What have I been seeing in the classroom? Kids being kids. Boys talking…girls texting…tardiness….sighs of dissatisfaction…fidgeting, distraction, numbness. I have seen looks of disinterest and confusion and benign mutiny, but I have also seen looks of profound interest and certainty and compliance. In a word, I have seen school! The main difference that I’ve noticed sitting in Finnish classroom after Finnish classroom is that there is nothing that pops out as “special” that explains why their PISA numbers are dramatically higher than America’s. Of course, it’s that “special” thing everyone is looking for: the Finnish way! In my opinion, it just doesn’t exist as a single thing.
I think what I’m seeing…and I’ve already written about this in an earlier post…is the product of a system people trust. Trust engenders a variety of learning opportunities – anyone in education worth their salt understands this.
Most importantly…and this is in my experience…trust in the system allows for a long list of learning obstacles to dematerialize…not totally, and not permanently, but temporarily, like an umbrella that works as long as you don’t move. For one, the obstacle of the “subpar” teacher (historically the most overused learning obstacle) doesn’t seem to be an issue here. Now, that is not to say that Finland is immune to the global phenomena of occupational mediocrity. They know mediocrity! It’s around. I haven’t see it…but I’m assuming it’s here. That “subpar” teacher, however, works in a system which certifies their skill level as non-lethal…or, to put it less dramatically, skill level which will not endanger the fragile and impressionable minds of their pupils. Initially, this was confusing to me. I did not understand how the absence of great pedagogy could result in the presence of great PISA scores. I am American! If something great happens it’s because someone great made it happen. That’s our script! This perspective is, of course, unsettling, and allows for so much dysfunction to be normalized.
So, the conversation I keep having with my wife Alana kind of explains where I’m going with this.
Scene: Neatly designed and tastefully adorned apartment in Central Finland. The acute smell of failed acculturation lingers resentfully in the air.
Me: (pouring his tenth cup of coffee of the day) “I have yet to see the ‘exceptional’ teacher here.”
Alana: (sipping her eleventh) “Explain.”
Me: “Well, I have seen a lot of solid teaching…smart teaching…on task teaching….just not the kind of charismatic, dynamic, memorable pedagogy I think deserves the title ‘exceptional’.”
Alana: “Well, maybe the system doesn’t require them to be ‘exceptional’…maybe they don’t need to be ‘charismatic’ or ‘memorable’. So what you’re seeing is not necessarily teaching more than it is the system working as it should.”
Me: “Are you saying that my talents as a teacher exist because the system in America sucks and I must make it work for me?
Alana: “No…you just said that. You also just implied you were an ‘exceptional’ teacher…which I didn’t say! What I am actually saying is that exceptional teachers in America are forced to do three times as much as everyone else because they feel morally and ethically compelled to compensate for the shortcomings of the system. You have repeatedly told me that the Finnish educational system is founded on trust…trust that everyone is doing their job as they’ve been trained and paid to do it.”
Me: “That doesn’t explain why I have yet to see the “exceptional” teacher!”
Alana: “What I’m saying is that the ‘exceptional’ teacher might not need to exist here…or… that there are simply too many cultural differences for you to recognize the nuances of ‘exceptional’ Finnish teaching…or…you’re blind!
Me: “I’m not ‘blind’…I’m ‘exceptionally blind’!”
Curtain falls on two over-caffeinated and earnest Americans.
It’s annoying, but she’s right…as usual. The American teacher who has had a consistent amount of success in the classroom invariably thinks he or she is the main reason. That’s not ego, that’s simply being conscious of patterns; the pattern good teachers rely on to inform what stays and what goes, what works and what doesn’t. In my classroom I demand my students reflect on a daily basis…sometimes on a moment to moment basis…so it makes sense that I reflect as well, and what I’ve concluded over my almost 20 years in education is that what I do works. The question is, why does it work? Or, why must it work? Is it my expectations? My moral and ethical standards? Or is it me picking up on the deficiencies of the system and allowing that to inform who I am and what I must do pedagogically to make it all work?
I knew this was going to happen. I knew the second I got off the plane I would feel that dormant Nordic gene awaken in me…(never mind that I grew up in California). I knew deep deep down that once I stepped into that cold, dark snicey winter wonderland I would be changed forever…and that is what’s happening.
The reality is that I’m usually happiest during winter in New York. It’s colder, darker, I can eat more and nap longer. On a cellular level I feel like I am surviving, not thriving, so there’s this sense of drama I don’t normally feel with the other seasons. Also, and this is my favorite, it’s quiet! It’s like putting on noise-cancelling headphones in a freezer that smells like crisp, clean pine. The relentless assault of noise that we live with can be overwhelming…the quiet that snow allows is so welcome.
Over the years I have found myself searching for a “pause” button in those moments of winter euphoria…literally trying to channel all my energy into a nanosecond of delicious silence. And the isolation! Oh my, the feeling of being alone, cut off, dominates your senses and focuses the mind. The only thing I can compare this feeling to is when my daughter closes her eyes after eating her first summer mouthful of ice cream and exhales what sounds like “yummy!”
I have been here two months now, and I am only growing more comfortable with this idea of what winter should be. I love the 60% chance of snow…everyday! I love not seeing concrete until it sneaks above 32 for a few days. I love hearing the click of ice skates and hockey sticks at the Viitaniemi rink every evening when I take a walk. I love deconstructing my outfit everytime I go inside…and putting it all back together when it’s time to leave. I don’t love slipping, but I do love what’s happened to my walking pace: it’s slowed down…a lot! I love the frozen lakes, the mountains of plowed snow, the tracks of footsteps, bikes, and skis wherever I go. I love the silent acceptance from my children when they’re told it won’t get above 10 degrees fahrenheit for days. There’s a lot to love.
I now need winter…and not just winter, the Suomen talvi. I’ve been told by every Finn I meet to just wait till Spring. “It’s so green,” they all say as if it were a promise wrapped in an apology. The thing is, I don’t want Spring. I don’t want an apology for the cold and white and darkness. If Spring comes along and flashes its colors…if the temperature gets above 35 fahrenheit and the snow disappears and the trees perk up and the grass glistens with the dew of kevätaika…I don’t know what I’m going to do.
There is a saying in Finland: “There are no dead ends.” You hear it a lot. Educators, in particular, are quite fond of saying it…and when they do, their whole demeanor changes: their backs straighten, their eyes brighten, their voices deepen. It’s clearly a point of national pride. It could be the national motto: “Ei umpikujaa!” Unfortunately, this moment of philosophical bliss is usually preceded by my statement, “There are way too many opportunities to fail in the American public school system.” It’s a sad and awkward little moment, but a necessary one. The fact that there is a country that tries its damnedest to mute that human impulse to quit, to say “no more,” and then legislates that idea, is inspiring.
I have been thinking a lot about dead ends since first hearing this. Like many primary and secondary educators in America, I’ve had periods when I’ve locked myself in the classroom, insulated myself with “humanistic” pedagogy, and poked my head out to see what season it was. It’s unhealthy…and exhausting….and in the end, it’s simply another way to ignore the reality that we could be doing so much more to help our students if we worked collaboratively to change the system. Being part of a system that creates more dead ends than pathways without actively trying to change it, that’s being part of the problem….and I don’t like being part of the problem.
So, over the past six weeks I have been taking a hard look at how the Finns approach problems, and what I have found is simple: the “system” engenders opportunity. It’s engineered to encourage learning opportunities at any point in one’s life, not simply when one is young. Now, that is not to say that the Finnish educational system is devoid of flaws…it isn’t. Like any system created by people, it has its people problems; its strengths and weaknesses, its esoteric nooks and crannies of archaic logic, its dysfunctional idiosyncrasies. However, the system is intact and thriving because its mission of “no dead ends” is so clear and so collectively bought into.
It feels like the American philosophy is centered more on quantifiable “results” than on the purpose of education. Degrees, diplomas, standardized test scores…they are all measured products of the system, not of learning itself. If we could step back, stop measuring, and focus on what’s truly important to us (putting people on the path to being lifelong learners), I think we’d have a chance to effect real, sustainable change in America.
So, where do we start to change this? If you have thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them.
Going back to the conversations I had with Fulbright DAT alum at orientation last summer in D.C., I remember repeatedly being told to engage my patience as a researcher; to be open to my research evolving, changing, revealing itself organically, not micro-filtering information so my conclusions might mirror some image of what my research should look like. I will be totally honest: this was super hard to hear. To put it mildly, I have control issues. (I can hear my colleagues in Newburgh chuckling at the adverb “mildly.”) Also, anything of importance in my life (this Fulbright being one) immediately sets in motion a deeply problematic choreography of planning and implementation. I did the same thing when my son was born…and fourteen years later, I’m still struggling. You get an idea in your head concerning how it must go, so you set the table for that to happen. Does it ever play out the way you want it to? Nope. But you do it anyway because your DNA makes you do it and you’re too tired to fight. So, sitting in that wonderfully air-conditioned conference room at the Mayflower Hotel on an oppressively muggy summer day, I knew I had to begin speaking to that issue in me sooner rather than later…and I had to listen. If I didn’t, I would probably drive myself and my family insane.
Today is exactly a month since landing in this blissfully snowy and cold and welcoming country, and I am sincerely happy to write that I have engaged my patience…so much that I have swapped out “engaged” and replaced it with “married”….and I don’t see this love affair ending. I have gone the completely opposite direction with my pedagogy-powered controllism, and there is no going back. Hopefully.
How did this happen, you ask? Well, for one, the supports here are amazing. Not only do I have a courageously adventurous and supportive family, but I also have a “Fulbright Buddy” who checks in with me and recommends beer and pastries and coffees to try….AND…..an inquiry project adviser at JYU (the University of Jyväskylä) who could not be kinder and more patient with my intellectual idiosyncrasies. We’ve been meeting for lunch about once a week, and I have to say, that’s when everything I’ve observed and read and questioned all week kind of coalesces in my brain. In this heightened state of curiosity and examination, I quickly realized I needed a sounding board or pedagogical touchstone in my life (more than Alana, whom I burden with my stories and ideas way too often). Sharing these half-baked ideas in an environment where I can sort them out, then finish the baking process, has been indispensable. Without my family, my buddy, and my adviser, I probably would have had a control relapse. (I can hear them all chuckling at the adverb “probably!”)
Whatever the reason, research could not have started any better. I have been visiting schools and speaking with teachers and guidance counselors (though in Finland they are referred to as “study counselors”). I have routinely visited multicultural and language centers that offer services to immigrants and refugees. I’ve had some amazing conversations about immigrants and refugees in Finland (as well as in the rest of the EU), the integration process they go through, the services they are given by the Finnish government, and the third sector (NGO/Non profit) outreach that exists for them as well. I have met some incredibly sweet and smart and dedicated educators and volunteers, and have come away from most every visit with the sense that what I am experiencing is profoundly relevant and has the ability to be deeply helpful to my learning community at home in Newburgh, NY. The part that encourages me the most: it has only been a month.
Olen hyvin onnekas! That kind of sums it up.
To start at the beginning – and this is definitely not it – I must go back 5 years, when Alana Reynolds, my wife, suggested I apply for a Fulbright DAT grant. My response was at once dismissive and offended, as if she didn’t understand the stressful workload I already possessed. But the thing was, she did know. . .she knew all too well. Early to school, late home, grading every night, missing my kids’ school events. . .and her favorite, the cantankerous Sunday evenings. (It’s always fun watching an adult burn the Sunday night dinner table to the ground because he’s not done grading essays.) To make it worse, she didn’t give up. Every year it was the same: Hey, what about applying to Fulbright this year!? It was like an annual postcard from my dentist reminding me it was voluntary root work time.
However, as the years went by, the more I felt I could handle the teaching load and make a run at such an intimidating application process. Eventually, I got everything in order, made the time, applied, and here I am. No more being offended. No more voluntary root work. No more cantankerous Sunday evenings. Just Jyväskylä, Finland.
To be honest, I have been severely dragging my feet on this first blog post. I suppose I needed that experience before I began sharing. Up until this point it’s all been abstract. Yes, there were countless hours on Google maps, walking the streets of Jyvaskyla one mouse click at a time, looking at Finnish architecture, finding places to buy groceries, fastest routes from home to school, etc. But now that I’ve arrived – now that I’ve spent a little more than a week in Jyväskylä – there is absolutely no way to share (in fewer than way, way too many words) just how concretely awesome this place is.
To conclude this first post: It is day 10 for me, and while I’ve had a dozen meetings, met several extraordinary people, been to some insanely beautiful spots, devoured countless afternoon pastries, had painfully sleepless nights of jet lag as well as deeply satisfying micro-comas of winter slumber, been underdressed, overdressed, perfectly dressed. . .the only thing I can report with all my heart and soul is this: Koti on Suomessa!