My first days as an Erasmus in Finland (I)

This is the first of what will be a series of posts on how I felt when moving to Finland from Spain.

I was 21 years old then, and although I’d traveled through Europe with some friends before, I wasn’t confident with my English skills. I also never really lived by my own: in Spain the norm – unless you live in a small village and want to study in a big city – is that you live with your family until your late twenties. So it was all excitement and uncertainty for me.

My first days as an Erasmus student in Finland

I started this series of posts when I was already landed in Joensuu, Finland, as an Erasmus student. You can read my experiences on the Spanish Big in Finland too.

The first week was really intense: Basic Finnish 101, meeting other international exchange students, the usual parties to meet people (one of them was blessed with the presence of the police, the mark of a true party), tons of Spanish cooking with friends and lots more.

These posts were my way to let my friends know what I was up to, and they had the desired effect: a year later many of them went on Erasmus too.

Preparing the trip to Finland

This is how it all began. I had actually wanted to check-in my luggage a day in advance, since my flights up to that point were point-to-point and my bags never had to travel by themselves; I was sure they’d get lost somewhere. Even so, I of course wanted to meet up with my friends in my last days at home, and I left the check in for the day of the flight.

A piece of luggage

At 3:30 in the morning on my departure day – it was an early flight – I woke up and had a sudden realization: it was the point of no return. I got frightened about everything that could go wrong, especially losing my luggage or if I needed to check in again in the airport hub of Amsterdam.

Finally, my family took me to the airport and it was an interesting feeling. No one in my family had gone on Erasmus or exchange programs before, and it was a new experience for all of us.

In the airport: luggage restrictions and Erasmus bags

Once at the airport there was a queue of about 100 people with their carts, the ones with the “press here” bars to release the breaks, an airport classic. All of the carts were crammed with people’s belongings and luggage. Maybe it was just my feeling, but it seemed that everyone in Madrid airport was going on Erasmus too.

After a long while on the airport queue (I regretted not checking in the day before) I arrived to the counter and the nice lady from KLM asked me if I was on Erasmus and if I had a passport. In Finland – or many other countries for this matter – they are not used to see foreign IDs and they don’t really know what to do with them.

I put my luggage on the counter and learned that it was 10 kilos overweight. With a less friendly face, she told me that in Finland they would be less magnanimous than in Spain with this, but she let my 10 extra kilos pass without making me pay a fee. From other friend’s experiences, I would eventually learn that her advice was very true.

After that, I said goodbye to my family with a strange feeling taking hold of my body, just from seeing myself in such an overwhelming situation once again. I held my breath and went to the airport control.

On the airport, ready to take a flight
Me at the airport, back in the day, wearing a thick coat. Finland is cold.


Basic Finnish phrases and words

Almost a month before starting my Erasmus in Finland, I got a package from the University with some materials. My favourite part? The Basic Finnish phrases dictionary.

Among other things about the city and university – Joensuu – I considered the Finnish-Spanish dictionary to be something extremely important when arriving in a new country. I’d say that arguably the most important words to know in every language are: “sorry”, “thank you” and “male”. The latter will save you some embarrassment when going to a public bathroom.

These words are beyond basic Finnish.
Some finnish words. Source.

Here are the basic Finnish words and phrases that the Finns think we should know.

Some basic finnish words

Yes: kyllä
No: ei
Thank you: kiitos
Hi: hei, moi, terve
Sorry: anteeksi
Street: tie, katu
One, two, three, four: yksi, kaksi, kolme, neljä
Five, six, seven, eight: viisi, kuusi, seitsemän
Eight, nine, ten: kahdeksan, yhdeksän, kymmenen
Cheers!: kippis!

Basic finnish phrases

How are you doing: päivää
Good morning: hyvää huomenta
Good afternoon: hyvää iltaa
Good night: hyvää yötä
How are you?: Mitä kuuluu?
I don’t understand: en ymmärrä
How much?: Kuinka paljon?
Can you help me?: Voistteko autta minua?
Where is he/they?: Missä on?

Basic finnish
Help yourself with some basic Finnish. Source (CC: by-sa).

Basic Finnish classes in Erasmus

If you’re planning on doing Erasmus in Finland, you’ll be able to take Basic Finnish 101 classes. If you’re not very serious about learning Finnish – since it’s pretty much comparable to Japanese in terms of difficulty to learn, and since all of the courses will be in English anyway – but you want to get around in Finland while being exquisitely polite, this is the course for you.

The good thing about the Finnish language? It’s pronounced just as it is written. Therefore, by reading the words above you’ll be able to grasp how the language sounds pretty easily. A basic tip: if there are two identical consonants together, you have to make a little pause between them.

In the future, we’ll talk more about Finnish pronunciation and throw in a few intermediate Finnish phrases for everyone’s learning pleasure.

What do you think about the Finnish language? What are your recommendations for some basic Finnish phrases and words that any visitor should know?


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.


Big in Finland on Facebook

Big in Finland is now in English

It has been a long journey.

It started when I moved to Finland around 8 years ago, in 2005. Since then, the original Big in Finland in Spanish has grown bigger than any blog or website about any Nordic country in Spanish language, and probably bigger than just the blogs, reaching the popularity of some official pages.

The origin of Big in Finland

The original intent of Big in Finland was to tell my Spanish friends and family how was the life up there. I talked about life, culture, events and the things that interested me from this fantastic country.

White nights in Finland
Events, culture and life like the white nights.

Many visitors that found the website have been joining the Spanish Big in Finland community during these years, and thanks to them the Big in Finland website is bigger.

But life is different now. And also bigger.

The new website: Big in Finland in English

I have many more international friends now, and all of them told me they’d love to follow the website too.

Not only that: some of them have lived in Finland, and some others or someone they know will be going to Finland soon. I know they’d enjoy reading this website as well and because of that, the new Big in Finland in English can be useful to a broader audience.

And, of course, English is the first or second language for most people on the planet. By having the website in Spanish and English we can reach almost everybody. That is an exciting perspective and we are sure new friends can be part of the Big in Finland community thanks to this.

Finlandia Hall
The Finlandia hall, in Helsinki.

The content

I said it above: Big in Finland started a long time ago. On its beginnings it had plenty of valuable information for Erasmus in Finland and everything that was great on the city I was living at: Joensuu. It featured as well experiences of a young man moving to another, far away country to live and study.

After I left Finland my passion for Finland didn’t get smaller, and I write about the things I like about the country. I try as well to answer the questions that pop in my mind about Finland (for instance, you can see my post in Spanish about “When is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Finland?”).

I feel the content is valuable and that’s why it will be similar, and encapsulate both the old days of living as an Erasmus in Finland and my new perspectives and trips to the country. I believe this will be a nice balance for the website, even if chronologically isn’t accurate.

The content will be adapted and many times translated from the original Big in Finland in Spanish, although Some Spanish-specifics might be left out. For this challenge, doing the website in English, I count with the help of a kick-ass editor, translator and travel writer with a great deal of years of experience: Martín Waldman. When you read awesome things on Big in Finland in English, you know he penned it. If the English is not 100% grammatically correct, it was probably me who wrote it.

And what about the social part?

For the moment we are keeping our Facebook page as it is: we’ll combine English and Spanish. Facebook allows posting specifically for people who speak one or other language, so we will have one Facebook page, two languages, and you will only see on your timeline the posts of your language. Neat!

You can follow us on Facebook here.

Big in Finland on Facebook

Regarding Twitter, we’ve created a new one for the English language. You can follow us here if you want, and chat with us via Twitter. At the beginning it will be me the one who writes back.

This is a new beginning, and we are happy to be able to share more of Finland with more people. If you want, you can contact us to help expanding the content with collaborations, we’ll be honored.

Let it all begin.