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Fair, Dedicated, and Inspiring.
I am a seventeen year-old IB high school student in my penultimate year from Helsinki, Finland. Embodying a kind of bicultural identity, I am a product of two different cultural upbringings, Finnish and American. Having spent a few of my years of elementary school in Seattle, Washington, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of both school environments, and what effect they have had on me as a learner.
I feel honoured to have been invited by the PennFinn13 team to share my ideas and insight on education in Finland and the United States. As a result of pure serendipity on my half, I met the group a few weeks a go when they visited my calculus class on a Wednesday morning. I was able to participate in the Edutopia event held in Helsinki and get accquainted with the issues and points of interest of this project. Joe Mazza and the entire team were so warm to me and encouraged me to join the movement by contributing with a few blog posts. I truly value my school environment; to me it is like a safe harbour where I can feel respected, valued, and relaxed, learn, and mingle. Therefore, I am extremely interested in this project and hope to inspire people around the world to form these efficient and comfortable learning environments.
As a dedicated high school student, I demand a great deal from my teachers. I have often discussed the qualities of an effective teacher with my peers, and we have agreed that the importance of equality between teacher and student should be evident in many fields.
The stereotype of a Finnish teacher is built up with a master’s degree in teaching or one’s field, a calm and collected mindset, a relaxed teaching style, and above all, elevated expertise in one’s field. Many of my teachers do fit this mold, however it is unrealistic to imagine that each teacher will reach their degree of excellence with this pattern. In reality, the brilliances of different teachers lay on all different points of the spectrum.
When I sit back and evaluate from who I learn best from and what qualities does this teacher embody, I conclude in a set of features that I believe can be applied to any teacher-student relation for best results.
As I previously mentioned, the importance of respect and equality is crucial. Naturally the teacher is a superior authority figure in the classroom, but what I believe is the magic ingredient in this recipe is the humanization of the ’teacher figure’. By this I mean that he/she exhibits passion, dedication, and personal engagement in his/her teaching. If I feel that the teacher is truly passionate and excited about what is being taught, I am directly inspired by that joy of pursuing knowledge. I am certain we can all confirm that inspiration is contagious; listening to someone speak passionately on a topic with great expertise lights a peculiar glow inside us to learn and experience more in that field.
We must meet at halfway. As a student, I feel that the time and work I put into learning something is very valuable. The knowledge that the teacher is equally engaged on his/her work fulfills the first goal that I would like to emphasize. If I know that I am not the only one putting in my 110 percent, I am further inspired to apply myself even more. By demanding a lot from each other, both teacher and student are able to improve.
This translates to my next goal; fairness and equity. I believe that to teach well at this level, one must demand a great deal. Avoiding excessive lenience, or putting too much effort into ’being the student’s best friend’ can be counter-productive, and lead to discouragement in the student. Naturally excessive severity can be equally as discouraging: in this case humanizing the student comes into play. The fact that the teacher recognizes the workload and limits of students is very important. The value of the student’s mental and physical wellbeing must be emphasized, especially in rigorous academic programs. Setting demanding, yet fair deadlines and workloads is essential for maintained motivation and success in school. Students at my school also value clarity; being clear about what is demanded and how that can be achieved helps the student to visualize the work that needs to be done.
In addition, we all need a push; giving clear, honest, and useful feedback on how to develop is vital on the path of improvement. This should be naturally coupled with active encouragement. The degree of encouragement and belief in the students abilities directly correlates with academic performance. The value of encouragement and clear guidance is of utmost importance and I find that a teacher that shows light on the unknown path of success for the student is of my favorite kind. To quote Robert Frost;
’Two roads diverged in a wood,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.’
The importance of compromise between ideal and real is very significant. It is equally quixotic to assume that each student is as motivated, driven, and talented as the next, as it is to imagine that each teacher fulfills my personal educator ideals. Each educator is a personality, a dynamic figure of unique variables, that flourishes in new, fascinating ways, and it is impossible to set identical goals for everyone. Often the element of surprise can be an even stronger initiative for learning. If there is a certain mystery between the nature of the teacher, it can inspire students to work hard in order to reveal more and more about that educational relationship.
In our world there are a range in varying school systems; from non-existant to high-perfoming, each is different and operates under the umbrella of different circumstances; financial, habitual, atmospherical, ideological, and political. I believe that the best we can do for any school system is to foster growth.
At my school, the teachers are always asking us how we can improve the class. By working together as a team and giving the students a voice in how they are treated and how things are handled in class is one of the reasons that the education system in Finland is so successful. Demonstrating genuine interest in what we, the students have to say, definitely has an impact on how interested we are in what the teachers have to teach us.
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.