Lessons From Finland: What Educators Can Learn About Leadership

| September 19, 2013 | 8 Comments
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Lenny Gonzales

The following is an excerpt from Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don’t Leave, by Barnett Berry and Ann Byrd, and Alan Wieder. This excerpt focuses on how educators in Finland see themselves as leaders.

Noah Zeichner and Lori Nazareno, American teachers, were at the Finnish Lessons conference in Seattle as well, and we all had a school reform conversation with Marianna that pushed our thinking about the propsects for teacher leadership and teacherpreneurism in the United States. As a former communication expert who now has taught for eight years, Marianna drew on her experiences both as a media consultant and a public school teacher in defining her vision for the teaching profession.

“We are all leaders,” she told us in the conversation with Noah and Lori. “Granted, some teachers lead more than others, but we do not expect those who do not teach to tell us how to teach.”

As Marianna described the work of teachers in Finland, we thought of how university professors in the United States are expected to perform their roles of teaching, scholarship, and service. Finnish teachers, first and foremost, focus on their work with students, and all are expected to care about not just the students they teach but all children in the school.

Similarly, principals are expected to care about all children in their municipality. What is more, principals and teachers are expected to work together to benefit all students, “rather than concentrating on giving a competitive edge to the children in their own school.:

“In America, it is seen by administrators and policymakers that if you are not in front of students, you are not working.”

And just like one would find in an American university, some Finnish teachers focus primarily on teaching and service to their local school and community, whereas others find variety of venues to lead outside the school. We learned that many classroom practitioners in Finland also serve as teacher educators, educational game developers, online mentors, curriculum and assessment designers, and textbook authors. Many work in local politics to support public education . Others are active bloggers, as is the case with Marianna, who scoops Finnish education news for teachers worldwide. But perhaps most of all, Finnish teachers, as leaders, are expected to help on another more effectively.

We asked Marianna how Finnish teachers learned to lead. “It is the way teachers are prepared as researchers,” she said, “but it is also the working conditions. Because of the collaborative atmosphere, teachers are encouraged to be the leaders of their profession.”

[RELATED: What's So Great About Schools in Finland?]

Noah hypothesized that some of the things that administrators do in U.S. schools, teachers do in Finnish schools. “That is true,” Marianna agreed. “We have teachers leading a lot of what goes on in our school, like with curriculum and assessment as well as student and teacher well-being that deals with equality and fairness.” In most Finnish schools, Marianna emphasized again, all of the administrators teach as well.

“This seems a lot like the structure we have, too,” Noah said, “but in Finland it seems you do not get too hung up on [contractual] time.”

Marianna nodded in agreement. “Once you teach your lessons in school, there is a flexibility for teachers to determine when they do their work,” she noted.

A typical Finnish teacher teaches just under 600 hours a year, whereas the average American teacher teaches students over 1,600 hours annually. And according to a recent Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-sponsored study of the teaching profession, U.S. teachers habitually work an average of about 10 hours and 40 minutes a day, with a great deal of time spent teaching and supervising students.

“Our teachers who teach languages for which many essays have to be graded often have fewer lessons,” Marianna said. “And they can decide on their own where they get that work done. They may teach two lessons one day and then go home or to the gym around noon — and then correct papers or work online with students later in the evening.”

Lori noted, “In America, it is seen by administrators and policymakers that if you are not in front of students, you are not working.” Then Noah added, “We have high schools here where teachers have to sign in by a certain time; otherwise they may or may not get their paycheck.”

Conditions That Foster Collaboration

And then we learned a bit more about what leverages leadership among teachers, particularly how the structure of a teacher’s school day and week fuels innovation from those who teach.
“The school day varies for teachers,” Marianna told us. “Some teachers teach more or fewer courses inside of our six-week periods. Sometimes you may teach three or four seventy-five-minute lessons a day—some days you may only have one.”

Noah noted, “The teaching schedule is staggered in Finland; here it is very rigid, with most teachers teaching the same schedule day after day for 180 days.”
“And what goes on inside of a teacher’s planning time is very different in Finland and in America,” Lori added.

bookNoah said, “Our teachers in Seattle meet about two hours a week for common planning, like you do in Finland, but the big difference is that in our two hours we are supposed to receive professional development, but teachers in your country get to create their own professional development to further their school.”

Then we began discussing the concept of reciprocal mentoring and its importance in cultivating teacher leaders and teacherpreneurism. “I believe in my country,” Marianna added, “we would call it benchmarking.”

“It is typical that a group of teachers would meet with and observe those who teach their same subjects in other schools to have a reflective observation,” Marianna continued.
Lori’s eyes lit up a bit when she asked, “You actually know other teachers who teach in other schools? Who sets this up?”

“We do know teachers in our cities. We are supposed to,” Marianna quickly responded. “And our principals are supposed to encourage us to do this; it is their job.”
And then we asked Lori if, in her twenty-five years of teaching in two inner-city school districts, in a wide variety of elementary, secondary, and alternative schools, she was ever asked to go observe another teacher in another building.

Not surprisingly, the answer was, “No.”

Noah then speculated on the “untapped” reciprocal mentorship that could be created in our nation’s preservice teacher education programs (both traditional and alternative), in which new recruits into teaching are expected to learn solely from a mentor teacher, university professor, or consultant hired by a nonprofit or district. “It is all one-way,” he noted. “There is nothing reciprocal in the mentoring that goes on among student teachers and those who teach them.”

“It is the flexibility that leads to trust, and this is where teacher leaders are developed; we do not feel we are controlled by outside forces.”

Marianna told us, “It is the flexibility that leads to trust, and this is where teacher leaders are developed; we do not feel we are controlled by outside forces.”

We then reflected on the fact that in America this is how university professors are developed as leaders. They are afforded flexibility in their schedule, with staggered times to teach, and often additional rewards for scholarship that is carved into their routine professional work. We wondered how the trust American policymakers have in university professors could be established for America’s public school teachers.

We wondered how the trust Finnish policymakers have in Finnish public school teachers could be embraced by their American counterparts. We know of the importance of making teacherpreneurs more public; using teacher evaluation and pay systems to elevate teacherpreneurism; and preparing new teachers—early in their training—to teach, lead, and not leave. We wondered what it would take to communicate to policymakers and administrators as well as the public both the evidence and the emotion of trusting teachers—and teacherpreneurs like those profiled in this book.

We would start with foreseeing what public education might look like in 2030, and how we would get there. We do so in the next, our final, chapter.

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  • cellodad

    Good posting and very interesting to me as a school administrator of Finnish ancestry. Unfortunately, the message of the post was diminished by the numerous typographical errors. The one that threw me the most was “We asked Marianna how Finnish teachers learned to read.”

    • tbarseghian

      Apologies for the typo. That should be “teachers learned to lead.”

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  • Hiram

    Al leer sobre las lecciones aprendidas entre educadores finladeces y
    americanos encuentro que su enfoque son primaramente los ESTUDIANTES. En
    aspectos administrativos y docentes se enfocan en el aprendizaje de los estudiantes y sus necesidades, no en la competividad entre éstos.

    Cuando reflexiono en como los educadores puertorriqueños nos enfocamos nuestro
    liderato magisterial lo podría, en mi opinión un reguerero educativo. Estamos en un barco donde todos quieren hacer lo que les da la gana. Lo peor de todo que el dinero para aspectos de servicios educativos del estudiantes es mal utilizado. No creo que tenemos un estándar de enfoque hacia el aprendizaje de los estudiantes. Las escuelas tienen muchas propuestas, proyectos o otros aspectos que dividen hacia donde los educadores deberían enfocar sus esfuerzos.

    No quisiera que otro educador extranjero nos tenga que decir la fórmula ganadora para tener éxito en nuestro deber ministerial enseñar a nuestros estudiantes y obtener una sociedad educada, respetuosa, que tiene valores morales, sociales, políticos, religiosos, espirituales y otras cosas que destacan a un ciudadano educado

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