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?

One Comment on “IN THE CLASSROOM (ACT 1)

  1. Ah. What an interesting perspective. And you are an exceptional teacher, I guess because you have to be.


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