By Kavan Yee
Trust is deeply rooted in the Finnish culture. From trusting their citizens to enter a trolley car and pay an automated machine; to the trustworthiness of cab drivers waiting patiently for a customer to withdraw cash to pay a fare; to the devotion of parents trusting in the professional training of every teacher to provide their children with the appropriate skills of learning and development; As a skeptical American, it’s hard to believe that Finns are (in fact) really trustworthy.
Trust must exist in schools. If progressives believe that the purpose of school is to develop citizens to participate in a democratic society, then the schools themselves need to model what democracy should look like in society. Ivan Krastev posed this question on a recent TED Talk: Can society exist without trust? I believe it cannot– that’s why Lincoln wrote that government should be “of the people, by the people, for the people”. So I ask: Is our human right to have a voice based on the principle that one must trust others to feel safe to say it? Pasi Sahlberg told me today that to support innovation and creativity, schools must “create a safe environment to allow an individual to take risks.” If we are given the responsibility as educators to do this, then we need to trust our students. No, really, trust our students: Trust them to make their own choices; trust them to make mistakes and learn from them; trust our students to take responsibility for their own learning; trust them to help make school decisions; in the words of Spike Lee, trust them to “Do the right thing”.
Today, I observed a school that instills this type of trust to all of their students. Helsinki Normal (grades 7-9) fosters an environment that allows students to express their individuality, take appropriate risks for growth, and feel independent while still feeling supported. When I asked a 7th grader what she felt was the “best thing about her school”, she replied: “The teachers of course. They’re chill. They are approachable and they don’t just tell us what to do.” As evidence of how teachers provide trust, she gave me the example of their “free time”. Throughout the course of a day, students will have 4 break periods (including lunch) in between 5 classes. It is at these breaks, students are allowed to roam freely throughout the school without supervision. During the lunch hour, students can elect to eat their lunch within the dining hall or in the hallways. This at first sounded really scary and dangerous for my conservative views towards student safety. But as she continued with her explanation, I realized that the teachers had laid a lot of groundwork or established expectations to reach this community of trust.
“If you start a fight, leave school, or go into the elevator, you get into a lot of trouble!”
“Well, what happens when you get in trouble?”
“If you always get into trouble, they first tell your parents. If you get into big trouble, then you have to go tell why you got in trouble in front of other students.”
“You mean a peer review?”
“A what? Yeah, peer review.”
“What happens there?”
“They tell you that you have detention.”
I asked Olli Maatta, our host and Language Teacher, to clarify the process. He explained that the students are trusted to act as “human beings” and when they make mistakes, they need to “take responsibility for their own actions.” Peer reviews were established by the students and for the students to recognize appropriate and fair consequences.
At Lowell, we provide our students with the same safe and supportive environment that Pasi is talking about, but I’m having a hard time with letting go some of my “traditional” practices of teacher-student relationships. Can I trust my students even more than I do? My Finnish lesson for today is: kokeilla, to try. If I believe in promoting democracy amongst my students, I must trust them.