I met Tim Walker in Martinlaakson lukio in Vantaa. In fact, we met in the classroom of Pekka Puera, a math teacher who is something of a rock star in Finnish education circles and whose methods have inspired many of the changes I’ve made to my teaching this fall.
For the past few years, Tim has been writing from the perspective of an American educator living and working in Finland. His current piece for the Atlantic offers a view from the other side, from Finnish teachers who come to the US and try to ply their trade in American schools.
Tim has written in the past about time and how it alters education in the States. Education here usually seems rushed, compressed, stressed by the amount of content (and skills) teachers feel they must cover in order to fulfill extrinsic sets of standards and goals. Another interesting theme in Tim’s articles on time, stress and the difference between the US and Finland is the American emphasis on planning. American teachers are often compelled to produce detailed plans for every lesson; others are instructed that the most thoroughly “scaffolded” lessons are the highest quality. The upshot of this is untold hours of time spent documenting the process of teaching, rather than creatively responding to student’s input and questions, developing new teaching methods, or carrying on other forms of professional development. This is compounded by the number of hours American teachers spend in classroom plus the ever-changing litany of initiatives they must conform to, including Common Core. As one teacher Tim interviewed put it: “I feel rushed, nothing gets done properly; there is very little joy, and no time for reflection or creative thinking (in order to create meaningful activities for students).”
Much of this, as Tim writes in his new piece, boils down to the issue of trust. (“Trust” is a word I heard over and over during my time in Finland. It is used to describe not only relationships between teachers and students or teachers and administrators, but across society in general.) A few years back, I made a little extra income by designing daily lesson plans for a school district in Kansas. Each plan was to conform only to a particular set of desired outcomes, rooted in state standards. When I attempted to include materials which linked issues in American history to the present day ( such as relating the first-wave feminists movement to contemporary women’s issues), I was kindly asked to remove them. Worse, the poor teacher who received my lesson plans was told (by design) exactly what to write on the board and what questions to ask the students. This for someone with a college education and a state teaching certificate! This is not how we expect doctors or electricians to behave, so why teachers?
Tim points out that simply handing American K-12 teachers autonomy is probably not the answer. Such a move has to be coupled with changing the pool of applicants for teaching jobs. But federal and state governments will have to do more than pass another set of “standards” if they wish to break the vicious cycle of long days, shrinking pay, low social status, and burnout.
Check out all Tim’s great writing for the Atlantic on education in Finland and the USA here.