Friday, April 18, 2014


So... my year of hypocrisy is finally drawing to a close.  The new McGlothlin folks have been chosen and my presentations are done.  I have learned much...and I got to go to Finland.  The overall conclusions I am coming to are kind of subtle and I will try to explain in this trip report.

I was rather proud of the trip - it is usually a bit difficult to get into Helsinki schools, but with my good friend, Google Translate, I was able to track down and email many of the schools in Helsinki and play the numbers game.  Many did not respond, but I think the nicest did email back - and I was able to set up an itinerary.

I got to the Tri-Cities airport at 3pm on a Saturday and due to a little problem in Atlanta I got to Finland at 2am on Monday.  Luckily I had already booked a hotel.... oh, wait... no I didn't.  However, as luck would have it, I found the last person awake in the airport and got the name of a good cheap hotel near the main station in Helsinki.  It turned out perfect....

and it had a killer sauna.... almost as nice as a day at the beach

By 8am on that same Monday, I was in a really cool Steiner School (Waldorf).  I was blown away by the atmosphere of the school - and I got to talk to some rather amazing teachers for quite awhile... an event that replayed itself ad infinitum it seemed throughout the trip.

This is an 8th grade class - the theme was "fitting in and being exact" - this was just after I had listened to a play they had made themselves... the songs are at the end of this post.

I went that evening to have tea with an American teacher in Helsinki - Tim Walker - who keeps a wonderful blog and has a unique perspective on Finnish Education.  Taught by Finland  I walked to his house and had quite a wonderful time with his two kids and wife.  Toward the end, we took his older child to the park ... in the deepening dark and rain... everyone was still out.  No biggie there.  Some good clips of conversations with Tim are at the end.

The next morning I went to the High School of Natural Sciences - Helsingin luonnontiedelukio  - This was in a converted office building... None of the schools there looked like our schools... I guess the "hospital/prison" theme just never caught on....

Above and below are taken during break... they have a 15 minute break between classes... and so therefore they shorten each class by 15 minutes (compared to us)... so yes, they go to school less than us and they outperform us.  And they do not do standardized testing... and they take breaks during the day.... and the teachers are the ones who are trusted with not only creating curriculum, but implementing it.  There is plenty that one cannot compare between US and Finnish schools, its true.... but there is plenty that one can compare.

Then it was to beloved Tölö specialiseringsgymnasium  - this school specialized in arts/music... I think... but it was especially beloved to me because I found Niki - a wonderful teacher there who is partnering up with me to connect our students across the ocean.

Niki standing on the stage of the auditorium that was carved out of granite... visible in the walls at the back.

Finally to Gymnasiet Lärkan - this was another Swedish speaking school - turns out that 3 of the 4 schools I went to were Swedish speaking - the Swedes said that happened because they were more friendly than the Finns:)  - the country has 2 major languages - the street signs have both Swedish and Finnish names.  I spent a lot of time that day talking to the principal, teachers, students, and even a parent who was the school board president.  It summed up my trip perfectly.  Details below.

Here is the short short version of what I learned:

Structurally, the school system is different than what we have here.  And being a social welfare state, many things are very different....  However, I asked each teacher I met - "what do you value most about being a teacher in Finland?"  and the answer was unequivocally "FREEDOM".  They were free to be teachers.  They were the professionals - they decided what was needed in their school and were trusted to create the environment necessary.

This is odd for an American to realize that a (*gasp!*) Socialist state has a level of Freedom that I almost cannot comprehend.

They have not fallen in to the pit of standardized high stakes testing death that we have here.  In fact, oddly enough, there is no word in Finnish for "Accountability".  This seems bizarre and I asked a few principals "well how then do you know when a teacher is not performing?"  Their answer was essentially "everyone knows how various teachers are performing.. word gets out"  It seemed rather odd to me, but it was also explained that by having the lack of pressure, then each teacher is allowed to develop... to fail at times... and then of course, to succeed.

You (anyone) can go into Finnish schools and FEEL the difference... the pressure is not there... teachers have tea with each other on break and talk about life and education and connect.... It makes it possible to work together as a coherent unit for the benefit of the school and students.  I explained that I pretty much don't have time to pee during the day, let alone talk to any of my colleagues in a meaningful way.  They shook their heads:)

In summary, the teaching was no better than what goes on here, the students are no more amazing... granted, by the HS level, the students there are the ones who have chosen an academic path... so that is a big difference. However, the PISA results (international test of 65 countries - Finland=top 5 and US=high 30s) are taken from the 9th grade - still in compulsory time... which is exactly the same sampling of students that we have here.  The schools were smaller.  But really the difference was in the FEEL of the school.  It was a feeling of FREEDOM and TRUST...

Now, what the hell am I going to do with that?  At one time when my ego was really out of control, I thought I would bring a road map to success back with me.  I don't think that anymore.  I really don't know what I am going to do.  Perhaps its not for me to do anything.  I have been given a vision of possibility that I cannot unsee.  And it affected me profoundly.  But its subtle.  Right now and perhaps for the rest of my life, I am going to concentrate on the things I can do.... I can focus on connecting with the amazing teachers in my own school (wherever that might be) and helping to create an atmosphere that is conducive to learning.  I am officially going to no longer give a $h1t about standardized testing because we are harmed more by it than the pathetic data is worth.  And in general I am going to try to fade to the background and live a more balanced life.  There you go.

Admittedly, my pictures suck and there is not a single one with me in it:)  But I did record many hours of conversation.... Below is a link to the files.  These were added with some crazy html stuff - and they run off of quicktime, so in case your computer does not play them - you can access them here.  You should see the quicktime player - but if you don't, be sure to allow quicktime to run on this site.  Below are clips of conversations - most are pretty short, but a few of the music ones are long.

These first clips are about school structure - kind of nuts and bolts stuff.

This one is a bit funny (or sad - if you are from Washington County and you are offended by having to clock in)

 The rest of these are in general the essence of what I learned in Finland....  The good stuff.

And here are a few music clips - the first one is taken from the Steiner school and is long - but its quite wonderful...

This last Chili Peppers tune was recorded in a school there ... in class:)   The Chilis have always been special to me - since my favorite U-19 soccer team was named "The Red Hot Chili Peppers" back in 1991:)  Seemed like a nice universal circle of life thing.

Y'all have a good day.

PS - Other reasons I like Finland...

Trails everywhere - and exposed granite... you can travel real trails throughout the city all the way to the Arctic Circle 

Bikes.... Love, Love, Love the bikes....

This is the main train/tram/bus station....

This is just a bit pretty - I was wandering through the city...

While I was totally lost one night I ended up on this path... its not a road for cars... the left side is for walkers, the right side is for bikes.... ah, my kind of city.
And I simply love this one.