Finland and a Pandemic Taught Me That It’s High Time We Start Trusting Teachers

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

For years, Finland has been known for having one of the best education systems in the world. Much of this attention has stemmed from Finnish students’ high performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). In the most recent PISA, conducted in 2018, Finland ranked sixth in reading, seventh in science, and 16th in math worldwide. The United States ranked 14th, 19th, and 38th, respectively, spurring yet another discussion about what Finland is doing right.                                                              

In 2016, when I decided I wanted to study education, Finland was an easy choice. A product of the U.S. public education system, it was hard for me to fathom a country where children didn’t start formal schooling until age 7, had little to no homework, and didn’t sit through yearly standardized tests. Finland was intriguing and I needed to find out what the buzz was about.

I spent five years as a student in the Department of Education at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland’s first teacher training college. I gained firsthand access to Finnish teachers and students, and quickly realized that the Finnish education system had earned its hype. I immediately noticed many of the things that I had read on the “top 10” global education lists such as well-resourced schools, nutritious (and appetizing) school lunches, and students who worked hard but played even harder. But the one thing that stuck out to me more than anything, was hearing people from all parts of the country say, “In Finland, we trust our teachers.” I didn’t realize that such a simple and straightforward statement could be so impactful. But as a former teacher, it was. 

Teachers in Finland are viewed as trusted professionals. Much of this trust has its origins in rigorous, highly selective teacher training programs. These programs use a high-quality teacher training model in which practical skills are taught alongside research skills. Teachers graduate from the program with a master’s degree and deep understanding of research-based pedagogical practices. Once teachers enter the classroom, they’re given autonomy to teach and assess the outlined Finnish curriculum as they see fit. Without the pressure of standardized assessments, teachers have even greater pedagogical freedom and can focus on inclusion, equity, and the diverse needs of learners. This freedom comes with great responsibility, but Finnish school leaders and teachers take this responsibility in stride with a shared goal to do whatever it takes to support and educate the nation’s youth. 

In stark contrast, it took a global pandemic for many in the U.S. to realize that teachers deserve a greater degree of recognition and respect. For decades, teachers across the U.S. have been fighting for greater pay and better working conditions. Unlike Finland, the U.S. places an ever-increasing emphasis on standardized testing, which puts pressure on schools and teachers, limits curricular flexibility, and exacerbates inequities. As schools prepare to reopen this fall, many teachers are contemplating whether they want to return to the classroom after one of the most challenging chapters of their careers. 

My experience in the Finnish education system made me not only realize how little we trust teachers in the U.S., but how that trust deficit impacts student learning and a healthy education sector as a whole. What should the U.S. do differently? 

  • First, we must do more to prepare teachers for the job through greater investments in redesigning teacher training programs and in continuous professional development. This should include not only pedagogical and practical training, but also training in research methods so that teachers are able to think analytically and critically consume innovative developments in the field. 
  • Second, teachers deserve to be given back the autonomy that factors such as high-stakes testing strip away. While autonomy is not a one-size-fits-all solution, teachers with demonstrated high performance should be allowed greater decision-making power particularly in terms of learning materials and student assessment. Teacher autonomy has been linked to greater job satisfaction, and would give teachers the flexibility to cater to the diverse needs of students in their classrooms and create greater equity and inclusion. Giving teachers this flexibility and responsibility would allow them to feel like the trusted professionals they are. 
  • Third, it’s important that school leaders emphasize building a culture of trust in their schools. Teachers should be viewed as credible experts. Giving teachers this credit and trusting them more would allow them space to feel safe and thrive in their careers.

For more than a year, we’ve been dependent on our teachers to guide our children through a pandemic. Isn’t it high time we start trusting them? 

Priyanka Patel is completing a project internship at Bellwether Education Partners this summer focused on evaluation. She has taught third and fourth grade in India and is currently pursuing a doctorate in education at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland.