Teachers around the world have had their eyes on Finland for years. It’s hard to believe that only thirty years ago, the United States performed nearly on par with Finland on comparisons of international assessment scores. Now, Finland is running circles (and climbing trees!) around us with their academic achievement.
As if that wasn’t enough already, their teachers and students are happier, too.
Now, it would be unfair (and untrue) to say that if you went to Finland tomorrow, you could head back to your school and single-handedly solve all of the problems there. These problems require large-scale change – and they require all stakeholders to be all-in, all the time.
In fact, I would add that the believed and propagated belief that teachers should be martyrs and superheroes, spending all of their time, money and energy on the cause, is part of our downfall. Indeed – teaching isn’t just a “calling” – it’s a profession! And professions require constant innovation, skill-building and investment.
It will take more than a conference, more than a week of school observations, and more than even the most heartfelt conversation with Finnish educators to start systematic and sustainable change in the U.S. and elsewhere. But, it isn’t a bad place to start.
All that said, Finland is an absolute teacher pilgrimage. But before I explain why, let’s address the many and completely valid concerns a teacher might have about taking a personal and professional development trip to Finland.
- Finland is expensive. Ironically, Finland isn’t the most affordable (and therefore, accessible) destination for teachers. Lodging can be expensive, flights from the United States can reach or exceed a thousand dollars, and meals are pricier in Nordic countries than elsewhere in Europe. When you’re making only $30,000 or so per year, it becomes difficult to justify spending $2,000 or more to spend a school break in a foreign country. Speaking of those sparse school breaks…
- Time is precious and always too limited. Let’s say you’re one of those blessed teachers who lives and works in a state that cares about teachers. Maybe having a healthy salary isn’t your problem, but taking two days of travel, and using your whole break to learn and grow has you on the fence. I get that, too! No matter how fun it is, a full day can be tiring. A full week can be downright exhausting. I’ll talk about how to combat that, and how our trips allow time for rest (shameless plug!).
- Personal relationships need nurturing, too. When you’re in the business of nurturing and teaching others, your personal relationships can often be pushed to the wayside. Your spouse or partner may or may not understand your working late due to addenda commitments, meetings, committee activities, community events, parent-teacher conferences, grading… the requirements just go on and on.
Perhaps they do understand, but they’re still just sad that they don’t get to spend as much time with you as they’d like. You surely feel like that, too! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been conflicted, because I was asked to do something “for the kids.” Mentally, I always respond with, “What about my husband? What about my family?” The fire of anger is further fueled by the added, “You don’t have kids yet; you can do it,” …as if to say my time and life has less value than my peers who have kids! I get that being a parent is an incredible sacrifice and commitment, but my husband is still my family. You don’t start a family when you have kids; you expand it.
So when asked or told to do these things, part of me is immediately hit with a ping of guilt for being “selfish with my time – while the other fumes with righteous indignation that administrators feel it’s OK to use students to emotionally manipulate teachers into doing more. But, I digress. All this to say, I COMPLETELY get where you’re coming from if you worry about going on a trip during your rare break, and taking more time away from loved ones. Guess what, though? I have a solution for that, too! 😉
- Finns speak… well, Finnish! This is true, as Finnish is the main national language of Finland. You may or may not be surprised to learn that many Finns speak English as a second or third language. Of course, learning and dropping a phrase or two in Finnish will always be appreciated, but every Finn I’ve met so far is eager to help in your native tongue, so long as they know it.
- Finland is cold and dark in March. I can’t debate you there. Our trip to Helsinki this coming March to observe schools and network with Finnish teachers, is happening on the shoulder of late winter/early Spring. Temperatures will likely be in the 30s/40s farenheit – so it will be a different kind of break, for sure! But if you’re not sold on a Finnish winter wonderland, check out these photos. And if you’re if you’re lucky enough to have more than a week off for Spring Break, a trip to the Finnish Lapland is an ABSOLUTE MUST.
Now, like I said – the reasons listed above are completely valid and logical. Cost, time, barriers, relationships, abilities and personal preferences are important to consider for any kind of trip. However! There are just so many reasons TO go! Let’s talk about those.
- Finland has led the world in education for almost twenty years now. It’s hard to believe it now – but only thirty years ago, Finland and the United States were on par with each other regarding academic achievement. Now – we educators know that tests can’t tell you everything. There are so many other, better ways to assess whether or not students are learning. But that’s not the only way they’re excelling. Poor and rich schools? They don’t exist. Reading fluency and math proficiency? The norm. Politicians discrediting while simultaneously directing teachers? Doesn’t happen. In the United States, many states are under 50% for reading proficiency. Some, like my home state of Arizona, are under 30%. Speaking of reading fluency. Meanwhile, in Finland…
- Finnish kids are fluent readers by the end of their first year in school. This is something I am personally interested in exploring and studying. How do they accomplish this? Which reading instruction strategies are the most effective? Are these results replicable? I will be sure to share what I find with the Traveling Teachers community!
- Teachers are well-respected in Finland. This is really key, because it affects every facet of the education system. Teachers, parents and students are all on the same page. All stakeholders are equally and fully invested in each student’s future and current education, as they understand just how widespread the effects are of a good education for the next generation. This in turn means that the profession of education is respected. Being a teacher isn’t just something you can randomly decide to be one day. There is rigorous education and training, and their needs are taken care of. While the teacher salaries in Finland tend to be lower than the teacher salaries in the U.S., things like exorbitant health insurance premiums and student loans don’t exist – so more dollars go into bettering the lives of teachers and their families.
In contrast, American teachers are met with opposition at every turn – political representatives, the White House administration, teachers, parents and school leadership all seem to make decisions that directly counter the best interests of students and teachers. Sometimes, this lack of respect and acknowledgement of our professional knowledge can even come from fellow teachers. We can find ourselves questioning whether or not or daily efforts are worthy of respect, or worth the disrespect. Though going to Finland isn’t going to negate any systematic devaluation of the teaching profession, it can help us to remember just what a dedicated and effective educator is capable of.
- Everyone is happier. We live in a strange time. We have every kind of knowledge and convenience at our fingertips. We have the capability of learning or doing anything – of speaking with anyone in the world, regardless of how far away they live or what language both parties speak. And yet, there’s a lack of connection. A vacuum of intimacy. We are inundated with causes to champion, bills to pay and problems to solve, which leads to a constant drain on our money and time. And this is of course on top of all the standard duties and responsibilities of being an educator. This doesn’t include the myriad of addenda opportunities there are – student council, coaching, fine arts, musical theater, language lessons, tutoring… it’s enough to make one’s head spin. There always seems to be at least one more thing vying for your time, and you’re villanized if you say no, because it’s “for the kids.”
This is not to say that we shouldn’t do those things, or be willing to do at least some of those things. But we seem to be under the illusion that we are never doing enough as educators. I’ve seen teachers try to out-do each other by volunteering for more activities, hoping that their principal will notice them and add that to their evaluation – in order to get an effectiveness bonus, or feel more secure about their job for the following year.
It is not enough to do a few things well. Instead, we feel pressured to over-schedule and over-burden ourselves to prove how much of a martyr we are. This is not the norm in any other profession. Doctors do not need to volunteer their time to prove that they care for their patients. Of course it’s appreciated when practitioners sign up for something like Doctors Without Borders, but it isn’t expected. Lawyers aren’t expected to teach children’s church on Sunday, coach basketball on Monday, and bring cookies to a bake sale on Wednesday. And this doesn’t even address the looming elephant in the room of, “What about teacher families?”
This is something I feel personally, especially considering I am one of the youngest teachers at my school. I want to contribute, but I feel guilty when I don’t. Other teachers expect me to help because I don’t have my kids yet, but I still have a husband, and I hardly see him between our demanding schedules.
Teachers shouldn’t expect Finland’s education to be perfect, or even a paragon for morality – but if you resonate with what I just described, maybe you can bring a different perspective and hope to your school. We know that the climate and culture of a school might be the most important indicator of teacher and student happiness, AND academic success. There is a reason each stakeholder is so happy there. I plan to explore that more, and bring back as much info as I can. That alone is a fantastic reason to visit Finland. Everyone could use an improved quality of life!
- Teachers should choose their own professional development. We are visiting schools through a local program by eduFINN. I am a firm believer that the education profession requires teachers to be lifelong learners to be effective and successful (heck – I’d argue that everyone should be a lifelong learner to earn those results!). It can be discouraging, however, to be told from others who don’t even seen you for more than a few minutes a day, exactly what you need to be better. A little self-reflection goes a long way. When we’re honest with ourselves, we can usually see just what it is we need.
If that’s something you struggle with, I encourage you to find a great mentor, or some uplifting teacher friends – even if they’re not at your school. Invite them to observe your teaching, or even send them a video of your teaching (with consent from school officials and parents, of course). When you discover exactly what it is you need to improve in, or better yet – when you find what fascinates you about education, it is both humbling and empowering at the same time to be able to explore that. If you’ve never experienced that before, Finland could be an amazing first for you!
- Relaxation is enjoyable for everyone, but necessary for teachers. We live a life of service. We pour ourselves out for everyone else – our students, our families, and our schools. Everyone needs to recharge once in a while, but since teachers tend to have a much higher workload (and therefore, stress-load) than others, that downtime is even more critical. Many professional development tours and programs do not allow enough time for teachers to explore, relax and rest. Taking a week or more to go to Finland allows a wonderful balance of learning what you’re interested in, while still taking time for yourself. These items are equally important.
These are just a few reasons that have been in my mind for a few years now, and it was enough to make me book the flight. I’m so convinced that it will be helpful, in fact, that I have created a very affordable program teachers can join in on!
If you’d like to come with us, check out our tour page.
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