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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.

Creating great schools begins with engaging great teachers

By Susan Feibelman

How do we define great teaching? What ingredients are essential for optimal learning to occur? What’s the perfect combination of qualities that we are all looking for when building a learning community?  Back in the US it’s hiring season in the independent school world and I have spent the past four days engaged in non-stop conversations with Finnish and US educators about our work as instructional leaders, connected educators, and life-long learners. Still I couldn’t stop thinking about the classes—students and teachers—I had the privilege to observe this week and the “demonstration” lessons I will be watching when I return to my campus. So I turned to my Finnish colleagues for their insights about building robust teaching and learning communities.

Olli Määttä –teacher trainer—from Helsinki Normal Lyceum‏  describes great teachers as being “warm, empathetic, and outgoing.”  Olli’s focus on the affective qualities of teaching reflected both his belief in the importance of teaching/reaching the whole child and his confidence in the Finnish system of teacher preparation—which combines a degree in a content area/academic discipline in addition to graduate course work in instructional methods, child development, special education and “teacher training” that includes an introductory and basic training period, followed by field work and independent, advanced practice.

Tiina Korhonen, vice principal, at Koulumestari School/Learning Center emphasizes the importance of fostering a school environment that encourages robust innovation and promotes relational trust amongst teachers, students and parents. Her consistent focus on what’s best for the individual child and building a great school for all children is another encouraging view. The question at the heart of the matter is what’s good for kids and Tiina describes this as finding the “fire” in each student. She touches her hand to her heart as she expresses this idea. The goal is for every student to learn what type of environment they best learn in and where their passions lie.

I believe we want the same thing for our students in US schools—to attract compelling, well prepared, and compassionate educators who want to find the “fire” in each student. So I return to my electronic file of resumes with this essential charge at the forefront of my search.


Student art work from Koulumestari School and Learning Centre Innokas

Building School Communities Based Upon Mutual Trust

By: Susan Feibelman

It was a full day of dialogue with professors at the University of Helsinki—Dr. Jari Lavonen, head of the Teacher Education Department, who shared his reflections on the context of teacher education in Finland, and Dr. Heidi Krzywacki, University Lecturer in Mathematics Education, who engaged us in dialogue about primary education. We concluded with Atso Taipale a retired upper secondary school principal, who discussed school leadership and his 35-year career as an upper secondary school principal.

Although our heads were about to burst with information and the new questions we are eager to discuss with our Finnish colleagues this week, straightaway we began to unpack the themes from the day. Interestingly each conversation led us back to the Finnish concept of trust.

Note to self: “Key word is trust; Finnish schools encourage collaborative work amongst teachers and principals. Principals have faith in the ability of teachers to make good instructional decisions.  Decision-making takes on a transparency that encourages teachers to take risks and recognizes that teachers learn from making mistakes. The sub-text is transparency, transparency, transparency in school leadership and teaching practices.”

Dr. Heidi Krzywacki, University Lecturer in Mathematics Education

Dr. Heidi Krzywacki, University Lecturer in Mathematics Education

Atso’s remarks emphasized that Finnish principals trust teachers’ professional skills; Heidi described Finnish educators as fostering a culture of trust. And our casual interactions with Finns over the first 30 hours on the ground in Helsinki has made us wonder if this culture of trust extends beyond the school yard.  Is mutual trust part of Finland’s national identity and if that’s the case, how does that inform our thinking about the strategies US educators use to foster relational trust in schools back home?

We tweeted our question to expand the conversation:

Jennifer Botzojorns ‏@JenCESUVT

we must model trust as leaders, all the time, a willingness to be honest and open, to share leadership #pennfinn13

Gwen Pescatore ‏@gpescatore25

RT @bwileyone: RT @IamOkema: #pennfinn13 Transparency & empathy – in front of the counter & behind it. #TrustInSchools #pennfinn13

Clement Coulston ‏@clementc26

Engendering Trust – a mutual partnership of respect, honesty & transparency between #students, #teachers & #administrators. #pennfinn13

Jason Flom ‏@JasonFlom

Building trust requires attention to ecosystem of relationships. Teacher & student. Student & student. Parents & school. #pennfinn13

Brandon Wiley ‏@bwileyone

Thought-provoking conversation right now about “trust” – how do you create trust in your school community? Critical to success? #PennFinn13

At dinner our colleagues—Pasi Sahlberg, Olli Maatta and Tinna Korhonen—described Finnish schools as closely-knit communities of teachers and students.  “Schools feel like home.” If this is the input, then is  relational trust an inevitable outcome?

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.