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Taos teacher explores school system in Finland and returns inspired

After working as an educator for 25 years, Leslie Baker wanted to have more of an impact. So she worked as a state ambassador with the New Mexico teacher leader network and on the New Mexico secretary of education‘s advisory committee. But the Taos teacher became frustrated with the limitations and contradictions of politicized education.

Baker sought answers beyond the confines of the United States. Finland was calling and a Fulbright distinguished teacher award was the answer. This semester-long fellowship offers 32 teachers from around the United States a chance to study education in one of 12 different countries.

She returned in May 2019 from five months studying Finland‘s education system for ages 7-16. She chose Finland because it is widely recognized as one of the most effective education systems in the world – even though students spend less time at school, there’s no standardized testing and minimal homework.

Stationed in the city of Jyvaskyla, 169 miles north of Helsinki, Baker visited over 50 Finnish classrooms. She observed 18 teachers in training and interviewed 12 university researchers and professors, among other research and work. And she was immersed in everyday Finnish life.

What she found was not only an effective school system but an entire national culture that instills health, growth and joy – promoting values that spill over into the classroom.

“They are a reflective culture, a trusting culture. Trust is not just for teachers. Their whole culture and society is based on trust. What an experience to live in that,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye.

In August Baker gave a multimedia presentation entitled “A Teacher‘s Journey: What We Can Learn from Finland,” at Taos Public Library as part of its summer lecture series. She currently teaches second grade at Taos Charter School.

One of the first things Baker observed in Finnish schools was that the children were happy and smiling a lot. They moved a lot. They were not perfectly behaved. “They were allowed to be children,” she said. “They didn’t spend several minutes getting into a straight line to go out to recess or to walk to another room. They were simply dismissed and would chat with friends, gather things and head over to where there was another teacher waiting.”

Each classroom would have a teacher and maybe three or four other adults working with those who needed extra help. “There’s an emphasis in the early grades on support that is not that formalized. Kids can receive help without going through a lot of legal paperwork to make it happen,” said Baker.

Every 45 minutes students had 15 minutes of free time where they would run around outside in the cold or stay inside and play foosball or versions of pingpong. The theory is that focus can only be held for 45 minutes before there’s a need for reflection, talking or play. She noticed that the frequent breaks seemed to even out emotions, resulting in a calmer classroom environment.

When Baker attended a seminar with colleagues, where they were all adults and could have easily sat for three hours, breaks were still given every 45 minutes for coffee, conversation and reflection. Breaks are integral to the rhythm of learning for all generations.

She found Finnish students’ skills at collaboration to be exceptional and attributes this strong skill set to the regular breaks and also to early schooling’s emphasis on play. Until the age of 8, she said, children‘s education is centered almost entirely on play.

Since Baker returned from her trip and to Taos Charter School, where she’s taught for 17 years, she has engaged in frequent reflection with herself and her Fulbright colleagues on what she can and cannot integrate from her travels into her home classroom.

“I’ve been giving my kids more breaks and longer breaks, so they play more, and they’re getting along better. I can see it. They’re developing their social skills so when they come in they’re better able to learn,” she said.

Finnish educational systems are largely based on developmental psychology, a commitment to equity and a holistic approach to teaching that were incorporated into Finnish education beginning in the 1970s. Policies evolved with the changing times but the core principles have pretty much stayed the same, despite political shifts, Baker explained.

Oversight of teachers was strict until the 1990s. Now trust has replaced oversight and education is managed for the most part on the local level. Teachers are given so much respect and autonomy (within the framework of the overarching philosophy) and teaching is such a coveted job that only 10 percent of the applicant pool is accepted for teacher education programs. Candidates then go on to five years of master’s level education to become a teacher. A number of the school teachers Baker met had Ph.D.s.

As the school year progresses, Baker continues to incorporate lessons from her trip and seeing how they pan out in reality.

“It does make you come back and look at your system and it’s very dissatisfying. You know you can’t bring the culture back, you know you can’t bring the temperament of the people back, you can’t bring the societal norms back, the free hot lunch for everyone… and also what they have in terms of support for families before kids get to school,” she said.

In Finland, new parents are guaranteed at least a year of parental leave. A few years later kids attend a neighborhood preschool. And then all children are guaranteed and required to attend a free public school from the ages 7-16. Free hot lunch is offered and required at all schools so there’s no daily distinction between those who can and cannot afford to pay or to bring a fancy homemade lunch.

Equity was made a priority in Finland circa the 1970s when it was decided accessible education for all would be essential for a healthy economy. They aim to offer the same level of education across class, race and geographic location. Additional funding, resources and teachers with special training are assigned to schools in impoverished and immigrant-dense areas.

“So those kids have so much. It makes me think we have to look at our society. Of course, it’s difficult for teachers here who have 7-year-olds who’ve had so much trauma. Kids in our society don’t have the level of support, and families don’t so that’s going to make a teacher‘s job harder here no matter where you teach.”

But before the changes were made in the 1970s that essentially created an education system in Finland, they were not a literate country, Baker explained.

“They’ve gone from being a poor, mostly rural country with lack of access to education to a highly developed, highly literate society in just two and a half generations. They didn’t used to be that. They invested in education instead of other things. They changed their society through education. If they can do it, we can too.”