04 April 2024

Helen Winzell grew up in a home where both parents were teachers. To follow in their footsteps was not on her agenda – until the day she substituted for her mother. This was a turning point. Passionate about teaching since then, she now receives Ingemars Lärarpris – Sweden’s largest teaching award. 

A person laughs.
"It's absolutely fantastic and completely improbable," says Helen Winzell, this year's winner of the Ingemars Lärarpris. Anna Nilsen

We have snuck away to a teaching room in the Key Building on Campus Valla. It has been a few days since associate professor Helen Winzell received the phone call informing her that she will be the third winner of Ingemars Lärarpris – the country’s largest teaching award, which is awarded every two years to an employee at Linköping University. When she hung up the phone, one late night on a commuter train, she could not quite understand that it was true. She still cannot.

“No, no! It can’t be true! But it’s absolutely fantastic. I think it’s some kind of confirmation of the commitment I have to teaching.” 

A person explains.
"When measures one, two and three don't work, then you have to try something new". It's about making use of the golden nuggets". Anna Nilsen


AI is a benefit

If you get an hour with Helen Winzell, you will be left in no doubt of her strong commitment. She is full of thoughts and suggestions for solutions. We swing between topics; from why functional writing is super important from a democratic perspective to how AI should be seen as a benefit instead of a threat in education. And not least how wonderful it is when the penny drops.
This was what made her choose the teaching profession. Growing up in a small village in Medelpad, with parents who were both teachers, she had promised herself not to follow in their footsteps.

“I had seen the downsides of the profession. My mum had long days at school, and dad worked late at night because he wanted to be there for me when he got home from work.”

But one day, when she was 18 years old and substituted for her mother, the turning point came. One student had not really understood a task – until Helen explained it.

“When I saw something happening in the student’s eyes, it was just like wow! I had grown up with pedagogical conversations and thought they were interesting, but certainly not more. I was going to be a science illustrator or something like that – but experiencing this moment was a complete turning point.”

Proud on behalf of the students

After some time in Karlstad and other places, she finally landed in Linköping in the early 2000s and graduated with a degree in upper secondary education (English and Swedish). That she would study Swedish was not obvious either.

“I found Swedish really boring when I was at school. We had a teacher who would just browse a newspaper and ask us to ‘read pages 122 to 143 of our book’. That was sort of my Swedish education.”

When Helen Winzell herself started meeting students, she wanted to be the exact opposite. For several years she was a Swedish teacher at what was then called the individual programme at the upper secondary school Anders Ljungstedts Gymnasium in Linköping. There were a lot of social issues in the background. Managing to get young people to go from barely writing one sentence on a postcard to writing several A4 pages was rewarding.

“But most of all, I felt proud on behalf of the students. The life of teaching is about gamifying the world a little bit, you have to try to get students to pass the course and then you need to find your tricks. When concept one, two and three don’t work, then you have to try something new. You need to take advantage of the gems that exist and see what can be made of them.” 

A person laughs.
What will Helen Winzell do with the prize money of one million= Probably go down in time and write a couple of textbooks.Anna Nilsen


Doctoral studies at LiU

After about ten years as an upper secondary school teacher, Helen Winzell wanted to move on, and in 2011 she started doing her PhD and teaching Swedish at LiU. She defended her thesis in 2018 and is currently an associate professor in educational work and head of the Division of Communication, Literature and Swedish. Several of the courses she teaches are part of the teaching programmes, where she aims to challenge a common picture of the profession as being about holding monological lectures and then handing out assignments to students.

“I see this in many new and future teachers. Something I try to apply when teaching, and as I have seen in my own research, is how important it is to ensure that content and students meet. That they sort of latch on to one another. So that it’s not just me standing and talking while the others in the classroom mostly think about what they saw in some clothing store or whether they’re going to break up with their boyfriend.”

But what is the best way to do this? What is a good teacher like?

“A good teacher wants to inspire and be where the students are. I think you have to ask questions that connect with their experiences and try to find situations or illustrations they recognise. Get them to talk to each other, to you as a teacher, make them think out loud and together build something collective.”

Using the money to write books

Ingemars Lärarpris is proof that Helen Winzell has managed to inspire and be an engine for students. In addition to a diploma, the award, which was instituted by Professor Emeritus Ingemar Ingemarsson, is SEK 1 million this year. She will receive the award at the Academic Celebrations on 1 June.

“Oh dear! What do you do with such an incredible award? I’m writing teaching material about how future Swedish upper secondary school teachers can develop how they teach writing skills. Hopefully, it will be ready soon and I feel like I have two more books that want to be written. I’m thinking of working a bit less to create calm and an opportunity to immerse myself in this.”

And finally, what is the best part of working at LiU?

“We need knowledge, but we can’t get it if we don’t have someone to lead the way. I want to be involved in building skills, individuals – and also society. Being a teacher, and especially on a teaching programme where I get to be part of building a new teacher who in turn will meet hundreds of students, is the most beautiful thing there is!”

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