I had the honor to be one of two teachers from Finland selected to participate in the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program in 2015. The program allowed me and sixteen other teachers from around the world to spend the fall semester at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. The past four months consisted of many amazing experiences, interesting school visits, studying and completing an inquiry project, and learning about the American culture and society in many ways.
One of the main components of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program is the completion of an inquiry project. I focused on differentiated instruction and while working on my project, I got the chance to visit fifteen schools in five U.S. states, in Indiana, Illinois, Connecticut, New York, and California. Visiting schools in different areas from coast to coast also allowed me to get a better understanding of the U.S. educational system. I could notice many similarities but also differences between Finnish and American schools.
Coming from Finland where a lot of attention is paid to providing everyone with equal opportunities in education and all schools are therefore very similar, I found it interesting to see that there isn’t actually such a thing as a typical American school. The school systems vary slightly from state to state, and schools also differ from area to area, meaning that schools located in wealthier areas usually have more resources than schools in poorer neighborhoods. There is also a variety of different types of schools. Besides the regular public schools, there are many so called charter and magnet schools which are more independent and they often provide a specialized curriculum. For example, I visited some project-based charter schools. They are quite popular and students are normally chosen to these schools through a lottery. I also got to visit impressive private schools, which are options for those who can afford their high tuition fees.
While Finnish children and students do not take any standardized tests until at the very end of their upper secondary education, in the United States students are tested many times a year starting at elementary school. I understood that the standardized tests cause a lot of pressure not only on the students but also on teachers and schools as well. Finnish children can focus more on learning without the additional pressure.
What I found wonderful was the number of different extracurricular activities, such as music, sports and academic clubs that most American high schools provide their students. In Finland young people join different clubs in their communities, whereas in the U.S. they can also do a lot of different things for free at school after their regular classes. Most American schools also offer many different level classes for their students, for example honors and AP (Advanced Placement) classes, which means students can take college-level classes at high school. That is something that is not so common in Finland.
Even though there are some differences between the Finnish and American school systems, in both countries teachers seem to be equally dedicated, hardworking, and doing their very best to help students get excited about learning. I am really grateful to all the teachers who so warmly welcomed me into their schools and classrooms and shared their ideas and views on education.
The semester was an incredibly enriching experience in many other ways too. I am very glad I got to learn more about the American culture and everyday life, experience different holidays, such as Halloween and Thanksgiving, and see many sports and cultural events on the beautiful campus in Bloomington. It was also amazing to get to travel to different cities around the country, such as Chicago, Indianapolis, New York, Washington, D.C., San Diego, and San Francisco. Most importantly I feel lucky to have met so many wonderful people during my stay in the United States, both Americans and international teachers. I truly believe I got to experience Fulbright to the fullest, and I’m very grateful to the Fulbright Program for making this all possible.
Text: Taru Pohtola
You can read more about Taru’s experiences in her blog: tarup2015.blogspot.com