10 questions for Aila: an interview with a Finnish teacher

The Finnish education system is regarded as one of the best in the world, and having lived there as a student, it comes as no surprise to me. Most of the interest in the country’s education system is sparked by the impressive results from Finnish primary school students, and in this post we’ll interview a Finnish teacher: my good friend Aila.

When I was living in Finland as an international exchange student, one of the subjects I liked the most – besides Usability – was E-learning. In fact, I liked both subjects so much that my thesis was based on a combination of them.

One of the practical assignments in the E-learning course required pairs of students to go to a Finnish primary school to talk to teachers and the management. We were given the task of finding out how they were using technology in their classes, and their plans to introduce new technologies in the school.

The school I went to was the one where my Finnish friend Aila worked as a primary school teacher. Following up on that day at the school, I sent Aila these 10 questions to get her first-hand view of the Finnish education system.

Meet Aila

Aila, a Finnish teacher

1.- Hi Aila. Before starting, can you tell us how many years you’ve worked as teacher in Finland, as well as the main subject that you teach and specialize in?

Hi! I’ve worked as a teacher since 1994 so for a very long time… 18 years. I majored in English and I teach both English and Swedish – usually I only have a couple of courses of Swedish per year, though.

The education needed to be a teacher in Finland

2.- Can you tell us something about why you chose to be a teacher?

Well, when I was young I had other plans too; for example, I was thinking of becoming a journalist or a translator. So becoming a teacher was never the only option. Sometimes it almost feels like I just “ended up” as a teacher. I always liked English and wanted to study it, and then as the first years in the university went by it became more obvious that I would take education/pedagogy studies as well and qualify as a teacher.

The other option for language students would have been to become a researcher and I was never into that. Teaching seemed interesting and I thought it might suit me! It was important that the work involved being around people, which translating wouldn’t have.

3.- For how many years did you study and how were those years? What are the hardest subjects that future teachers will have to face while studying?

I took my time…I was working during the last year of my studies and I also spent some time abroad so I did not finish quickly! I spent over 7 years studying. The hardest subjects? Well, I think everything depends on your motivation. When you enjoy doing it, it doesn’t matter if it’s difficult or demanding – you do it anyway.

But if you’re not the scientist type then maybe the seminar papers and the thesis might prove quite challenging. But if we’re talking in general, I guess for a young person there can be difficult times when you’re wondering if this is what I really want to do, and just staying focused when there are so many other things going on all the time! Also, financial aspects can be cause for worry, especially if you have to work while studying, etc.

4.- How was your first internship/practicum in a school? How do teachers work in the school?

You mean while I was still a student? Or my first real job? As student teachers we were put in groups of about 5 and we had a tutor from among the language teachers in the training school. She (rarely “he” among language teachers!) had tutorials with us that had to do with teaching in general, some groups in particular, and some particular themes. She assigned us to certain groups/classes and we had to show her the lesson plan in advance.

She was there during our lessons, of course, and gave feedback afterwards. Our teacher training periods were maybe a couple of months at a time and we had them over a period of a little over a year towards the end of our studies. In Finland, we have state-funded teacher training schools where all this practical training is arranged and supervised. But then when I had my first “real job” it was just: go there – start working (and hope it goes well!!).

And my first real job was quite a special one because it was a hotel and restaurant school and there were no English or Swedish books, so I had to make a lot of the material myself. It was very different from comprehensive schools or upper secondary schools, which have very extensive material, books, tests, teacher’s material, handouts that are basically ready to use. But this was a good learning experience and I really enjoyed my first job.

A finnish School
A school in Finland. Source: Leo Setä.

The Finnish educational system

5.- How does the assignment of teachers to schools work? Did you go to the school you wanted or did the Ministry assign you to one?

Yes, I’ve heard that in some countries the ministry assigns young teachers to schools but we don’t have that here. You can apply for a post anywhere and often there are quite a few applicants. So you are quite lucky if you get a permanent job as a very young teacher. But basically you can apply anywhere: any school level, anywhere in the country. I don’t think we’ll ever have a system like the one you mentioned here.

6.- What changes in the Finnish educational system have been implemented during the years you’ve worked as teacher? How did the Ministry or other institutions prepare the teachers for those changes?

This requires some serious thinking…actual changes in the system? It does seem that change is constant. When I got my degree, Polytechnics were a new kind of school/institute in Finland. That changed the education system on that level. Nowadays they’re called Universities of Applied Sciences (a slightly controversial name, if I’ve understood correctly). In the comprehensive school system, there haven’t been such big events but maybe the European dimension, e.g. the European Framework for assessing language skills, is something to mention here. We are usually quite well prepared for any changes that come. People are trained at the local level to pass on the information and usually the changes aren’t that quick.

7.- How is the national study plan implemented at your school and how is written? What’s the relationship between the Ministry and the schools?

The national study plan, the curriculum, determines what we teach but not so much how we do it. There’s quite a lot of freedom for individual schools to organize their work and also quite a lot of freedom for individual teachers. Also, for instance, the material that is used can be decided by the teacher – usually after consulting the head teacher.

The curriculum is decided at the national level, but first towns/municipalities, and finally schools can make their own “alterations” to it. They can add or emphasize something they are specializing in or something they feel is particularly important in their area, which want to show in their curriculum. So decisions are made at all of these levels: national, municipal and school. The curriculum can be slightly different in bigger towns v. rural areas, north v. south, etc.

In schools everyone usually has a say in the “school curriculum” and it’s written together. We are responsible for the work we do, naturally, and it has to be in accordance with the national curriculum, but there is very little testing or control over our work. It is a very good system where the schools are trusted to do their job properly and, as far as I understand, things go well. If, on the other hand, there are problems, they are dealt with and we all have to answer for our work.

A Finnish classroom
A classroom in Finland. Source: Leo Setä.

Students, teachers and technology in Finland

8.- What’s the student’s role in the classes? How are students that learn a bit slower helped out, and how are the smartest students motivated to go further?

This is something that has changed a lot since my time as a kid in school. The student’s role is much bigger and more active in class nowadays. Thinking and speaking your mind is encouraged more than it used to be! Also, the work in class involves more doing than just listening and/or writing. In languages there’s much more speaking than there used to be.

It’s a huge challenge to keep everyone motivated (and busy) no matter what their skill level is! Sometimes some students get to go to the special education teacher for a lesson and there they can look at some things in more detail and more slowly. Of course, there’s just one special education teacher so her time has to be divided among many many students and not everyone can go as much as might be needed. But differentiating, and giving everyone the right amount of work at the right level is the answer. Not everyone has to do the same amount and go into matters in as much depth. Students are quite used to not doing the exact same things, so it works quite well. But it’s a challenge and something to think about every day!

9.- How do you integrate technology in the classes and how do you choose these technologies?

I’m not the most technology-minded person you’ll find. In classrooms there’s usually just one computer, the teacher’s; the students don’t have their own laptops or anything. Sometimes if we need to do some “research” we can move the class to the IT room. I sometimes use the internet in teaching but it’s mainly a part of my work at the preparation stage. But, of course, it’s brilliant for authentic material to show in class!

Technology, equipment etc.– this is something where the schools vary a lot! In some places they do have laptops for the students, in some places they have smartboards…but not yet in our school. But even if you don’t have state-of-the-art equipment, you can still manage, I think.

10.- How is the teachers’ workload? What’s a typical day like for you? Do you have many holidays?

The workload varies a little from year to year. This year I have 20 lessons per week, sometimes I have 24. In elementary school the class teachers may have 26 lessons. 20 is very suitable for me, but my workday is never just 4 hours long! There’s always preparing, marking, frequent meetings, sometimes remedial teaching, or even detention… My day typically starts at 8.15 and finishes at 1 or 2. There may be a skip lesson or two and a teachers’ meeting usually every other week. Our breaks are 10 minutes long, so you can’t expect to get anything done in that time. The weeks are very different and before holidays the test papers tend to pile up…but then there are easier times too. Also, there’s usually at least one break duty every day, which means standing in corridors or outside trying to make sure nothing goes wrong. This year I’m a homeroom teacher for 9th grade (final year), and preparing a week-long class trip has been quite a lot of work.

In comprehensive school and most vocational schools the teachers are on holiday when the kids are on holiday – so yes, we have quite a nice number of days off: our summer holiday is a little over 2 months long, we have a week off in the autumn and a week in February–March. Then there’s a shorter break at Christmas and at Easter. These vary a little bit from one town or municipality to the next because they can be decided upon separately in each town or area.

The last question is freestyle. Would you like to add something that we didn’t ask?

Hmm… well it’s a wonderful job being a teacher in Finland! Apart from marking tests, there usually isn’t a dull moment! I never have to wonder whether or not my job makes a difference – I can always count on this to be an important job. In comprehensive school it’s about so much more than just teaching your subject, it’s also about bringing up these young people, which is something we should always keep in mind: we have a big role in their lives every day, and we are an example. I’m very proud of my job. PISA test scores tell us something, but there’s something that’s more important: being present for the students and treating them well WHILE teaching your subject.

I’ve been writing about Finland for 8 years. In these articles I am trying to transmit my passion for Finland, its marvelous nature and cities, its people and the culture of the country. Thanks for reading!