I arrived in Finland three months ago and everyday has been an opportunity to learn something new and reflect on my own teaching practice in Minnesota. The Fulbright Distinguished Teaching Award could not have come at a better time for me. I have been teaching social studies for nine years and while some parts of my job have been getting easier, there are still many questions I have about teaching and learning. These questions are often lost in paperwork, grading, and surviving day-to-day in my classroom.
I use the word “surviving” deliberately after having an opportunity to observe multiple high school classrooms and talking with teachers in Finland. For all of the political rhetoric in the United States about how little teachers work, my experience has been contrary. During the nine-month school year I easily put in 60 hours a week. This includes lesson planning, grading, meeting with support staff, helping students before and after school, and advising school clubs. These hours do not mean that I do not enjoy my job.
The one thing that I have missed the most since being in Finland are my students. They are the reason that I come to work every day. Even on the most challenging days, seeing students smile, learn, and tell quirky jokes is enough to realize that I am in the right place. But if I had to use one word to describe my American colleagues it would be “stressed”. Many of the stressors have little to do with the classroom but with administration, district initiatives, and parents. According to the United States National Center for Educational Statistics, 50% of teachers leave the job in the first five years.
The teachers I have met in Finland are not just surviving. They are thriving.
Finnish teachers are thoughtful and well-prepared professionals. Teacher-preparation programs offer a balance of theory and practice. There are only eight education programs with highly competitive admissions. Each program has a comprehensive and upper secondary school affiliated directly with the university. Here practicing teachers act as mentors for the pre-service teachers and dialogue regularly. Class sizes are small, allowing budding teachers to develop confidence in the art and science of teaching. By the end of their preparation programs all teachers have their master’s degrees and they have completed more hours of classroom teaching and reflection than the average pre-service American teacher.
When a teacher is hired full-time, there is no concern about the quality of their education degree. The programs across the country create top rate teachers; this also ensures that all students receive a quality educational experience regardless of the socioeconomic status of their neighborhood. Many administrators also teach classes and work as partners with teachers. Evaluations and walk-throughs are not a part of Finnish school systems. Parents also respect teachers, they expect their children to talk to teachers if they have a problem and take responsibility for their own learning.
Teachers are reflective about their practice and discussions about pedagogy take place in informal ways throughout the day during breaks between classes. Teachers gather in the office for a quick chat and a cup of coffee before their next lesson. On average, teachers have less contact time with students freeing up time during the day for duties many American teachers take home. Teachers may leave school when their lessons are completed for the day even if that is before the day ends. All of these factors create a calm and supportive environment for teachers and students to excel. It also explains why only 10-15% of teachers leave the job before retirement.
Being a part of the Fulbright program has been rejuvenating and I look forward to sharing all that I have learned with my district and state. I don’t yet know how much I will be able to change. I do know that being in Finland has shown me what is possible when teachers are well prepared and supported by their school, community, and government.
Text: Crystal Polski