When Typical Means Outstanding

Lunch room

With only a few weeks left on my Finnish Fulbright learning experience, I was eager to set a date to visit the other 2018 Finnish Fulbrighter's school near Tampere, FI. Sanna Leinonen is a well-known educational leader with over 20 years of experience teaching at Ylojarven Lukio, and a Fulbright teacher.

Every minute of every school visit is a learning experience.

Location

Motorbikes rule

Tractors get you there

Ylojarven is a town west of Tampere, and as such, it is the only local high school (Lukio) in the area. Students commute from rather long distances to get to the school. I was always tickled to see tractors in the parking lot belonging to those from a more rural background, but more often than not, I saw motor bikes and bicycles in the parking lot.

Staggered Arrivals and Flexible Schedules for Teachers

An American teacher's dream come true

Because each student's schedule is so customized, some students did not arrive to school until 10:00 am, or sometimes they had to leave class 20-30 minutes early. This always happened quietly and unobtrusively. In fact, when Sanna and I arrived to her classroom at 8:15 am, all the students were already there, sitting quietly, minding their own business.

The independence and responsibility of Finnish students is palpable.

Here's another difference from U.S. schools: if a teacher is done teaching for the day, they can go home. Or, if there are less students in the last quarter of the school year due to early completion of graduation requirements, the teacher may not have any classes scheduled on a given day. They can work from home on those days. Imaging giving teachers that much trust and leeway. It is no wonder they are the happiest nation on Earth.

This school had the shortest amount of break times for students, mostly due to the bus schedule that is fixed and does not allow for a longer school day. I wish I had the data on the variability of break time in Finland.

Foreign Exchange Students

Shiori and the crew invite me to lunch

During my California presentation, I mentioned that manga and anime were very popular among my South L.A. students, and that they are fascinated with Japanese culture. Immediately a student sat up and her face was beaming. Later on Shiori introduced herself to me as a foreign exchange student from Northern Japan. This was intriguing, because from my perspective, Finland and Japan share many similar characteristics: reserved people, efficient governmental systems, and excellent schools. This sweet student welcomed me into her friend group at lunch and all of them shared stories of what it is like to live in Finland.

On my second visit to Ylojarven, I also met students from the Dominican Republic and a Mexican-Finnish immigrant. So not only do students benefit from a high quality education, they are able to meet students from around the world as well.
Ran into Shiori again!

"I heard there were Latinos on campus"-Mauricio


Languages

To enhance learning, multiple foreign languages are offered such as English (required), Swedish (required), Spanish (optional), and Russian (optional). I visited a Spanish classroom and was impressed with the students' willingness to learn a fourth language and their talent in holding a conversation with me en espanol.
The smart quadrilingual students of Ylojarven Lukio, Alana, and Anri the fantastic Spanish teacher

Vocational School





As if highly qualified teachers, diverse programs, and responsible students weren't enough, Ylojarven Lukio offers a parallel education for vocational students. The facilities for this program were breathtaking. As with all things Finnish, there is a practical purpose to every aspect of schooling. Two key programs in the vocational school were mechanics and nursing. Each of these were taught by teachers that have previous real world experience in these fields. Local professionals are interviewed to see what skills they are seeking in workers, and then the programs are designed to meet those needs.

The beauty of the Finnish school system is that there is no tracking. Students can choose either an academic or vocational path, but at any time they can switch to the other. So a vocational school student can graduate high school and attend an academic university. And vice-versa.

On my second visit, I was fortunate to be able to bring my daughter Alana with me to share her perspective as a college student. What a treat for her to see the work I've been doing this semester! She had a strong connection with the students.

Sanna's students

GREAT questions, not enough time

Trust runs rampant in Finland


WESTSIDE in the house

Mother-daughter presentation

The kids were excited to meet someone from the actual Westside

Conclusion


None of my school visits would have been possible without the help of my Fulbright advisor Hanna Poylio of Niilo Maki Institute and the University of Jyvaskyla. This Finnish dynamo has an extreme depth of knowledge to how and why schools perform so well, and what the ups and downs of the system are. Her energy is contagious, and it is only thanks to her that I made it through the cold, dark winter months.

Sanna Leinonen gave me a glimpse as to what my own counterpart looks like in Finland. We both have similar years of experience, and we both traveled halfway across the world to immerse ourselves in another culture. I have found so many similarities between teachers in Finland and teachers in the U.S. Sometimes I heard them speaking Finnish in particular situations and it was like I knew what they were saying from the tone and the circumstances. I think it freaked the students out.
Sanna Leinonen

And yet as she drove me to and from the train station, we both spoke of what we most valued in the visits to each other's countries. I know for me, the greatest difference was the amount of respect that teachers receive in Finland. And how this translates into great faith in each and every public school. The concept of competition between schools is anathema to a successful school system and is truly baffling for Finnish teachers to understand.

It will be a great part of the last stage of my career to share Finnish wisdom and practicality with school leaders in the U.S.

Goals accomplished

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