Teacher training in Finland

One of the unique aspects of teacher preparation in Finland is the use of teacher training schools. The University of Helsinki works in cooperation with two local public schools, Viikin normaalikoulun and Helsingin normaalilyseo, where students do their practice teaching. I previously tried to schedule a visit to Viiki using a teacher contact provided by my advisor. After getting in touch with the teacher, I was contacted by a school administrator who said I’d have to pay 350 € per day to observe classes! I understand that they must get swamped with requests for visits. But I’m placed at the University of Helsinki for my grant, and it’s a school where students from the university are trained, so it was a bit surprising to be asked to pay for access. The challenge of arranging school visits is a common topic that comes up when Fulbright teachers get together.

I am taking a course on the Finnish educational system, and the professor arranged for those of us in the class to visit schools in small groups. Helsingin normaalilyseo was one of the options, so I was fortunate to have the opportunity to go there without having to do the legwork (or pay). We were only able to observe one class (English), but we did have some time to ask questions about how teachers are trained.

The school has 540 students, with 300 in grades 7-9 and 240 in high school. Students in the local community have the right to attend the lower secondary school. They also have the option of going to a different school if they prefer. High school students must apply to attend, and they are admitted based on their GPA. It is quite competitive to gain entrance, requiring approximately an average grade of 9 on a scale of 4 to 10.

The staff at the school consists of 60 teachers who work with 160 teacher trainees. The teachers have slightly fewer lessons per week and earn a little more than teachers at other schools to compensate for the extra work of serving as mentors. The mentor teachers aren’t required to have taught for a particular number of years, but they must have slightly higher qualifications. Unlike in the US where one mentor teacher is typically paired with one trainee, one mentor works with a small group of trainees.

The trainees spend 2.5 months in the fall and 2.5 months in the spring observing, preparing, and teaching lessons. During each semester, they observe at least 21 lessons (75-minutes each) and teach 8. Trainees work with two mentor teachers, teaching four lessons for each. For example, the trainee we observed today is studying to be a teacher of English and French. She has already taught four practice lessons in French under the supervision of one mentor; now she is working with a different mentor to teach four lessons in English. The trainees share their lesson plans with their mentors well in advance of the lesson and then incorporate suggestions for changes. After the lesson, they have a meeting to discuss how it went and get feedback.  Trainees also spend some time working in other local schools, but some mentioned that this part of the training might be cut in the future due to funding issues. The program is different for primary school teachers who spend more time working in classrooms during their five years of university education.

I very much like the idea of a school designed specifically for practice teaching, staffed by teachers chosen to be mentors, and maintaining communication with the university.  In the US, there is often little communication between the universities and the mentor teachers. The job of mentoring someone who is doing practice teaching must be done on top of one’s own teaching responsibilities, and there is often very little guidance from the university beyond a certain number of hours that are required and a final evaluation form to complete.

The number of hours the trainees spend teaching was much less than I had been expecting. In all, it amounts to 20 hours of teaching and 52.5 hours of observing. In comparison, most graduate students I have worked with observe one day per week during the fall semester and are in school full time during the spring semester. They usually take over the responsibility of teaching one class in January or February (3.7 hours of teaching per week), taking on a second class and possibly a third by the end of the year.

The small number of lessons the Finnish students teach gives them sufficient time for planning and discussing lessons before they are executed, and it allows them to discuss each lesson after it is taught. However, teachers must have quite an adjustment during the first year of teaching when they must adapt to the pace of planning 20 or more lessons per week while also assessing students. But at least they have less of a time burden than American teachers when it comes to paperwork, meetings, evaluations, standardized testing, and parent communication. With more time available to simply prepare lessons and teach them, perhaps the first year isn’t as challenging as it might seem.

One other way that teacher education differs wildly from that in the US is in the selection process for getting a spot in a teacher education program, which is a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree. There are only eight Finnish universities offering teacher training programs. All are public universities, and all are free to attend. Applying to be a primary school teacher is very competitive, with fewer than 10% of applicants admitted. Applicants must take a written exam to test their analytical thinking skills; the exam is based on a reading assignment that students must do in advance. The second part of the application process is a personal interview. This part is crucial, as having the right personality to work with students is as important as knowing the content that is being taught.

There is no teacher certification in Finland. It is not needed, as it is believed that one who gains admittance to and then completes a master’s degree in education is qualified to teach. There is also no evaluation process, and principals do not commonly observe classes. Teachers are professionals and are given the freedom to do their jobs. The trust that teachers are given is discussed frequently when I talk to teachers and administrators. On practical terms, it means teachers spend less time doing paperwork related to evaluation, and fewer administrators are needed to oversee what goes on in the classroom

The system in the US involves universities that educate as many people as are interested in trying to become teachers. Schools are happy to collect the tuition money, even if it is evident that being a teacher might not be the best fit for someone. Some students who graduate from education programs are unable to pass the tests required for teacher certification on the first or even second try. And some who pass may know the content, but they may not be able to translate it into something that will engage students. This system of weeding out potential teachers throughout the process of becoming a teacher, and even into into their first years in the classroom, contributes to the poor image many have of the teaching profession. I’d be willing to bet that the percentage of people admitted to education programs who are working as teachers ten years later is much higher in Finland than in the US.

But how can the system be changed? States do require teachers to take various tests of language skills and subject knowledge, and some require teachers to have a master’s degree. But the key elements are encouraging the most capable students to apply to become teachers, selecting the top ones (based on both academics and personality), and providing them with excellent training. Another Fulbright teacher here in Finland, Ellen O’Donnell, is focusing on teacher training for her research, so I’m curious to see her suggestions once she’s done!

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