A year ago in autumn, teacher Tim Walker was handed his first Finnish school timetable. It looked strange. Empty.
There were only 24 weekly hours in the school timetable for the English-language fifth grade.
"Great!" thought Walker. More time for my wife, our one-year-old son and soon-to-be-born daughter.
And that was not all, Walker found out. Fifteen minutes out of every hour would be spent on recess. The actual teaching time per week would thus amount to only 18 hours. In the United States, Walker had taught his class 30 hours a week. Thus, arose the question:
"How on earth will I have the time to teach everything in Finland in so little time?"
Then again, this was exactly what he had wanted. Walker and his Finnish wife Joanna had decided to move from Boston to Finland to ease the everyday life of a family with children.
Tim Walker is a 27-year-old teacher from the United States. Currently lives in Helsinki with his Finnish wife and their children, ages two and six months.
Known for what?
Teaches the English-language sixth grade at the Ressu Comprehensive School in Helsinki. Writes the “Taught by Finland” blog, in which he tells of his experiences in the Finnish school system.
Not known for what?
Met his future wife when he was 17-years-old on a Finnish bus on his way to do voluntary work in Russian Karelia.
3 of his best: Christianity.
“My life’s anchor, which gives me peace, meaning and hope for the future.”
“Raising our children with my lovely wife has also required sacrifices, but we have no regrets. The children bring enormous joy into our lives.”
Having an impact in the field of education.
“Through my blog, I am able to reach American teachers and parents, who are keen to read about less burdensome ways to raise children.”
Change of pace
In the United States, Walker worked around the clock. After a seven-hour workday, Walker could spend four hours a day preparing classes. Vacation periods were spent in further training.
When the Walkers' first child was born, a third of Tim's wages began to go to health insurance. His student loan was an added weight.
Tim earned extra money by doing the snow work at school and giving guitar lessons. Johanna, and Tim as well at times, took care of their neighbour's child part time.
Soon, the family began to wish for another child, but life seemed too stressful. An idea was born: What if they moved to Finland? Life would become easier, and Tim would also be able to familiarise himself with the internationally-known, Finnish school system.
The Walkers bought plane tickets to Finland, even though they had not secured work. Finally, Tim found a dream job at the Ressu Comprehensive School in Helsinki, which provides instruction in English.
"The principal had already interviewed four or five qualified Finnish teachers, but their English skills were not good enough. Thus, he was able to hire me, even though at the time I was not formally qualified to be a teacher in Finland."
This was a lottery win for a man who loves teaching and pedagogy. He was able to find out why Finland does so well in the Pisa study, which measures the educational skills of schoolchildren.
So he got to work. Walker began his first school year in Finland full of energy. First, Walker ended the 15-minute breaks. He felt that he had more time to teach better when he taught for 90 minutes straight, and took a half-an-hour break in between. The students would cope well, after all they did so also in the United States.
But the third day was already too much for the students.
"I'm going to explode!" a fifth-grader protested.
"I'm not used to this!"
Walker thought about it. It was true that even in the United States, the students' attention had begun to wane during the long classes. As a matter of fact, usually exactly at the 45-minute mark.
Walker decided to return to the Finnish school timetable.
And goodness. What a change.
"Students returned from the breaks jumping with enthusiasm. And what's most important, they were able to concentrate for the entire next hour."
According to Walker, the Finnish school environment is wonderfully relaxed compared to that of the United States, where both the schoolchildren and teachers suffer from stress. Teachers there work long days, and a good teacher is expected to undergo further training, even during holidays.
"In Finland, the holiday of a teacher sounds like this: four weeks at the summer cottage, followed by hiking and a trip to Italy. I respect Finnish teachers, but at times it's hard to take their complaint that they don't have time for it all seriously."
Life in Finland is more relaxed, and that is a good thing. One day, the principal shooed Walker home, when he was still working at the school at 3:30 pm on a Friday afternoon.
Everything else seems to be better here as well: the students are more independent – for example, they themselves make sure that they are carrying the needed books. First graders only have about three hours of classes per day with the rest of time being spent playing in an afternoon club. The school even teaches cooking.
However, not everything is perfect. He would like to fix one great shortcoming in Finnish schools.
A social circle
The fifth graders giggled at Walker.
"The last time we did something like that was in kindergarten," they guffawed. Walker had just asked whether the students ever got together in a ring to greet each other through games.
Walker was astonished. In the United States, the morning circle is a common practice in elementary school: 20 minutes of relaxed exchanges, every morning.
There is no time for such exchanges every day in the tight Finnish schedule. Still, Walker did not give up and started a Monday circle. Once a week, the students get together in the circle and greet each other. Like this, for example:
Walker extends his hand out to the student standing next to him and says, "Good morning, Juha." Juha responds, "Good morning, Tim." Then Juha turns to the student standing next him and greets him. And so on, around the circle.
Sometimes, high-fives are given in the circle. A friendly greeting and looking in the eyes is more important than formality.
"American children are friendlier and more social than Finnish children, but only because we teach them to be so. Social skills don't arise from nothing."
Indeed, according to Walker, a lack of community is the biggest shortcoming in Finnish schools. No time is spent on learning social skills and handling feelings.
"Many Finnish teachers say that these are important skills, but that they haven't really been told how to teach them."
Indeed, Finnish schools do badly regarding emotional learning. Even though according to the Pisa studies, the learning results are some of the best in the world, Finland teeters at the bottom in studies measuring school satisfaction. Why?
"I don't believe that Finnish children don't enjoy recesses, for example. I think the problem lies with teaching methods. In Finland, they may be quite old-fashioned. The teacher stands in front and teaches."
In the United States, learning by doing is favoured. Students are encouraged to utilise their own skills and concentrate on their interests.
"For example, the so-called expert's hour is popular. Students may use one hour every week or sometimes even every day to realise a project of their own that they have chosen. It can be, for example, building one's own guitar or coding a game."
According to Walker, an activity like this could increase school satisfaction. Even a student who does not succeed as well as others could do what he or she wants and still be able to fulfill the school requirements.
Walker has settled well in Finland. He has not suffered from culture shock, even though there are differences. For example, children are more independent at a much younger age.
"Independence is a result of freedom given by parents. First graders walk alone in school halls, and first or second graders take the metro alone. This would be unimaginable in the United States."
According to Walker, in the United States, parenting is often based on fear. Dangers seem to lurk everywhere.
However, now a counter movement has sprung up.
The "free-range kid" orientation has borrowed its name from cage-free chicken eggs and advocates a greater freedom for children.
That, too, differs from Finnish parenting.
"In the United States, children's freedom is justified by saying that it's useful for children. In Finland, children are more free because it happens to be sensible and practical."
Since a child knows how to walk to school alone, why would he or she not do so. The parents also save time when they do not have to walk a grown up child to school.
Päivi Ala-Risku – HS
Meri Rantama – HT
© HELSINGIN SANOMAT
Image: Milka Alanen