Incoming e-mail: “Dear Miss Tsompanidi, we are very happy to tell you that you have been accepted to complete your teaching internship at our school.”
February 2016. I don’t even remember packing my suitcase. The only thing I remember is how excited yet scared I felt on the day of my flight. I was leaving my daily routine, the safety of my home, my friends and my family behind.
I am the kind of person who seeks change and loves travelling. But this time, it was more than that. For a young Greek woman, going to live in cold and far away Finland all by herself, it was a complete change of direction.
Time for a change
The first thing I saw as I landed in Finland was a vast white land, full of frozen lakes; a marvellous sight. The next thing I remember was the snowy route lined with fir trees all the way to the village where I would spend the next three months of my life.
The village was situated in the western part of Finland and had a population of 2,000. Apart from the houses belonging to the local inhabitants, there were two grocery stores, a gym and a library. There was no public transport, so if you didn’t have a car, you couldn’t travel around. And guess what: I didn’t have a car.
I had a typical traditional house in the heart of the village, just a 10-minute drive by the school bus to the school where I would be doing my practice.
It doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? However, I felt that it was an opportunity for me to do some worthwhile work, gather knowledge and go back home with plenty of new experiences.
Way to go, Finland!
Some of you might already wonder “Was it worth it?”. My answer to this is a resounding “Yes!”. The things I got to learn during those three months and the people I got to meet there filled me with more understanding about teaching, provided me with more ideas and strategies to use in a classroom and helped me to see teaching in a totally different way.
I was amazed by the way teachers teach there, by how the education system sees and supports children and by how much value is given to children’s voices.
So, what did I see at that school in that small Finnish village, that makes it so worthy?
For starters, it was a “happy” school; cosy, colourful classrooms with age-appropriate material and pupils’ work displayed on the walls; bookcases full of books and board games; sofas, pillows and Pilates balls, where pupils could sit whenever they wanted to take a break from their chairs if they felt uncomfortable; an “escape room”, decorated by the pupils themselves, where they could slip away whenever they felt the need to take a bit of time off on their own, or with their friends; a massive playground near the forest, where they could run, hide, play on the swings or do sports.
The learning environment contributes to high-quality learning, right? However, this wouldn’t have been achieved without an education system which values both students and teachers.
The child-centred and student-led education system, the flexibility and freedom that teachers have so they can use their initiative, and all the support that both students and teachers get by law, have contributed to Finland being the number one country in education.
What did Finland teach me?
Curriculum as a guide
Teachers are free to use their initiative and take their students’ experiences and needs into account when planning.
Differentiation and accommodation in the foreground
Teachers take their students’ needs into account and they adapt their lessons accordingly. Learning is for all.
Exams as a tool
Exams are used to facilitate teachers in assessing their students understanding as well as in planning.
Play and art are very important in learning. I can’t remember any lesson in which games or art were not included.
Homework is given in the form of tasks to be completed at the weekend. This aims to shape students into responsible individuals and also engage parents in their learning.
Reading for pleasure
A lot of schools in Finland plan projects that encourage students to read by organising reading activities and rewarding them.
Sports and outdoor learning
I still remember the times when we went for a walk in the forest to find insects or to the river to fish.
Gaining skills for life
Children learn to knit, use a sewing machine, work with wood, cook and fish. They learn to make constructions, which encourages them to use their brains to think, question and make decisions. I specifically remember a project they were asked to do using a cardboard box to construct a miniature house; they had to paint it, decorate it and make all the furniture. Everything had to be practical and useful.
Feels like home
They took their shoes…off! Well, you might think “How did this manage to amaze you?” but let me tell you that this was one of my favourite things every morning when I arrived at school. We had to take our shoes off and put our cosy indoor socks on. Imagine the freedom you feel just walking around with your soft socks on; this was especially beneficial for the children. It gave them a “homey” feeling and facilitated their learning.
A suitcase full of memories
When my internship was over and the time came for me to return to Greece, I just couldn’t wait to get home. This didn’t have anything to do with the fact that I had been living abroad, as I like this kind of experience. The thing was, I had been expecting to spend three months in a village somewhere in Finland, staying at home half the day watching Game of Thrones.
However, the other half of my day was full of new things to learn, different people to talk to and exchange ideas with, as well as the feeling that all this was shaping me into a reflective and confident teacher.
I believe that experiences make us.
If you asked me whether I’d do it again, I’d definitely say “Yes”. This time nearer civilisation, though!
Over to you now. Are you aware of any education systems similar to the Finnish one? Leave a comment and let me know.
Sara Tsompanidi is a content writer, based in Edinburgh. Her educational background in primary teaching and her multicultural experiences have given her a broad base to approach education topics. She especially enjoys sharing her experiences and providing practical advice to educators, who are making their first steps in Scotland.
(You can contact her here: firstname.lastname@example.org or find more about her here: https://twitter.com/STsompanidi)