in the country—something that raised more than a few eyebrows in a country where profits in the welfare sector is a hot topic of debate. 

But Bergström isn’t embarrassed about being rewarded financially for her efforts. 

“If you look at how this whole thing got started I feel that, yes, at the age of 69, I’m worth a few kronor,” she says. “And let me tell you how many millions I’ve paid in taxes,” she adds with a laugh. 

In reality, Bergström’s salary has always been modest, with the 2012 windfall stemming from a decision to sell 75 percent of IES to US-based investment firm; a decision she insists had little to do with lining her own pockets and everything to do with securing IES’s long-term stability as her inevitable retirement creeps ever closer. 

Bergström accepts her 2013 Swedish businesswoman of the year award. Photo: Jonas Borg

“I don’t lead a luxury life and why should I? What I like about being rich is that we can put the money to good use,” she says. As an example, she cites the foundation she and her husband, Dr. Hans Bergström, have set up to support Swedish projects for research, education and enlightenment, goals that stem in part from Bergström’s self-described “Buddhist tendencies”.

Long active in the Swedish-Tibetan Society for School and Culture, the Bergströms’ new foundation pays the full costs for ten talented Tibetan youngsters to attend university.

“The biggest liberating force is unquestionably education,” she explains.

‘I’m not above cleaning toilets’

While Bergström welcomes diversity in her schools and in Swedish society as a whole, she doesn’t mince words when it comes to her concerns about Sweden’s welcoming policy toward refugees.

“I feel that the current volume of immigration to Sweden from developing countries has to be curbed,” says the immigrant who came to Sweden herself more than four decades ago.

The problem, she explains, is that Sweden’s schools are often put on the front lines of integration without the resources to adequately cope with the challenge.

“When you have lots of new immigrants come to the school, it can be very difficult for the principals and the teachers to deal with,” she explains.

Read also: Hans Rosling: 'No such thing as Swedish values'

“If you want to do things right, you have to put a lot of resources into educating those children, who quite often have parents who don’t know how to read or write. That places a huge demand on schools.” 

Recently, the integration challenges facing Sweden’s schools have been overshadowed by discussion of what to do about the poor performance of Swedish students on the OECD’s global Pisa education ranking.

Bergström believes Swedish schools are too often marked by a false egalitarianism and suffer from a lack of leadership.

“I’m not going to condemn the Swedish school system. There are a lot of really dedicated people out there, but it comes down to leadership. People need to know who the leader is,” she explains.

“The teacher is not the student’s buddy; the teacher is someone you look up to. I’m not putting teachers on a pedestal, but I’m not putting them on an equal level with the students either. There has to be adult authority and supervision in a school.” 

While Sweden’s educational establishment remains tied in knots about school quality, Bergström has a homespun method for assessing a school’s learning environment.

“I visit the toilet. That tells you what you want to know,” she says.

As a firm believer that attention to detail is an important indicator of quality, Bergström recalls how she was once the one scrubbing toilets after taking a peek at the loo ahead of an open house at one of her schools.

“It wasn’t up to snuff, so I cleaned the damn toilet,” she recalls.

“And I’m not above cleaning toilets; I’m not above picking up stuff. If I can do that, and ask a student to give me a helping hand, that sets the tone.”

'Everyone’s favourite second language'

Bergström agrees that IES’s continued growth and popularity likely reflects Sweden’s increasing internationalization, both in terms of more foreigners moving to the country, but also in terms of the realization that a command of English is “key to the world”.

“English is everyone’s favourite second language,” she says with a smile, adding that IES also makes an effort to recruit native speakers of other languages taught at the school.

“IES schools are a reflection of today’s world; a mixture of kids and teachers with different backgrounds and nationalities. The energy this creates is a wonderful thing to see.”

This article is part of an ongoing series produced by The Local in partnership with ConnectSweden

Related links:

For more news from Sweden, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Today's headlines
Swedish photographer shot near Mosul
Hansen was being operated on in the Iraqi city of Erbil on Sunday. Photo: Nora Lorek/ TT

Paul Hansen, a photographer working for Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, has sustained light injuries after being hit by what appears to be a sniper while covering the battle for the Isis-held city of Mosul in Iraq.

Trollhättan remembers school attack victims
'It was an attack on all of Sweden,' Education Minister Gustav Fridolin said. Photo: Thomas Johansson/ TT

Hundreds of people on Saturday turned out for a torchlight procession in the small town of Trollhättan in southwestern Sweden to honour the victims of last year’s deadly school attack there.

Sweden wants emission-free cars in EU by 2030
Photo: Jessica Gow/ TT

Sweden's environment minister on Saturday urged the European Union to ban petrol and diesel-powered vehicles from 2030.

Hundreds protest Swedish asylum laws
Around 1,000 people protested in Stockholm. Photo: Fredrik Persson/ TT

Hundreds of people on Saturday demonstrated in Stockholm and in many other parts of the country to protest Sweden’s tough new laws on asylum-seekers.

Dylan removes Nobel-mention from website
The American musician has more or less responded to the news with silence. Photo: Per Wahlberg

American singer-song writer Bob Dylan has removed any mention of him being named one of this year’s Nobel Prize laureates on his official website.

Refugee crisis
Asylum requests in Sweden down by 70 percent
Sweden's migration minister Morgan Johansson. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

Sweden received 70 percent fewer requests for asylum in the period between January and September 2016 than it did during the same time last year, the country’s justice and migration minister Morgan Johansson has revealed.

The unique story of Stockholm's floating libraries
The Stockholm archipelago book boat. Photo: Roger Hill.

Writer Roger Hill details his journeys on the boats that carry books over Stockholm's waterways and to its most remote places.

Refugee crisis
Second Stockholm asylum centre fire in a week
The new incident follows a similar fire in Fagersjö last week (pictured). Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Police suspect arson in the blaze, as well as a similar incident which occurred last Sunday.

More misery for Ericsson as losses pile up
Ericsson interim CEO Jan Frykhammar presenting its third quarter results. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

The bad news just keeps coming from the Swedish telecoms giant.

Facebook 'sorry' for removing Swedish cancer video
A computer displaying Facebook's landing page. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

The social media giant had censored a video explaining how women should check for suspicious lumps in their breasts.

Sponsored Article
This is Malmö: Football capital of Sweden
Fury at plans that 'threaten the IB's survival' in Sweden
Sponsored Article
Where is the Swedish music industry heading?
Here's where it could snow in central Sweden this weekend
Analysis & Opinion
Are we just going to let half the country die?
Blog updates

6 October

10 useful hjälpverb (The Swedish Teacher) »

"Hej! I think the so-called “hjalpverb” (auxiliary verbs in English) are a good way to get…" READ »


8 July

Editor’s blog, July 8th (The Local Sweden) »

"Hej readers, It has, as always, been a bizarre, serious and hilarious week in Sweden. You…" READ »

Sponsored Article
7 reasons you should join Sweden's 'a-kassa'
Angry elk chases Swede up a lamp post
Sponsored Article
Why you should 'grab a chair' on Stockholm's tech scene
The Local Voices
'Alienation in Sweden feels better: I find myself a stranger among scores of aliens'
People-watching: October 20th
The Local Voices
A layover at Qatar airport brought this Swedish-Kenyan couple together - now they're heading for marriage
Sponsored Article
Stockholm: creating solutions to global challenges
Swede punches clown that scared his grandmother
Sponsored Article
Swedish for programmers: 'It changed my life'
Fans throw flares and enter pitch in Swedish football riot
Could Swedish blood test solve 'Making a Murderer'?
Sponsored Article
Top 7 tips to help you learn Swedish
Property of the week: Linnéstaden, Gothenburg
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Swedish school to build gender neutral changing room
People-watching: October 14th-16th
Sponsored Article
'There was no future for me in Turkey'
Man in Sweden assaulted by clowns with broken bottle
Sponsored Article
‘Extremism can't be defeated on the battlefield alone’
Nobel Prize 2016: Literature
Sponsored Article
Stockholm: creating solutions to global challenges
Watch the man who discovered Bob Dylan react to his Nobel Prize win
Sponsored Article
Why you should 'grab a chair' on Stockholm's tech scene
Record numbers emigrating from Sweden
Sponsored Article
'There was no future for me in Turkey'
People-watching: October 12th
Sponsored Article
Where is the Swedish music industry heading?
The Local Voices
'Swedish startups should embrace newcomers' talents - there's nothing to fear'
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
How far right are the Sweden Democrats?
Property of the week: Triangeln, Malmö
Sweden unveils Europe's first elk hut
People-watching: October 7th-9th
The Local Voices
Syria's White Helmets: The Nobel Peace Prize would have meant a lot, but pulling a child from rubble is the greatest reward
Missing rune stone turns up in Sweden
Nobel Prize 2016: Chemistry
jobs available