Meet Jere Linnanen. He recently graduated from the University of Helsinki as a subject-teacher. For the first four years of his studies, he was deepening his subject-knowledge through courses in history and civics. During the last year of his master's degree, he focused exclusively on teaching. This year of intensive teacher training was divided into thirds: theory, subject didactics, and practice in real schools.
Teacher training programs in Finland differ for elementary teachers (grades 1-6) and subject teachers (grades 7-9 and high school). Elementary teachers study teaching for five years while subject teachers study their subject(s) for four years and teach for one year. All fully-credentialed teachers in Finland are required to possess a master's degree.
The Best and Brightest of Finland
It’s been said that the teaching profession is reserved for Finland’s “best and brightest.” In terms of selectiveness of teaching programs, this would make a lot of sense. Remember that only one of ten applicants is accepted. (Sahlberg, 2011)
According to Jere, the "best and brightest" designation for teachers needs to be understood in context. At the moment, higher education in Finland is free (even for foreigners). This means that there are many applicants who are seeking admission into Finnish universities. The competition for spots is fierce across many departments.
Jere argues that in Finland “there is no fast lane for kids with rich parents. Everyone has to earn the spot by studying for the entrance examinations. I don't consider teachers to be necessarily brighter than anybody who can get into a university, but of course, everyone has earned their spot there. They’re likely to stay motivated for five years.”
The Prestige of Teaching
Not only has it been said that the best and brightest enter the teaching profession, it’s argued that teachers in Finland enjoy relatively high-status in society. (Sahlberg, 2011)
I’m wondering if this is the reason why so many young Finns are drawn to the teaching profession. Surely, the financial incentives are not a huge factor. The average salary for teachers in Finland is $28,780. In a recent survey, Finland was ranked 12 out of 21 countries in this area. The United States had the second-highest average salary among teachers at $44,917.
How does a teacher’s salary compare with other salaries in Finland? It’s just slightly about the national average. (Sahlberg, 2011)
Jere told me that the prestige of teaching was important to him. “I had so many really cool history teachers and I wanted to be one of them. Also my family background is not in academics at all so being a teacher was a huge accomplishment for me.”
The Battle Between Theory and Practice
As mentioned before, Jere’s year of intensive teacher-training was equally divided into three parts: theory, subject didactics, and practice. Just about a week ago, a Finnish colleague of mine criticized her program for being too theoretical. I asked Jere about this criticism.
“Some thought the theory had little to do with the real life situations teachers are bound to face, e.g. a student yelling at you or constantly interrupting your class. I found that the connection between theory and practice was always there. For example, I read a study that yelling at your students had a negative effect on teacher authority and that building trust with personal connections to the students had a positive effect on teacher authority. Then I tried to apply that in real-life classroom situations, but I came off as too friendly. Luckily my teacher-trainer helped me to separate being unsure about myself and giving in too easily from being a warm and safe adult in the classroom.”
Nobody is Born to be a Teacher
Jere’s year of teacher-training provided him with many meaningful opportunities to practice. “We were observing more than teaching. First off, we taught in pairs. It was a safe environment for us to try out our wings. We observed at the same school where we taught and usually we observed another one of us teaching. We gave and received a lot feedback and constructive criticism. The best thing about practical training was the knowledge that no one is born to be a teacher. It is a skill that you can practice, learn, and master. And so we helped each other be better at it! And as you start to believe in the potential you have, you cannot help but believe in the unlimited potential of each one of your pupils."
According to a young Finnish colleague at my school, reflection was emphasized throughout her teacher-training program at the University of Helsinki. Jere agreed. “It was kind of a running joke that you could pass the program just by sitting in a circle and talking about your feelings. Of course the theory part was still just reading books and going to the exams but really the emphasis was on character and confidence-building. It wasn't just mechanical but more organic.”
In the spirit of reflection, I asked Jere to reflect on how well his program prepared him for the classroom. “I'd say pretty well. There are people who disagree with me but I think I was quite ready for the classroom with everything I learned. But the most important lesson for me was to keep learning and also ask feedback from my pupils. So I don't think a teacher can ever be completely ready just because the world and the pupils change so fast. You need to keep adapting. Out of all the skills, that's probably the most important one to learn while studying to be a teacher.”
Jere highlighted one aspect of teacher-training that he missed during his time at university. “I would have liked to learn more about how to deal with other teachers! I have never had a problem with a pupil I couldn't deal with using the full range of sanctions available for me as a teacher as well as proactive measures, like building trust and authority, but I have had problems with fellow teachers I just couldn't resolve. For example, I just don't know what to say when somebody thinks it's their business to tell me what clothing I should allow in my classroom. For example, some teachers really think it's important if a pupil wears a cap or not!"
5 Weeks or 5 Years?
Jere’s university-level teacher training was rich and extensive. Over the span of five years, he had lots of opportunities to develop his subject-knowledge, essential teaching skills, and educational theories.
Where I’m from, the requirements of teacher-training are variable. For example, Teach for America is a program that recruits college graduates who commit to teach in public school classrooms for two years. Oftentimes recruits are assigned to teach at urban schools with low student-achievement. Before teaching, these recent graduates are required to participate in a five-week summer institute. Although they’ll receive ongoing professional development, this institute is the backbone of their training as teachers.
Five weeks of teaching-training. That’s a week for every year of teacher-training that's required in Finland.
(Photo by John Welsh)