I’m pleased to have my American colleague Meghan Smith share her insights on this blog. She began her teaching career in Finland about a decade ago. Currently, she teaches primary students at Ressu Comprehensive School in Helsinki.

My Search for Dignity in Teaching

 “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” – William Butler Yeats

As a child in the United States, I “taught” my little brothers their letters and numbers every afternoon in a walk-in closet at an age when they had no business holding a pencil or sitting at a desk.  This was perfectly natural and highly rewarding, at least, for me.

We all know one of these precocious children: I was one of them. I always had my nose in a book, and loved school and my teachers, though I had few friends and was very shy. I was so hungry for knowledge that I tuned everything else out.  In short, teaching and learning kindled a fierce hunger for knowledge inside of me. But didn’t choose teaching. Not in the beginning.

American Messages about Teaching

You could argue that I always stayed close to the field of education.  It was my deepest wish to work in a field with a sense of purpose, where curiosity and inquiry were rewarded, if never fully sated.  But as I left the kaleidoscope of wonder and color—that is elementary school—and began to emerge out of my shell, I began to notice that not only in school, but also in society at large, showing an interest or pride in your education was not cool.

You could have a passion for entertainment or sports, but outside of the bubble of the marching band or AP courses, a passion for academics was a faux pas.  It seemed that society condoned this.  We knew that our high school football coaches’ salaries, (and hence worth) were far greater than our teachers who weren’t there for the salary, but for us.

While my ears and eyes continued to soak up as much knowledge as possible, it seemed that everyone around me constantly had something to say, to spout off.  The public opinion and respect of teachers, especially, seemed to be eroded. Some of my role models inadvertently joined in.  I couldn’t always tune out the noise.

“You know if you became a teacher, you could be home in time to cook dinner for your husband and family before they get home. Plus you get three months off in the summer!” [the advice I heard from a family member as I researched universities to attend]  

“Those that can, do and those who can’t, teach!”

“It’s really just playing with children all day long, how hard could it be?  You don’t even need to go to college; you only need a high school degree!  ANYONE can become a teacher! You don’t actually have to know much, I mean, they just follow the teacher manuals and answer keys.”

“Can you believe that lazy teacher had her own students check each others’ spelling tests? They just collect the paycheck for working 9 months per year and make their own students do their job!”

While these may seem extreme, these, amongst other examples, were the discouraging things I heard constantly from many well-meaning adults throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.  Many teachers in the United States are familiar with these comments. I wanted to close my ears; I didn’t want to hear anymore.

A Dream Deferred

I was beginning to believe that this is how we as a society regarded teachers—that the people charged with the important job of molding minds and developing responsible and productive citizens are not valued.  Had I been more self-assured and certain of myself, I could have shaken it off and ignored it, but it stung my conscience; these were red flags to take another path.  My inner voice urging me to follow my dream to become a teacher began to drop to a silent whisper.

Even my own revered teachers advised us, “It’s charity work.  Never go into teaching, you all are too clever.”  They would allude to their summer jobs to make ends meet, and sometimes joke bitterly about their abysmal salaries.  I trusted them the most.  I was too young to listen to my own voice and to do what I thought was purposeful and right for me, or to “ignore the dogma,” as Steve Jobs would have said.

My undergraduate advisor informed me, “Teacher-training is an add-on.  If you want the certification, it’s better to get a degree first in a more rigorous discipline. Then you can just add a few other basic courses and take a test to get the qualification.”  The window was always open if I wanted to come back and become a teacher.  But I wasn’t so sure.

I set my sails in a different direction.  I wanted to take pride in my work, and stand tall with my choices. I studied Spanish at The University of Texas, and thought advocacy could be rewarding.  I became involved in different philanthropy projects in the community through volunteer organizations and non-profits.  Maybe here, I could make a difference?

Mostly, we did translation work for Spanish speakers who were living in poverty.  I tried my best to help in practical, everyday, but ultimately humble gestures.  It wasn’t as fulfilling as I had hoped, and I didn’t feel like I was making a real impact on peoples’ lives.

A Fire Rekindled

In 2001, one project took me to Mexico where a church group was building a drinking well and a small school in a village outside of Ciudad Victoria.  This was my wake up call.  Those kids were so hungry for knowledge of how the world works, and why was I helping them—they had fire in their eyes.  They became enlivened with the words from a book, words of possibility, of opportunity, of another world.  Alarm bells went off.  Wake up! What was I doing?  Why wasn’t it this?  What could be more important than kindling this spark that could change their lives?

When I returned from Mexico, I graduated and began working at LeapFrog, a company that made software programs for use in schools and bilingual classrooms.  The products were aligned with “State Standards,” were “research based,” (which got me into the classroom more than a few times), addressed “achievement gaps,” and followed “best practices.” After a few years, I was offered a position at Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, but I wanted to make a direct impact.  I wanted to teach without all the inequity and injustice.

I wanted to teach in a place where the national conversation didn’t regularly shame teachers for all of societies’ problems. I believed it was out there. I just didn’t know what to look for or to expect. What would I find?  Was the grass greener elsewhere?  Were my expectations realistic?

It would take a lot of courage, tsemppiä (“fighting spirit”) and searching to find the answers.  I had no idea I would find them in Finland.

Meghan dedicated this first guest post to her third grade teacher—Ms. Rhea Avenel from Mandeville Elementary School—who could turn fantasy into reality, and with a bit of magic, grant her the first true joys of learning. This post was originally published on June 18, 2014. Read her follow-up guest postabout her experiences teaching in Finlandhere.