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In Finland, teachers are trusted, appreciated and educated in advanced degree programs. Becoming and being a teacher starts with earning a placement at one of the country’s highly selective teacher education programs.
I vividly recall the two educational books I was required to study for the first part of Finland’s initial classroom teacher education entrance exam. The books seemed different – much harder to read – from the readings I had done a few months earlier for the Finnish high school matriculation exam.
After passing the written portion I was invited to sit for an interview and participate in a practice teaching situation. With nervousness, I gave my first lesson to actual children on the given topic of: “It’s raining again – what should I do?” After a short introduction I tried to get the students to imagine the kinds of activities they could do on a rainy day. My lesson ended with a Winnie-the-Pooh song about rain. A few weeks later, I was thrilled to find out that I had been accepted into one of Finland’s eight research university-based teacher education programs.
For decades, Finnish teachers have been required to obtain a master’s degree. Our teacher education is research-based, meaning the programs involve an integration of educational theories, research methodologies and practice – building an understanding of how teaching and learning are related to each other.
My own studies to achieve a master’s degree in education included lectures, demonstrations, reading, school visits and practical skills. My teacher studies also included inspiring practice periods.
In Finland, most of the teacher practice periods take place in practice schools — public schools that are connected to universities and their teacher education programs. Theory and practice are closely intertwined. Teaching practice is conceptualized and deeply reflected upon. The aim is to educate competent, reflective teachers who develop their practice.
This mindset of continuous learning and researching is present both in my teaching young children in my classroom and also with my student teachers. My own education was so inspiring that I continued my studies to become a music subject teacher and to attain a doctoral degree in collaborative songcrafting within school music education.
Since 1998 I have worked at one of the practice schools, the Viikki Teacher Training School, part of the Department of Teacher Education at the University of Helsinki where teaching, learning and researching are constantly intertwined.
As a primary school classroom teacher, I teach my students in nearly all subjects, enabling a holistic education across subjects. This context allows for deep learning and flexibility in teaching methods. Students usually study with the same teacher for several years. I have “traveled ” with my class from grades one through six and this autumn I will start from the beginning again with a new group of students.
At Viikki, along with teaching my regular class of students, I co-plan, supervise, observe and theorize teaching and learning situations with student teachers. When student teachers come to my classroom for a practice period, we first discuss both common and personal goals as well as the curriculum and the children they will teach. Student teachers are also encouraged to take part in educational research.
With such selective admissions — it was harder to gain entry to the University of Helsinki’s teacher education program (6.8 percent acceptance rate) than the law program (8.3 percent acceptance rate) or the medical school (7.3 percent acceptance rate) in 2016 — and rigorous preparation, one might expect Finland to suffer teacher shortages not unlike those seen in the U.S. But this is not the case. A major reason for this is that teaching profession is seen as desirable. We are, again, trusted and appreciated. We have the freedom to choose among a wide range of high-quality learning materials, our salaries are competitive and the work calendar is attractive. We are not subject to accountability systems based on student test scores but instead are encouraged to develop our work and collaborate with others.
As noted in the Empowered Educators study of teacher quality, teachers in Finland are seen as professionals who receive a top-notch education. (Here’s a link to order the book associated with the study. Note: a print copy of the book costs $31. The Finland brief can be read free of charge here. Other country briefs can be accessed free by scrolling to the bottom of this page. )
Teaching is viewed as a demanding job that requires expertise, professional ethics and a strong set of values. Our national core curriculum emphasizes democratic participation and only sets foundational goals; teachers are trusted to exercise their professional knowledge to choose their methods, materials and practices.
My colleagues and I enjoy great autonomy and agency in our work which encourages the creation of new and innovative teaching practice and student engagement.
I am often asked by my student teachers: How do you become a great teacher? I think that it is not a question of producing an end result, but rather relies on fostering a career-lasting caring, ethical and inquiring mindset. I strongly believe the work of teaching itself should be rewarding, with opportunities for independent work, collaboration, creation and sharing.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, ensuring that teachers are viewed as professionals who are valued and listened to by policy makers and society as a whole is absolutely essential to the health of the profession and the schools and children it supports.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. It is part of a series of opinion pieces highlighting teaching policies and practices from top-performing countries that participated in a study led by Linda Darling-Hammond and funded and supported by the National Center on Education and the Economy, called The Empowered Educators. Sign up for The Report’s newsletter.
Sari Muhonen has taught in all grades in the Finnish education system and has served as both a classroom and a music subject teacher. As a teacher educator, she works as a classroom teacher alongside student teachers, conducts educational research and assisted in the writing of the Finnish Core Curriculum of 2014.