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What about leadership?

Vice Principal Tiina Korhonen at Koulumestari School/Learning Center http://koulumestari.fi/en/innokas-2/ describes innovative practices she has helped lead

Vice Principal Tiina Korhonen at Koulumestari School/Learning Center http://koulumestari.fi/en/innokas-2/ describes innovative practices she has helped lead

By Susan Feibelman

When fellow UPenn doctoral student @Joe_Mazza hatched the idea that we should stretch our qualitative researcher wings and take to the road, Finland’s famed schools (thank PISA and Pasi) was the “just-right” destination.  Anticipating the trip, I knew I would use this exploration to extend my interest in the intersection of school leadership and social identity with in the context of Finnish schools. More specifically I was curious about our Finnish colleagues’ construction of leadership as a gendered endeavor. Coming from the independent school world where the majority of headmasters are Caucasian, male, and in their 50s, I wondered of more than 20 years of progressive educational reform might result in a different construction of gender and leadership for Finnish school principals?

After four days of non-stop conversation with Finnish and US educators about teacher preparation, student voice, curriculum development, special education and parent engagement, I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed that I know so little about the habits of leadership that have grown out of Finland’s self-named education “miracle.” Did I not ask the right questions? Were my own biases and assumptions getting in the way of what I was hearing? Or—perhaps my lack of clarity is emblematic of the state of Finnish education when it comes to formal leadership roles Finnish schools today.

Throughout the week our Nordic colleagues have been quick to remind us that just like US educators, they continue to grapple with the complex work of building an equitable educational system. This includes wrestling with the responsibilities of school principals, as well as the ways in which school leadership is enacted by teachers and students across each school community.

I continue to be impressed by the value Finns place on education and the ways in which the role of teacher has been privileged. Not only is acceptance into university teacher education programs a highly competitive process, the autonomy, professional engagement of teachers is evidenced in their development of teaching materials, use of collaborative planning time, and the organization of professional spaces on school campuses (see Jen b.) Within this environment why would a teacher ever choose to take up the mantle of headmaster or school principal?  (Note to self—for the health and well being of all our schools we should be exploring the answer to this question!)

What I think I understand is Finnish teachers can choose to be educated as a school leader and PhD studies are not required.  Aspiring headmasters/principals emerge from the faculty of schools and must complete a series of professional development offerings from the Finnish National Board of Education:

A person is qualified as a principal, when he or she has a higher university degree; the teaching qualifications in the relevant form of education; sufficient work experience in teaching assignments; and completed a qualification in educational administration in accordance with requirements adopted by the Finnish National Board of Education or studies in educational administration with a scope of no less than 25 credits organised by a university, or otherwise obtained sufficient knowledge of educational administration. (Finish National Board of Education, 2012)

It also seems to me that as a result of educational reforms headmasters/principals are in the process of re-defining how school leadership is being enacted across the country. This re-framing served as the subtext for each of the conversations we have had this week:

  •  Thirty-five year veteran of upper secondary school leadership, Atso Taipale met with us at the University of Helsinki on Monday, thoughtfully described efforts to work side-by-side with teachers and emphasized his trust in their professional skills.
  •  Principal Jukka Tanska and Vice-Principal Jukka Niiranen at SYK http://www.syk.fi/info-en included the #PennFinn13 team in their Wednesday,12:30 faculty briefing on the day of our visit. Although I understood not a word being discussed, the mood was collegial and welcoming, giving us a lot to think about how we approach faculty meetings in our own schools.
  •  Vice Principal Tiina Korhonen at Koulumestari School/Learning Center http://koulumestari.fi/en/innokas-2/ not only described the collaborative culture of Koulumestari, but also modeled these principles as she worked with faculty throughout our day together.
  •  Aki Puustinen @puustin headmaster of Muurame Senior High School and Coordinator of Finnish Entrepreneurship and Social Media Networks drove for three hours with colleague and teacher-counselor, Timo Llomåki @llotimo to be with us at the University of Helsinki for Edutopia’s Global Hangout on Finnish education.  The two have undertaken a multi-year exploration of technology integration and both men model leadership as connected educators through their use of social media.

I want to believe we are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our Finnish colleagues as we grapple with the ways in which school leadership is enacted in the US.  Certainly the inspiration for this practitioner-based inquiry to Finland is an example of what’s possible when like-minded educators make a commitment—based on mutual trust and collaboration—to interrogate their leadership practices.


  1. Paul Solarz says:

    Susan – I liked your question regarding why teachers in Finland might consider a career in administration. I feel as though teachers in Finland are so valued and respected that there are fewer reasons to leave the classroom here than in the states. That being said, it sounds like the culture is starting to change a bit. Some teachers commented that parents are becoming more vocal and are questioning practices more than ever. I wonder if this new trend will increase the number of teachers looking into careers in admin?

  2. Hannagrrr says:

    I don’t feel Finnish principals are fed-up teachers who escaped 🙂 I think you can truly find your calling in planning and leading a school. We Finnish teachers get to do quite a lot of planning etc for the whole school, not just your own subject and your own class. Today, I have been organizing a school trip to Germany (leaving on Sunday, yeah!), interviewing a kid and parent for a special class, consulting one of the teachers who take care of the discussions we have instead of detentions, I have also been doing administrative preparations for a national test, my first ever, designed not to test my pupils, my school or me, but to check how the National curriculum is being followed in this country. Etc. So, sometimes a teacher may find that wow, I’m good at this and then they start taking more responsibility in the school and taking those courses demanded from principals. Not my cup of tea, I’m not organized enough!

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