Fulbright Findings

Respect, Freedom, and Trust

The joyous children of Haapalan school

What happens in a school system that treats its teachers so well that there is a competition to enter teacher education programs? A competition that in some places is more challenging than being accepted into medical school? What happens is a stable and healthy school system.

In the month I have been in Finland I have spoken to teachers, students, education officials, professors, and non-profit organization leaders. I am only scratching the surface. But it seems to me that the foundation of this very successful school system is to trust the human capital to do what they have been trained to do.

Preparation

You have to earn a master’s degree to be a teacher in Finland. Teacher training involves conducting research and you are required to produce a Bachelor’s thesis as well as a Master’s one. So not only do you enter the university system as a well-prepared tri-lingual student (Finns speak three languages: Finnish, Swedish, and English), but you do not have to stress about paying for your schooling, because college is free.

Work

As a teacher, there is no uniform schedule of teaching. School days can last anywhere from 4-6 hours. Kindergarten is still kindergarten and unstructured play time for students begins before they ever step foot into elementary schools.
Music, arts, and crafts are required in the curriculum
The National Curriculum is a guide, not a rope that will be used to strangle creativity from you. Every school can implement the curriculum in a way that meets local needs. And within the school, each teacher can further tailor it to meet the needs of students. There will never be a test score that is used to judge your performance as a teacher, because Finland knows that that is not what standardized tests were designed to do in the first place. And it violates the trust that is placed in educators to be the experts in their content and in their profession.
Sometimes teachers meet in department rooms during the break. They do not stay in their rooms, isolated.

Pay

You will not be rich as a teacher in Finland, but the stratification of social classes is not a goal that is pursued here. The principal is just as respected as a teacher. They are considered partners in education along with teachers. When you factor in the cost of free health care and not having college tuition, a decent salary with generous parental leave is more than enough for many teachers.
You will not spend money on sending your own children to private schools because there are very few private schools in Finland. The vast a majority of Finns send their children to the local public school. There are no magnet schools or charter schools. It behooves the entire populace to make sure schools get the funding they need.

Student break area, designed with student input

Breaks

Not only do students benefit from a 15 minute break for every hour of schooling (or some variation thereof,) but teachers do as well. Break rooms have generous amounts of coffee and tea, and faculty members bring snacks to share with each other. The break room is a place you want to go, and work is not usually discussed there. In other words, it resembles…a break.  Now in elementary schools, some teachers each lunch in the cafeteria with the younger children, to teach them manners and healthy eating habits. A warm lunch is provided, and it is well-balanced.  And it is free for students and teachers.

Snack time features yogurt and berries
Teacher break room, Jyvaskyla Lab School



Teachers having lunch with students, Haapalan School

Kids actually excited for a healthy lunch
At a time when enrollment in US teacher education programs, we are bending over backwards trying to figure out how to encourage teachers to enter the field.  We have shot ourselves in the foot by making our profession unattractive to young professionals with college degrees, saddled with student loan debt. Working conditions in some US schools can be challenging, that no one in their right mind would commit to such an environment. Nor should they.

What if we incorporated some best practices from our colleagues in other countries, not just Finland? I have a few that might make a difference:
  •  Redefine instruction in California-we have laws that dictate a minimum amount of instructional minutes, and school schedules are based on those. What if time spent outdoors, unstructured and free, would be included in that calculation? Spending time recharging your batteries has been proven to improve student performance and gives teachers much needed breaks as well. AND learning about our environment connects with so many academic standards; literature, geography, science, and art.
    •  For teachers worried about mischief during breaks: you could actually teach lessons on appropriate behavior during break time, since many students entering K-12 have not had the benefit of pre-school to practice social skills.
  • Return play-time to kindergarten and the early grades. So much is learned in those years, such as sharing, negotiation, using your imagination, language, and physical activity. Have you noticed we have an obesity problem? Kids need to move around and learn how to entertain themselves. Cell phones as entertainment is frightening to watch in toddlers and later on with primary grade students.
  • Uplift the teaching profession. Do you work at a think tank? Are you an "education reformer?" Do you have concerns about the teachers' union? This negative reporting is making young college educated teaching candidates reluctant and unwilling to enter a profession that is so maligned. 
  • Improve the physical school environment. The students’ learning environment is the teachers’ working environment. Involve teachers in decision making. LAUSD implemented Breakfast in the Classroom without teacher input. Any teacher could have told you that starting this program would bring a whole host of new problems to an already challenging environment. Our schools have suffered from the additional toll of grime and pests that is demoralizing.


I will stop there, because it is February and my opinions might change by June when my Fulbright is done. But these are definitely thoughts that are brewing in my mind and I travel through Finland, getting to know this fantastic country and it’s schools.

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