Home » #StuVoice » That Look I’ve Most Certainly Seen Before

That Look I’ve Most Certainly Seen Before

“The young cherish people and places from which they receive the skills and the emotional support which enable them to make it in the world or to meet their basic human needs”  -James P. Comer

Yesterday we visited an elementary School in Finland, a small learning community focused on innovation. From the moment we entered the learning community we could see that the environment was organized as a space respectful of the stakeholders who would call that particular facility “home”. Through focused observation we gained a sense that we were in the midst of a child centered community taking note of some of the same promising practices we observed during our Finish school visits.

Our experience was peppered with exemplary examples of intentionality, highlighted by a professional learning community focused on student achievement by way of targeted teacher development. There was tremendous “buy in” from all stakeholder groups as one interviewed parent expressed her allegiance to the school, its mission and the faculty members who worked committedly to ready her child for collegiate study and a productive life thereafter. This was an awesome school with a culture designed for learning and once again a place where “trust” was an essential component of school development. However, even in the most successful of places, we find that challenges exist and during today’s visit, one particular challenge spoke loud and clear.

While observing what I considered to be an innovative activity highlighting the intelligences of participating students, I became somewhat distracted by a young girl whose face looked somewhat different from the many faces I observed throughout the past four days. Uncertain as to whether my observation was justified, I proceeded on with my note taking but couldn’t help but continue thinking about the young girl’s face and the question of inquiry that followed me over four thousand miles, from New York to Finland. How does race and culture (among Finland’s minority) factor into this now understood culture of Finish “trust and tradition”. Is life the same for students who look, sound and think differently. Enter a young Finish student named Aira. She hesitantly walked across the room and initiated a conversation. This young sixth grader struck up a conversation with me about New York City, Times Square and her desire to “one day see the bright lights.” I decided at that point to take the opportunity to informally interview the young 6th grader to gain a perspective that had only been afforded me on one other occasion during my tenure in Finland. Similar to the young ninth grader I interviewed the day before, Aira was of African descent. Her mother was from Finland and her father from Central Africa.

During my time with Aira we talked about school and her feelings concerning her teachers and her peers.  She affirmed her teachers as she described the degree of support she receives from them.  Unfortunately, according to her, the same could not be said about her peers. “I don’t have many friends”, she expressed. I immediately asked, why?  It was at that moment she looked down at the floor, pointed to her skin and whispered something which fell short of my range of hearing. I asked Aira to repeat what she said, she looked up, surveyed the room, and with “that look of shame” on her face (of which I am all too familiar), she pointed to her skin once again and said, “my color”. At this time multiple thoughts raced through my head.  I’m not exactly sure why, because it was a question I had on my mind since first reading Finish Lessons. I proceeded to restate what I thought she expressed while simultaneously pointing to my own skin and she signified with a quick and definitive “YES”. I subsequently asked Aira to sit and there began a conversation that reciprocally served the both of us throughout the day. We talked about the friends she does have, her interests in dance and music.  We talked about her travels abroad. We discussed her being a highly expressive individual in a place where “that’s not good”. She mentioned that all too often people interpret her behavior as loud or rude. I couldn’t help but enjoy Aira’s smile, her openness and energy throughout our conversations.  She was that same individual that I see in my school each and every day whose desire is nothing more (whether pre-adolescent, adolescent or adult) than to feel a sense of safety, belonging and acknowledgement. It was clear to me that this was something Aira was in need of attaining. Unfortunately, her reality left her far from her desired destination.

In 1943 Abraham Maslow shared his theory of a hierarchal order of needs. As such we have become clear that there are certain physiological and psychological needs that must be addressed if we are to experience an affirming affect of self-belief, self-trust and ultimately self-actualization. There are millions of Airas in schools throughout the world who are not on course to experience personal actualization simply because they are not engaged in a manner that is meaningful and relevant to them. They are not receiving the requisite support needed to embrace that feeling of belonging. If it is our goal as educational advocates to ensure high levels of achievement for all learners, it behooves us to remain ever cognizant that there is a prerequisite work that begins with first seeing our students as they are and subsequently creating and developing environments that address the most basic of our student’s needs. Years ago, I remember viewing a TED talk hosted by Ken Robinson.  Prior to completing his talk, Robinson shared a story of a young girl who found herself on the right side of misunderstanding. This position which was taken by teachers and ultimately her mother could have ended in misdiagnosis ultimately leading to a life unfulfilled.

As a current Principal I wholeheartedly understand the danger in drawing definitive conclusions from a one day visit, however that look that I observed is universal and the conversation, quite the same. I must however, commend my Finnish colleagues of the school as during my exit conversation with administrators we discussed my findings (as they themselves observed Aira continuously seeking me out throughout the day).  We talked about the creation of a formal structure/forum that would extend to students like Aira opportunities to express her thoughts and feelings. We further discussed the importance of extending efforts beyond the one day celebrations highlighting cultural foods, garments, etc. as a result, we are forging a partnership where my school, Riverton Street Charter School, will engage their school in a Skyping collaborative so that Aira and the members of her community can enjoy authentic opportunities to converse with children of different backgrounds, interests and experiences.

In the final analysis, our work to develop global citizens begins with helping children feel good about themselves and others.  All stakeholders have a role in ensuring that students develop holistically across physical, cognitive, social-interactive, speech-language, ethical and psychological pathways.   I’ve observed many examples of healthy development during my week here in Finland.  It is clear that school leaders are beginning to work intentionality/strategically to address the holistic needs of their students as evidenced by the structuring of child welfare teams, tasked guidance counselors, social engagement facilitators, etc. However, as in America the question of “all” continues to surface and according to my observations and discussions this week, I believe there’s much work to be done developing cultural competencies here as well.


  1. kavanyee says:

    Thank you Verone, you truly captured the unspoken curriculum that we’ve been talking about during our observations! Powerful piece

    • My hope is that this is “better late than never”. I appreciate your response Kavan. This week, I came to understand just how much we as educators can shape public policy by simply initiating/facilitating “the conversation”. In this particular case, I felt the need to speak on behalf of an individual who is merely one of millions of learners who can’t quite understand why their experience(s) in classrooms, lunchrooms and school yards are so very different for the majority of their peers.

  2. Okema L. Sandlin-McMillan says:

    What a beautiful inscription of diversity and a child trapped in her little body wanting to know more and see more. I hope she’s afforded the opportunity to one day travel, it’s always interesting to find little souls who desire to reach for the sky when it comes to knowledge. I’ve found, if her friends are few now, her intellect far surpasses those her age – when she matures into adulthood – her ‘friends’/acquaintances will increase…she’ll have to discern the ones she chooses to have in her life. Thank you for the share.

    • Joe Mazza says:

      Verone – You really did a masterful job in capturing this. I knew Okema would enjoy it. The little girl was so happy to speak with you on Thursday, and hopefully a future partnership w/ the school will afford future opps. jm

      • Okema L. Sandlin-McMillan says:

        Kind thanks Mr. Mazza, I did enjoy it! I had to pause, it touched me, but I so loved it! Have a great holiday all.

    • Thank you for your feedback Okema. As a young student I struggled with identy and experienced firsthand the effects of psychological uncertainty. When we as educators so eloquently speak of the pedagogical aspects of teaching and learning, we often overlook and in some cases purposefully omitt those practices that prove most empowering to our learners. How a child sees and feels about her/himself has everything to do with the degree of effort he/she puts fourth (confidence/competence cycle). My interaction with young Aira, spoke volumes about the internal wrestling that is taking place in her mind. Her constant appearance throughout the day and desire to engage me in purposeful conversations afforded her the opportunity to demonstrate who she is (her talents, intelligences, likes,interests, personality, etc.). Clearly, she is trying to “find her place” and at the same time come to grips with the fact that there are some differences in her that up until now have not proven appealing to others. So my questions to the administrators at the school were: Does this degree of “trust” (that we’ve marveled in seeing throughout our week in Finland) extend to young Aira and others like her? Who supports her need to make sense of the world as she sees it (her realities)? How does the school (any school for that matter) work systematically to ensure that students of diverse ethnic, socio-economic linguistic,gender and those possessing physical/mental constraints become exposed to the concept and practice of acceptance (the child as well as those she/her encounters)? My concern is that until we clearly understand and act on that understanding (a learner’s needs are complex across a series of pathways), we will continue to address development on a superficial level thus perpetuating a system where separatism, exclusion and inequity are invited to thrive and threaten the healthy development of our children. .

      • Okema L. Sandlin-McMillan says:

        Those are all quite interesting questions. To continue a degree of ‘trust’ with Aira and others like her, it’s pertinent to continue the dialogue – never stop the communication and keep the sparks in her eyes. Allow the communication to flow, whether it’s desired or not – of course within context; We all had that educator we looked to for support outside the classroom. We all can support her need to make sense of her world – the question is, with whom will she make that connection. If it’s you as an educator, I think it’s best, especially if it’s the opposite sex to ensure that contact is made with the parents. Ensure that the family unit is aware of what specifically is going on – inclusion. Always make them aware of the ground made. As a parent, I appreciate feedback from the school, as long as I’m comfortable with the educator. Working with students, ensuring their diverse needs are met, as you stated [ethnic, socio-economic, linguistic, gender, etc.] is BY FAR not easy, however, there are people out there. I can say, my diversity stems from not really having a ‘cage’ of persons I associate with. I was always a person to mingle with everyone and be associated with non – personally or professionally. That is precisely what I have done. Social class is a tricky one, however, I have found, that positively no one likes to be treated badly, we all enjoy kindness. Educational sectors that address development on a surface/fake level are ones that turn me completely off – and I so agree with you, it does threaten the development of children. Even worse, it permeates into our society – because children, are the society of the future! Great stuff here! Do keep it up and I’ve enjoyed this so! Have a great day, Okema!

  3. Okema L. Sandlin-McMillan says:

    Reblogged this on IamOkema and commented:
    This is a lovely piece about one educator – invested in the administration portion of education, their journey to Finland and how a student sparked interest and conversation one day in March 2013. I loved this part towards the end… ” In the final analysis, our work to develop global citizens begins with helping children feel good about themselves and others. All stakeholders have a role in ensuring that students develop holistically across physical, cognitive, social-interactive, speech-language, ethical and psychological pathways..” Even better, it’s pertinent, to me however, to continue to see past color of eyes and skin, and search the soul. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did. Have a grea Saturday!

  4. Pasi Sahlberg says:

    Thank you, Joe and the team for your visit and wonderful reflections you are making. We need that, too. Just like your thoughtful description of Aira and her feelings. We are going through a massive cultural transformation in Finland where old beliefs and habits of minds will be confronted with those of the new world. We need your experiences in growing with these new issues. I think our strength is honesty, openness and wellbeing that we try to honour in schools. I will keep on reading your words of wisdom through first-hand experience.

    • Pasi, “thank you” for your open and honest feedback. For over twenty-five years I have worked to educate children of diverse profiles and have come to accept the fact that there is no “one simple remedy” that can/will solve the conundrum of our effectively facilitating high quality education for ALL learners.

      It is true that diversity in America looks exceedingly different from diversity as it appears in Finland. However, what is common across the board is that each and every child is an individual and if our job is to firmly place them on track towards becoming everything she/he was born to become, we as leaders must develop in our stakeholders (teachers, students, parents, etc.) a mindset that embraces and addresses the acceptance and celebration of “difference.” Such an act will empower learners while simultaneously extend a license for the youngest of scholars to freely be who they are, learn as they learn, celebrate their differences and ultimately soar to the highest of heights. While, the task sounds somewhat simplistic, it has proven to be the albatross that hangs around our existing system’s neck. Presently, we continue to place all of our confidence in discovering/devising new instructional strategies and curricular approaches, while refraining from seeing the “elephant in the room” with the word TRUST inscribed on his forehead. Affect matters! How a learner feels about herself and others (teachers, peers, parents, etc.) plays a significant part in that child’s academic, social, emotional performance.

      While in Finland, my colleagues and I observed numerous examples of the aforementioned theory in practice at the Helsinki Normal Lyceum, SYK and Koulumestari School/Learning Center. From innovative student centered programming to well-structured and engaging student welfare teams, much is being done in Finish schools to thoughtfully and intentionally facilitate holistic student development. It is my humble belief however as you eluded to in your post, one learner who does not experience the same degree of security/sense of belonging (perception of “trust”) as her/his peers is one too many. We must become smarter and work harder to ensure that all really means ALL. Thank You Pasi for all you are doing to push this all important conversation about children and effective schooling. You most certainly are an international treasure.

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