I was 21 and naïve. I had been offered a long-term job as a computer teacher at an urban elementary school outside of Boston, and I jumped at the opportunity—even thought I knew nothing about teaching. I had just graduated from college without taking a single education course.
As a substitute teacher, I wanted to get my feet wet in a school setting, and see if I could make a career out of teaching. The principal assured me that the classroom teachers would join me for the lessons. And I liked this idea of collaborating with other teachers. As an untrained teacher, I could use all the help I could get. But I soon found out that things wouldn’t go as I expected.
My colleagues weren’t used to showing up to computer lessons. Although they were technically required to join the computer teacher for lessons, the previous teacher had given them a free pass. And I could see why most classroom teachers had preferred to skip out, and chisel away at their long to-do lists. If I had been in their shoes, I probably would have done the same. They spent many hours teaching in their classrooms. Their students had to take standardized tests. They were formally evaluated.
Once I had joined the staff, the principal sent out a message to my colleagues, requiring that they accompany me for these bi-weekly 40-minute lessons. A few teachers embraced this new reality, and were eager to work with me to make computer lessons relevant to their students. But most teachers seemed too overwhelmed to do anything but catch their breath during lessons, watching me fumble along. Instead of supporting them, I felt like I was a leech, draining them of their strength as they were now required to join me in the computer lab.
During one lesson, a young first grade teacher shooed in her class and they joined me in the meeting area towards the front of the lab. She hung back towards the back of the classroom with her hands full of paper. Her face was sullen, and underneath her eyes were dark bags. With a look of shame, she sheepishly asked if she could work in the back while she watched me teach. How could I say no? And as I looked across the room, a realization smacked me in the face. Collaboration is virtually impossible when teachers are overwhelmed. The reason for this is quite simple.
Collaboration is all about the sharing of work. When teachers are stressed, it’s easy to view collaborating as a luxurious add-on. And once teachers become convinced that they can’t afford to work together, the sharing of work just doesn’t happen. Overwhelmed teachers rarely leave their classrooms while they’re at school. They even skip lunch. And at the end of each day, they’re the ones who rush out of their schools, eyes set forward, hoping that they won’t bump into a colleague because they see this interaction as unproductive. In this environment, teaching starts to look like a rat race—where only the fittest survive. This is what I was observing as a computer teacher at a public elementary school in Massachusetts.
But I would later find out that this professional ecosystem wasn’t exceptional. It seemed to be the norm in American schools. In a recent OECD study (TALIS 2013), American lower secondary teachers report spending 27 hours per week just on classroom teaching, which is significantly higher than the average of 19 hours across TALIS countries. Additionally, these American teachers log more hours per week than their international peers (45 hours versus 38 hours).
Given the heavy workload, it’s not surprising to learn that 50% or more of the surveyed American teachers report that they never teach jointly in the same classroom with a colleague or observe their colleagues teaching. On top of all of this, 42% of these U.S. teachers state that they never engage in joint projects across classes or age groups. The OECD data suggest that this kind of collaborative activity can be linked to teachers’ reported job satisfaction and their confidence in their own teaching abilities.
Four years after my stint as a computer teacher, I moved to Finland with my family. I had heard about the success of Finnish education, but this hadn’t influenced our decision to move. My wife and I were looking for a less burdensome place to raise our children. Life in the Boston area was too fast for us, and we were having a hard time paying our bills. Within days of arriving in Helsinki, I was given the unexpected opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to teach fifth grade at a Finnish public school.
The teaching environment in Helsinki was nothing like I could have imagined. For years, my Finnish wife Johanna had tried convincing me that teachers in Finland took frequent 15-minute breaks between lessons. Unbelievable, I thought. She told me that they spent most of these breaks in the teachers’ lounge, sipping coffee and conversing with each other. I rolled my eyes. Johanna even told me that they taught a lot less hours than American teachers. And according to her, a typical first grade teacher in Finland worked about half as much each week as I was working as a first grade teacher at a private school in the Boston area (25 hours vs. 50 hours). This last bit was usually too much for me to hear, and I would scowl at her. But once I started teaching at a Finnish public school, I apologized to my wife for not believing her. She was absolutely right.
In Finland, I found a school structure that fostered rich collaboration among teachers. In nearly 50% of my lessons, I was paired with one or two of my colleagues. Teachers in my school were not just collaborating in the traditional sense by planning and teaching lessons together—they were truly laboring together, sharing the burdens of teaching with each other. They were helping each other track down the resources they’d need for an upcoming lesson. They were discussing better ways to support needy students. They were analyzing the curriculum together. They were talking about how to improve recess for the kids. They were grading tests together. They were offering tech support to each other. To my surprise, this work often happened in between sips of coffee, during those 15-minute breaks throughout the day.
Strangely, the amount of required collaborative time at my Finnish school—about two hours each week—was similar to the required amount of collaborative time at my former public school in America. And yet, the degree of collaboration was strikingly different between the two schools. From my vantage point, American teachers were often too exhausted to benefit from mandated hours of collaboration. And outside of these times, they had difficulty justifying the idea of working together during their meager hours of free time. They reasoned that more could be done when working alone.
In the United States, a full-time teaching load is nearly 50% more than the typical full-time teaching load in Finland, which is just 18 hours in the classroom every week. More hours of teaching for American educators mean that there are more hours of planning and bookkeeping. With this in mind, it’s no wonder American teachers report such low levels of collaboration. They are squeezed for time.
But the heavy teaching load is not the only obstacle for American teachers. They lack a teaching schedule that provides them with built-in opportunities to work with their colleagues. In my second year of teaching in Finland, 70% of my scheduled lessons are co-taught. I am even teaching history alongside my principal! Furthermore, teachers in Finland have frequent 15-minute breaks throughout the school day to collaborate with each other—often in the teachers’ lounge.
Teaching in Finland has shown me what’s possible in American schools and elsewhere. Collaboration among teachers can be fostered, but it will require bold steps. Teachers need many opportunities to work together, and a lighter teaching load to maximize the time that they spend together.
Tim Walker is an American teacher and writer based in Finland. He writes regularly about education and culture at Taught by Finland.
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