Before moving to Finland, I hardly understood the unique challenges of teaching in America. Sure, I knew teaching was an exhausting, stressful job. (I burned out during my first year of classroom teaching in Arlington, Massachusetts.) However, I lacked the fresh perspective that comes from encountering a different school system. I needed a stint at a Finnish public school to realize that working conditions are especially difficult for many U.S. teachers.
This week is America’s Teacher Appreciation Week, and I want to express my gratitude for U.S. educators.
My last school year in America (2012-2013) was very challenging for me. My Finnish wife, Johanna, stayed at home with our first child and the extra financial burden nudged me to pick up several part-time jobs while I worked as a full-time teacher and pursued a master’s degree in elementary education.
In short, I didn’t see much of Johanna and our baby boy that school year—and when I did, my anxiety definitely diminished the quality of our time together.
(46% of U.S. teachers say they experience a high level of daily stress. In fact, U.S. physicians report less stress than American teachers who are tied with the nation’s nurses as having the highest level of daily stress.)
My wife suggested that we move to her home country where we’d find paid parental leaves, affordable daycare, and universal health care. Initially I bucked the idea. I loved my teaching job and cherished the school where I worked, but we both knew we needed to make a change.
In Finland, I felt prepared to hit the pause button on my teaching career in order to experience better work-life balance. Actually, we received our one-way tickets to Helsinki before I found a new job.
However, something miraculous happened just one month before we moved to Finland.
On a June morning in 2013, I found a message in my email inbox from a Helsinki administrator, one of many Finnish principals I had contacted earlier in the year. She wondered if I’d be interested in teaching a fifth grade class at her bilingual public school. We found a time to chat and, at the end of that call, she offered me the teaching job.
In Helsinki, I started this blog (Taught by Finland) to document the lessons I’d learn as an American teacher working inside the Finnish school system. One of the biggest surprises I encountered in Finland was vastly different working conditions for teachers.
Consider the new teaching schedule I received in Helsinki.
I scratched my head when my new principal handed me my timetable: I would receive a full salary while working about 10 hours less than I did as an elementary school teacher in the Boston area. (In Finland, a typical full-time teaching load for an elementary school teacher is only 18 hours of weekly classroom instruction.)
It was the light teaching schedule I used to dream about while teaching in America.
In a major international teaching study involving more than five-million teachers from 34 countries and economies, U.S. teachers said they spend the most number of hours each week teaching their students: 27 hours, on average.
More hours of teaching equate to more hours of lesson planning, student assessment, grading, and record-keeping. In other words, many American teachers must cope with the challenges of high-stakes testing, prescriptive standards, and external evaluations while possessing less free time.
However, it’s not just the sheer amount of teaching that burdens many U.S. teachers. It’s also the whirlwind pace of the school day.
In Finland, and in many other countries, children receive frequent recesses throughout the school day. At my Helsinki school, students typically enjoy a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes of classroom instruction. The younger pupils head outside for free play while older children get to decide where they spend their free time.
But it’s not just Finnish kids who get to disconnect from their work several times throughout the school day.
To my surprise, my Finnish colleagues would usually disappear into the teachers’ lounge during these recesses. There, they’d typically drink coffee, chat, and read for leisure. (To allow for this arrangement, my colleagues and I would take turns supervising the children’s recesses.)
Scores of U.S. teachers say they lack sufficient time to use the bathroom during the school day. Not only that, but I’ve also detected a stigma associated with teachers’ lounges in America.
In 2015, Ohio Governor John Kasich said, “if I were… king in America, I would abolish all teachers’ lounges where they sit together and worry about how ‘woe is us.’”
U.S. teacher-attrition rates have hovered around 8 percent over the last decade or so and they are about double what you’d find in high-achieving nations, such as Finland and Singapore; experts say this high teacher attrition rate is the primary reason behind the widespread teacher shortages plaguing many parts of America.
Undoubtedly, U.S. teachers need policy changes that would improve their working conditions and motivate them to stay in the profession. But American educators also need our encouragement.
Knowing the systemic differences that exist between Finland and the United States, I wrote the book Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms to encourage fellow American teachers.
About two weeks ago I heard from a second grade teacher in Ohio who has felt the pressures of frequent testing and the state’s teacher evaluation system. In her Amazon review of my book, she said that she finished Teach Like Finland in two nights after two long days at school:
“After the first night, I decided to try something as simple as giving my kids fresh air breaks each hour. I was amazed at the difference in behavior and focus after these breaks. The kids enjoyed their breaks and asked if we could do the fresh air breaks next week. I can’t wait for next week when I allow my kids more freedom in their research projects and having their help in planning our Force and Motion unit. I told my principal, other teachers in my school, and friends that work with future teachers about [Teach Like Finland] and many have already ordered it!”
If you’re an American parent, you can encourage your child’s teacher in a special way during National Teacher Appreciation Week. Here’s one gift idea: Would you consider giving them a copy of my just-released book?
Teach Like Finland was out of stock for nearly two weeks on Amazon, but I’m happy to report it’s now available. If you order a copy today it should arrive before Friday, just in time to give it to a U.S. teacher!
You can learn more about Teach Like Finland here.
Timothy D. Walker is an American teacher living in Finland and the author of the new book Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms. He is a contributing writer on education issues for The Atlantic.
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