U.S. Educators Are on the Right Track (Even When Compared to Finland)

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Natalie DiFusco-Funk |

U.S. Educators Are on the Right Track (Even When Compared to Finland)During Morning Meeting, I asked my 5th graders to use an adjective to describe their summer. I chose “inspiring.” As the 2016 Virginia Teacher of the Year, I had an inspiring summer – the kind where ideas swirled around in my brain and kept me up at night; the kind where I envisioned my classroom in a whole new way; and the kind where I succeed in getting my students to dream big. Part of my inspiration came from a trip to Finland organized through a collaboration between the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which runs the National Teacher of the Year Program, and EF Education First.

You’re probably thinking, “Yeah, yeah, we know all about Finland and how it has one of the best education systems in the world.” From pre-school to higher ed, Finland does it right. But what I learned during my trip, as well as through a relationship I’ve built with Finnish educator Petteri Elo, founder of PedaNow, is that educators in the U.S. are doing a lot of great work, too.

Petteri and I connected in Finland as I traveled with EF and 50 educators from across America to discover the “secret” to Finland’s education system. I asked Petteri if he thinks American teachers are too hard on themselves. I’ll never forget his reply; he said how sad he was when American educators introduced themselves as “just teachers.”

So I started asking him about things that would stand out to a Finn as being particularly special, effective, or interesting about our school system here at home. Here’s what he told me:

Teach me how to Tweet: While in Finland, I became Petteri’s “Twitter Teacher” (which is comical since I only joined Twitter this year). Our “Twitter lessons” symbolize our use of technology in schools in the U.S. As I toured a comprehensive school in Helsinki, one missing element was technology. Although Finland has devices within their schools, Petteri said technology is used differently in the U.S. In my classroom, he witnessed students effectively using Chromebooks to design their own learning for a Concerned Citizen Project that we developed collaboratively. Their familiarity and comfort using the devices not only allowed us as educators to enhance the curriculum, but to reimagine it.

Rudolph’s Nose: Northern Finland is known to be home to Santa Claus (if you watched the recent Bachelor series, you know what I’m talking about), and even though we were in Helsinki, at the bottom of Finland, the spirit of Santa was in many of the shops we visited. Come Christmas Eve, Santa would be lost leaving that Arctic Circle if it weren’t for Rudolph’s red nose leading the way. Petteri was impressed by American educators’ “red noses,” and how they lead their students with intentional focus. He said he continually met educators and administrators who had an in-depth knowledge of their curriculum, and who knew how to utilize effective strategies to address the content. On a personal note, Petteri appreciated how I took his vision for our Concerned Citizen Project and translated it to key skill goals within the curriculum. Petteri left a visit to my school in Virginia thinking Finnish educators had room to grow in their depth of content knowledge.

Speak Kindness Fluently: Finland is known for its leadership in developing the whole child. Their maternity leave, baby box, and parent allowance are all evidence of this leadership in action. However, Petteri was just as impressed during his time in the States as he observed me teaching Social Emotional Skills — compromising, self-control, kindness — alongside content, using Responsive Classroom techniques. In early August of 2016, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) announced that eight states would help the organization develop benchmarks for social emotional skills. This is a giant step in the right direction for U.S. education. After all, everyone benefits when we speak kindness fluently.

Take the Reindeer by the Antlers: One of Petteri’s greatest takeaways from his time in the States was the use of Rubrics. Not just teachers handing students a rubric, but engaging students in the development of criteria. Finland is praised for its student-driven curriculum. At times, amid standards-based assessments, U.S. educators become frustrated with the lack of student input in their own learning. We often feel bound by standards. However, Petteri was impressed with how, amid the standards, we still involve our students in the process of self-assessment, and ultimately allow them to be architects of their own learning. In other words, letting the students take hold of the antlers, rather than the teachers.

Watch after the Baby, Carl: When Petteri and I first met, my students were in the middle of a Performance-Based Assessment on descriptive writing. The assignment: use pictures to compose a description for the pages in the wordless book Good Dog Carl by Alexandra Day, practice reading your text aloud, and present it for Frankie when he visits. (Frankie is my son, who was eighteen months old at the time.) My students agreed this project was one of their favorites. Petteri was amazed by how driven my students were to succeed, and most of all, by the authenticity of the assignment. The connection between learning and purpose was something he brought back to his Finnish colleagues.

My collaboration with Petteri has helped me realize that U.S. educators have a voice to contribute to the global conversation. Unfortunately, we tend to get caught up in what we’re NOT doing well. We often forget we’re a country that has educated the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Maya Angelou. I was inspired by my trip to Finland and am continually inspired by my collaboration with Petteri. But I’m also inspired by the innovative, student-centered teaching of my American colleagues. Pat yourselves on the back, U.S. educators, we’re doing things right, too.

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