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Classroom Shock: What I Am Learning as a Teacher in Finland

By Tim Walker — November 26, 2013 4 min read
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These days, people often ask if I’m experiencing culture shock. It’s a legitimate question. Just a few months ago, my family and I moved from Boston to Helsinki, Finland. To be honest, the culture shock isn’t so dramatic—especially since my wife is a Finn.

But I’m definitely experiencing classroom shock—a shifting of my pedagogical mindset—as I settle into my new job as a 5th grade teacher at a Finnish public school.

My family and I plan on living in Finland permanently, but I can’t help but think about what I’d do differently if I returned to an American classroom. Talk about reverse-classroom shock! I’ve already identified three big shifts I’d make right away.

Schedule More Breaks

Finnish schools often schedule lessons into hour-long blocks: 45 minutes of instruction, 15 minutes of break. Students rarely have back-to-back lessons without breaks—and at the elementary level, it’s expected that children will spend their breaks playing outside, rain or shine.

During the first week of school, I didn’t get it. I designed back-to-back lessons so my students could have fewer but longer breaks. In the midst of a double lesson, one of my students confessed, “I think I’m going to explode. When are we going to get a break?”

This was a turning point for me. I shifted my approach, and began to notice that the students were more refreshed when they returned to the classroom after frequent but short breaks. The breaks helped children pace themselves.

Back in the States, I remember days when I pushed young students to produce work even when they were clearly dragging their feet. The idea of allowing a break away from the classroom didn’t cross my mind. Now I’m convinced that regular breaks help students to stay balanced and sharp throughout the day.

Back in an American classroom, I would plan brain and body breaks for my students as part of our classroom rhythm. If possible, I would find a way to get the children outside during these breaks.

Get Refreshed

At first, I was reluctant to make my way to the teachers’ lounge during breaks. I saw these 15-minute chunks as “bonus prep time” and would stay inside my classroom, fretting about the next lesson. Totally normal behavior in an American school, right? But a few of my Finnish colleagues noticed this habit and worried that I might burn out. They challenged me to spend more time in the lounge, drinking coffee and catching up with colleagues. I took their advice and found that, lo and behold, breaks not only refreshed my students but also invigorated me.

Of course, most American teaching schedules don’t allow 15-minute breaks throughout the day. I’m not recommending that teachers demand these breaks from their administrators. I’m suggesting that they adopt a different mindset.

Finnish colleagues have taught me that breaks help me to be a more effective teacher. They’ve shown me that teaching is more like a marathon than a sprint. It’s important to slow down often so that one can successfully complete the race of each school year.

Back in an American classroom, I would set aside time to decompress every day. Rather than working through lunch or trying to be productive with every spare moment as I have in the past, I would put down the to-do list and focus on the simple task of getting refreshed. Perhaps I’d join colleagues for lunch? Maybe I’d eat alone in the classroom while listening to music? Or maybe I’d go for a walk, enjoying fresh air and sunlight?

In short, I’d take advantage of any opportunities I might have—however meager they might be—to refresh myself. Regularly pulling away from work has helped me to be a better teacher in Finland.

Give Students More Independence

In the past, my start-of-the-year philosophy as an elementary teacher has been this: take kids by the hand and don’t let them go until they show that they’re ready to be independent. I typically have begun each year by teaching students a long list of routines and procedures.

This year, things didn’t go as planned. For example, I intended to teach my Finnish 5th graders how to walk in a straight, quiet line. But what I learned during the first week of school is that my students have been moving independently from class to class since first grade. Furthermore, most children in my Finnish public school (grades 1-9) commute to school on their own. Teaching them how to walk in a straight, quiet line would have been unnecessary and even a bit insulting.

Although Finnish children appear to be much more independent than American children, they don’t have an “independence gene,” of course. But they do have (at school and at home) many opportunities to do things on their own without handholding.

My Finnish 5th graders wanted to arrange a school-wide bakesale this year as a fundraiser. Honestly, I wasn’t crazy about the idea at first. It sounded like another thing that I’d need to manage. I made a decision to release my grip on the bake sale and they blew me away! They designed advertisements, created a class sign-up sheet, and brought in heaps of baked goods. All of these things were done without my direction. I supervised, but I didn’t handhold.

If I ever returned to the States, I think I could provide my American students with more opportunities to work without scaffolds. Don’t get me wrong. Some students need structure—especially given America’s cultural differences—but they all could benefit from low-stakes chances to dive in.

Teaching in Finland has helped me to identify hidden American principles that have guided my thinking about teaching. For example, I used to think that students and teachers need to be productive at all times. (False. We can be more productive when we set aside time to recharge.)

We have a lot to learn when our long-held beliefs are confronted by different ones. Critically evaluating my teaching mindset and making changes has made me a stronger teacher.

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