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Teaching for Social Justice

By: Susan Feibelman

Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons  (2011) drives home the point that Finnish culture serves to contextualize the educational reforms starting mid-20th century and gaining momentum in the 1970s onward. His description of the Finnish “phenomenon” makes me wonder once more how the culture of our US schools —Finnish, US public, charter, and independent schools serve to contextualize our values and beliefs about what constitutes an effective, equity driven educational system. Looking through the lens of an independent school educator-leader, I know that although each independent school has its own purposefully crafted mission statement, frequently the statements share a lexicon that include words and phrases such as: character, academic, empower, passions, potential, lifelong commitment, individual growth, social responsibility, ethical, effective citizenship, inclusive, respect, service, inspire, courage, and leaders. In one sense having a vocabulary as a common denominator suggests that from the outside looking in our schools have more in common with each other than their location, student bodies, and size suggest. But there’s also that 10% difference in each school’s DNA that serves to define the discourse that takes place between and amongst the members of the school community.

I continue to wrestle with the legacy of privilege that many US independent schools share, so I approach this week curious about the strategies used by the Finnish school system to promote equity and justice for all students and families. As US independent school wrestle with various models of teaching and learning that build a culture of community and cooperation, what habits of mind have informed the practices of Finnish teachers and principals who pride themselves on creating highly collaborative school climates?  What role does the leader play in fostering this culture? How is school leadership defined and how is it enacted in Finnish schools? How does an educator’s social identity map onto leadership and the culture of organizations?

What excites me about our team is that we  represent an array of diverse perspectives, which inform the lenses we will employ to explore schools and engage Finnish colleagues in dialogue this week.  But we also share vocabulary, values and beliefs that enable us to challenge each other’s engagement and sense-making as teachers, school leaders, and researchers. Thank you to Joe Mazza, University of Pennsylvania’s GSE/Mid-Career Program and our Finnish colleagues for support our investigation.


6 Comments

  1. Mark Hale says:

    “…each independent school has its own purposefully crafted mission statement, frequently the statements share a lexicon that include words and phrases such as: character, academic, empower, passions, potential, lifelong commitment, individual growth, social responsibility, ethical, effective citizenship, inclusive, respect, service, inspire, courage, and leaders.”

    Susan, I’ll be interested to learn what descriptors you will hear from the Finnish educators along these lines and will be surprised if they are very different from those you’ve listed. And, I agree… it’s the 10% factor that makes the difference between schools…. but, I wonder if the 10% is really a a larger percentage …

    • I would be interested to learn if you observe the wide range of student differences we see in public schools in the US along with the challenging array of students with disabilities we are encouraged to serve in our general education classrooms.

      • All teacher education students take special education courses as part of their preparation and Finnish schools include “well-organised special education (inclusion) and counseling” as an essential ingredient in their efforts to achieve educational equality for all students. We are visiting a school on Thursday whose student body is 25% special needs learners–School Kkouluoulumestarin. We are eager to learn more about their inclusion practices.

    • If we read across mission statements, I think independent schools in the United States begin to seem quite similar. The Finnish educators we met with today, which included Jari Lavonen, head of the teacher education department at the University of Helsinki and Pasi Sahlberg, from the ministry of education, claim they are not concerned with creating school that are the most distinctive or unique, but rather strive to create great schools for all children.

  2. Olli Maatta says:

    Susan I admire your ability to concisely address the core. You’re right when quoting as well as the greatest mission and accomplishment-if you wish-regarding the education system in Finland as embedded equity and equality without the deteriorating setbacks of striving for excellence. The introduction of the public comprehensive school in 1970s has proved to the most profitable decision ever made. Its pay off for the nation has been depicted as the civil rights issue of numerous generations. Every child is given the opportunity to be educated by rigorously trained professionals in a safe and democratic setting. Nevertheless, the always existing but remains. We’re not there yet. This “there” needs to be defined.Thus in our connected world the answer truly comprises a genuine interest in global collaboration. Your pennfinn13 example is benchmarking and challenging our views. What an amazing mission we’re heading to! Let’s focus on the future of our children. Are we trustworthy enough for that?

  3. After a week of engaging conversations with Finnish educators and students I am even more confident that it is the process that defines the success of our work. I believe that together we have begun an important journey. Thanks for being a part of this work, Olli.

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