This week, I am spending my mornings following around a Finnish sixth grade class to see what school looks like from a student’s perspective. I’ve made a few super interesting observations in that time.
Class “buddies”. At the end of the day today, a third grade class came to play a programming board game with the sixth graders. It is a similar partnership to something I remember doing in school growing up (fancy that!) where the older students mentor or are “buddies” with the young ones to give the little guys some extra interaction in the school community and the older ones a sense of responsibility and leadership.
I remember when I was in Kindergarten at five years old having a buddy that I knew went to my school, but I didn’t know how old she was. As far as I was concerned, she was an adult, but a fun one that I could be friends with instead of a teachery one who I knew had a job to do before she could be my friend. Fast forward nine years and I’m in 8th grade and now I’m on the other side, being the “buddy” for my own couple kindergarteners, which, of course, being me, was the best thing that had ever happened to me so far in life haha!
So today, I watched 12 year olds hugging their little 10 year old buddies and sitting the little ones on their laps. I watched groups of these children play board games and learn together. It was cool. Although, I’d be interested to know if more of these buddy systems exist because it seemed like one of the other observing pre-service teachers was expecting the first graders to come.
Kids are allowed to be kids. At the end of the day, a couple of those third graders were finished with their games and were getting rowdy and started wrestling and laughing. And it was the cutest thing. It was one of those moments you don’t know if you should stop because it’s technically “bad behavior” or if you should just keep an eye out because no one is upset and they aren’t hurting anyone. When the other observer asked me what I thought we should do, I shrugged and mentioned that some people pay money to watch professionals to this! Needless to say, I and the other observer just watched. It turned out okay too, I promise!
Kids really need the brain breaks. Every time a lesson started – no matter who the teacher was, settling the kids down after the fifteen minute free period took some time. But once they were calmed down, they were attentive. It was super interesting to observe how the students’ behavior slipped into distractedness and jitteriness in the ends of the lessons though. By the end of the 45 minutes, the kids were ready to get out of the class and it was extremely evident in the way they acted. But the break was all it took to zero the kids back in on the new task a few minutes later. Sweet!
Good teaching is art. This week, I have observed lessons taught by practice teachers, classroom teachers, and I’ve even given a lesson myself (!!!), and let me tell you, there was a world of difference in quality and effectiveness between the newbies and the vets. The veteran teacher has better control of her classroom, she has a deeper relationship with her students, she doesn’t raise her voice as often, she is better capable of handling behavior problems and classroom distractions, she laughs more with her class, and her lessons are deeper. This is a universal observation, not just a thing about Finnish school. Newly hatched baby teachers are not going to be as experienced, and therefore not as effective, as teachers who have a few years of trial and error under their belt and some ruffles in their feathers.
This was both a frustrating and a heartening realization to make. On one hand, I’m frustrated that students have the potential to miss so much when they spend so much time with budding educators with little experience. On the other hand though, it gives me hope that those budding educators (am me!) will continue to learn through experience and be able to provide a masterful education to a classroom full of their own students one day, since the good teacher started in the same place we are now.
Of course, the environment is unique to this public school. It is a university funded practice school, so parents and students know what they are signing up for when they enroll in this school. However, in the Finnish education degree, pre-service teachers start integrating practical experience with teacher and theory-based learning starting in the first year of college. Practice teachers only teach a class up to a couple weeks at a time and they are only teaching one subject in the day (from what I’ve observed so far). The students have full-time classroom teachers to work with most of the time, so their education does not suffer for being taught by not-quite-yet professionals.
I wrote a blog a couple weeks ago comparing Finnish and American schools and I just want to take a moment to continue the thought. The more time I spend here, the more I realize how not-so-mystical Finnish school is. Yes, it is effective, and yes, it is worth striving for the same kinds of outcomes they yield. However, once you wade through the little pond of systemic differences between the two cultures, you are left with the same thing: a classroom full students with a teacher who just wants to educate and take care of her kiddos. Finnish teachers face the same battles: behavior problems, classroom management, achievement gaps, individual personalities, a national curriculum, low wages and much more. And they tackle these obsticals in similar ways; they provide lessons that accommodate different learning styles, they aim to move away from rows of desks, they work with technology when possible, they build a personal relationship with their munchkins as individuals, and again, much more.
So let me say this: American teachers, you are doing a good job. Be proud of what you do and keep teaching from the heart. I don’t think the problem in American education is at a classroom level. Teachers are doing the best we can. The problem is at the policy and legislative level. If you want to do more, make your voice heard by your governments. Your school board. Your state. Your nation. Parents, teachers, and community members who care need to come together to find the right ideas and build a better way. And our government needs to listen to the little guys when they have something worth listening to.
We can do it okay??? There is hope. Honestly, just look at Kansas schools. My home-state’s education has been neglected for so long it’s become a running joke, but it looks like it’s about to turn around. The Kansas Can school resign project is just one example of American schools doing something crazy in hopes of building a brighter future.
“The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” – Aristotle