I doubt many would argue that a successful teaching practice needs to be reflective. However, in our daily teaching lives, educators are so absorbed in planning, teaching, assessing, mentoring... you name it, that it becomes very difficult to make the time to be reflective in the most productive way.
Having over three months to fully immerse myself in the Finnish education system to conduct meaningful, authentic research, which I can use to inform my own practice as well as my colleagues’ in the United States, has been priceless. It has allowed me to gain insights from major thinkers in my field, as well as come to new understandings based on observation, reflection and application. Every teacher should have this opportunity to grow and develop.
I was fortunate to recently have a few meaningful conversations with Viljo Kohonen, a retired professor from the University of Tampere, who is basically the resident teacher-as-researcher expert in Southern Finland. In one of our conversations, he figuratively equated teaching with being in a river. He explained that when you are submersed in the process of teaching, it is very difficult to worry about much else. Swirling currents in the form of students’ varying needs, motivations, and skills are constantly pulling you in multiple directions and it is only with great pre-planning and skill that a teacher can successfully navigate those waters. However, from inside the classroom, it is also very difficult to take a critical look at what is happening; too much effort is being expended trying to keep everything flowing smoothly.
It is only by having the opportunity to take a step out of the current, that teachers have the time to come to new theoretical conceptualizations about their practice: the direction they have been headed, the adjustments they would like to make and how they would like to plot the course for the future. The Fulbright has provided me with such an opportunity and I have learned so much already.
One of the most prominent things I have observed as I interviewed Finnish teachers, university professors, teacher trainees, and students, is the sense of community created within the walls of the schools here in Finland. From the relatively small number of pupils in each school and classroom, to the hot, made-on-premises meals served to children twice a day with real utensils, plates and glasses, school community is fostered in many ways in Finland. In one interview, a teacher trainee recalled the cook at her school by saying "she cooked for us everyday, and did so happily…she loved us all." Idealistic? Yes. but much of what creates the sense of community in the schools is systematic and built into the structure of how they are run. For example, in every secondary school I visited, students were given fifteen minutes between classes to relax with their friends. You can’t imagine how that little detail changes school culture. It is respectful of the students' time, the teachers' time and the learning process in general. In fact, the concept of rushing through anything, the day, a lesson, was so far removed from the school structure -a claim I certainly couldn't make about my school in New York, where students are given 5 minutes to navigate their way through a sea of other students to move from one forty-five minute class to the next while teachers and security guards move them along hurriedly.
In Finland, especially in primary school, teachers generally move with their students from year to year, so there is a real sense of continuity in education, which only adds to the positive environment in the schools. For example, a teacher may teach the same students for first, second and third grade, before returning to teach a new batch of first graders in the fourth year. This is beneficial for two reasons: that teacher develops a very close and personal relationship with the students and their families, making them better able to identify areas of need, and it eliminates gaps in learning.
Teachers also collaborate a great deal, enhancing the professional community as well. Time for reflection is literally built into their day, even if only in the fifteen minutes they have in between classes to process what just happened and make adjustments. While trained at the university level, teachers are taught how to conduct meaningful, qualitative research about strategies and methodology, which many teachers internalize and carry with them throughout their careers.
Not only has the Fulbright given me the opportunity to step out of my own river, but I have been able to spend time seeing how others are navigating theirs. As I prepare to head back to the United States and formulate ways to share the new knowledge and insights I have gained, I am so grateful for this time I have been given and feel so prepared to return to my own classroom and dive back in!
Read Christine's own blog in http://christinemccartney.net/.
Christine McCartney is a U.S. teacher and now a Distinguished Fulbright Teacher, given a chance to take part in an intensive professional development program for three to six months abroad. Distinguished Fulbright Awards in Teaching Program are administrated by The Institute of International Education (IIE) andsponsored by the United States Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.