“We Look Across”

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Aki, an elementary educator of 20+ years, captured the essence of the egalitarian spirit of the Finnish school system when he said, “We don’t look up. We look across.” And that holds true for headmaster and teacher, and teacher and student. As much as humanly possible, there is little to no hierarchy. Headmasters are there to support teachers, and teachers are there to support students.

In this post, I’ll focus on the teacher-student dynamic. The Post “Finnish Teachers are Trusted Professionals” will touch on the relationship between headmaster and teacher.

For students and teachers, what does this egalitarian spirit look like in practice? Students call teachers by their first name, have dozens of choices built into the day, and receive few concrete consequences, other than perhaps a quick, firm admonishment, reminding students of the respectful way to behave. Though not a common practice, we met a few high school teachers who allow students to assign their own grades. According to the teachers using this teaching practice, about 9 out of 10 students choose the grade they actually earned. And the 1 out of 10 do not get to choose their grade; instead they have a conversation about what it means to evaluate yourself accurately and honestly.

The endless hierarchical systems present in the American school system (and, of course, many other countries), such as behavior management systems, teacher evaluations, detailed classroom rules, rigid routines and procedures, and so forth – are unheard of here. That is not a figure of speech or the slightest exaggeration. When Gibran and I described the concept of “teacher evaluations” to a group of Finnish teachers, they laughed and thought we were joking. When they realized we were serious, they shook their heads in dismay, and Aki said, “No, thank you. I’ll find another profession. Nothing could sap my inspiration, motivation, or creativity more than what you’re describing.” There is more I’d like to say specifically on teacher evaluations, but I am going to save the details for another post. In a few sentences, I believe there is a way to have teacher evaluations in a humane, edifying manner. But for that to be the case, all rubrics and checklists must be burned and a radically different approach taken. More on that later.

For now, I’d like to explore the different approaches toward student discipline.

In the American elementary world, there is so much talk about behavior management systems. Do you use “Love and Logic,” or Collaborative Problem Solving ®, or a system of checks, stoplights, colored cards, magnets, or one of another hundred systems? But here, in Finland, it feels refreshingly simple. It’s more like how parents approach discipline with their own children. With love and firmness, parents help their children develop into good people, however they personally define “good.” Few parents I know put their child on a behavior management plan or subscribe to a specific discipline philosophy that they selected in preparation for the birth of their children. Of course not.

I am not saying that all of these systems are bogus, or that pieces of them don’t have their place in schools. I’m saying that I’ve seen a system that works here (and in many excellent teachers’ classrooms in the states) that is based on experience, intuition, love, and a belief that children should be both respectful and respected.

What does this look like? It looks different from classroom to classroom and teacher to teacher, but there’s some combination of serious and frequent talks about how to treat others and think beyond yourself, logical consequences (you fooled around in class, now you must do work during recess or for homework), loss of privileges when warranted (you’re playing Fortnite on your computer, now you don’t get to use a computer), and – this one is important – inspiring discipline that motivates children to want to do better. I have seen firsthand children lifted up and disciplined at the same time. A brief example:

“You are such a kind, wonderful person. I have seen you stand up to others when ______ was getting made fun of. I have seen you…” But today, your actions have not been kind, in fact they were mean. It was mean, really mean, when you said X, Y, and Z to _________. I do not think for one second that you are a mean person, but today you acted in a mean way. Do you want others to think you are mean? No, I know you don’t. So what do you need to do differently? What can you do to make this right? Okay, good. I believe you can do better. But I’m going to be clear, if this happens again, you will have a bigger consequence.”

(For those wonderful kiddos who say, “I don’t care if people think I’m mean.” Then there’s an easy response to that too: “That’s your choice. But you need to understand people don’t like to be around mean people. And it’s going to be tough making and keeping friends. But again, no one can force you to care. It’s on you.”)

The major point here is that everything doesn’t need to be spelled out like a playbook. I’ve never met an experienced, effective teacher who wanted or needed such rigid, prescriptive hierarchical systems. For the vast majority of American educators with whom I have worked, given the space and support and time for collaboration, they will find their own path – one that works for them and for their students. As Pauliina, an upper secondary teacher, so wisely put it: “Maybe the worst is to do something that feels wrong to you. To teach, you must teach with your whole self. There is no other way.”

Relevant Research:

  • Research shows that the majority of newly hired teachers are more satisfied and perform better with structured leadership styles (Vecchio, 1987).
  • Experienced teachers have higher morale and a more positive perception of school climate under less structured leadership styles. Teachers who perceive a positive school climate have higher levels of student achievement (Johnson and Stevens, 2006).

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