Q&A: What happens when an American teacher works at a school in Finland

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10min 01sec
(Photo: Courtesty of The New Public)
<p>BCAM student can&#039;t believe he&#039;s graduating. </p>
Photo: The New Public
BCAM student can't believe he's graduating.

Finland’s schools have long been held up as the gold standard for public education.

They also discuss “The New Public”, a new PBS film airing Feb. 4 which chronicles the challenges of starting a new school in Brooklyn.

The following Q&A captures their discussion:

Ryan Warner: So Tim Walker’s blog “Taught by Finland” chronicles his year teaching in a Finnish school. And his story has been written up in a Canadian news magazine.

Jenny Brundin: Yes. Tim Walker is a young American who moved with his family from Boston to Finland where he teaches fifth grade. His wife is Finnish. As some listeners may know, Finland has a much heralded education system. It inspires a lot of respect around the world. It scores extremely high on international tests – so much so that the country regularly hosts “education tourists” who come just to visit the country’s schools.

Ryan Warner: What are some of the differences that Tim Walker notices between Boston schools and Helsinki schools?

Jenny Brundin: First, Helsinki is far more relaxed than Boston. And he says, the kids are more self-reliant. The city has no school buses. Kids either walk to school or take public transit -- even the first graders.

Ryan Warner: How does the independence of the kids affect his teaching?

Jenny Brundin: He says normally during the first days of school in Boston, he does a lot of handholding, modeling and directing. In Finland, he asks the kids to show him the ropes right from the start. Kids there have many opportunities to do things on their own. For example, his 5th graders wanted to arrange a school-wide bake sale as a fundraiser. He thought it would mean a lot of extra work for him. But they did the whole thing without his direction.

Ryan Warner: Also, he noticed a difference with how time was used in school?

Jenny Brundin: Yes, in Boston it was go, go, go. As a teacher or student, not a precious minute is spent relaxing. In Finland, the kids get a 15- minute break after every 45-minute class. Teachers are free to use their breaks as they like – it may be just sipping coffee in the lounge. Teachers initially worried about Walker burning out because he never went into the teacher’s lounge – he was always prepping for a class (even when he didn’t need to as prep time is built into a teacher’s schedule.)

Ryan Warner: So his colleagues challenged him to spend more time in the lounge, drinking coffee and catching up with colleagues?

Jenny Brundin: Yes, and he took their advice! He wrote that, lo and behold, breaks not only refreshed his students but invigorated him. As someone who eats a peanut butter sandwich while I’m hunched over my computer, I could learn from him and his Finnish colleagues.

Ryan Warner: What other differences is Walker noticing about breaks and relaxation time?

Jenny Brundin: Kids spend are more time outdoors. They always go outside for recess and breaks rain or shine – except maybe if it is negative 15 Celsius with a wind chill factor. I’ve always been amazed at how moderately cool it can be here and kids are kept pent up inside. So initially, Walker designed back to back lessons so that kids would have fewer, but longer breaks. A kid came up to him and said he was going to explode and asked when could they have a break? After experimenting with the way other teachers did it, he became convinced that students were more refreshed when they returned to the classroom after frequent but short breaks. The breaks helped children pace themselves.

Ryan Warner: He’s also had to come to terms with how egalitarian the Finnish school system is?

Jenny Brundin: Yes, he told the Canadian newspaper Tyee that back home in Boston, it was all about getting a competitive edge, getting into the top schools with the top teachers. He says the Finns aren’t interested in either. They’re interested in a system where resources are equally distributed so no one gets an advantage over others. That results in a system that is very laid back by North American standards. He noticed in the teacher’s lounge, instead of the talk being about, 'Oh boy, what a problem this kid is. He’s just like his brother.' It's, 'what’s the plan of action we can all come together on to get this kid the help he needs.'

Ryan Warner: He had to get used to meetings with the school nurse, counselor, principal and assistant principal -- not to put him on the spot about something that wasn’t going right in a class.

Jenny Brundin: Yes. They were asking how things are going in order to " take on some of the responsibility for his kids and to offer constructive help.”

Ryan Warner: Testing is also a huge difference.

Jenny Brundin: This is one area where Finnish schools differ sharply from American public schools. I’ve had kids here recite flawlessly all the complicated acronyms of the tests they must take. In Finland, there are no standardized tests -- except at the end of high school if a kid wants to go on to university. As it was written in one article: “ Finnish teachers draw on their personal and collective experience to assess students.” We should say that teaching is a very prestigious profession in Finland – only 1 in 10 get into the country’s Master’s programs and teachers are paid a lot more than they are here.

Ryan Warner: So lots of interesting observations. I know the debate over Finland’s success is a raging one – people talk about the different socio-economics between the U.S. and Finland and we’re not going to get into that at this juncture. Nonetheless – interesting observations from a Finnish classroom. Now, we’re going to talk about a film called “The New Public.” It’s about a start-up school in Brooklyn– the dream of a group of ambitious educators to start a small school with an arts focus.

Jenny Brundin: I love films that go inside schools because schools are frankly, mysterious places. Even as an education reporter, I can tell you honestly, I don’t know enough about what goes on inside the average classroom because access is so rare and so limited. So the chance to see a documentary made inside a school – and a chance to go inside the lives of students - is always enriching and fascinating.

Ryan Warner: Tell us about the school.

Jenny Brundin: It’s called the Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School (BCAM). The film starts by following a first-time principal, and a faculty of 8-- building a school from scratch. They start with the philosophy that they’re going to give strong support to each individual student. And they’ll provide rigorous academics and unconventional arts --stuff that can relate to where the kids are coming from. Here’s the principal:

James O’Brien: "There are too many high schools that are too big and too anonymous. We want students to know us and us [to] know them. Far too often schools imprint themselves on the student as opposed to acknowledging who the student is and their identity and their culture."

Ryan Warner: The filmmaker follows the first year of the school. At first, it runs smoothly.

Jenny Brundin: Yes, the kids are so happy; they feel heard and can express all that’s inside them. Their personalities get to come out.

Ryan Warner: But we learn, if kids get this much freedom, it gets anarchic quickly. Conflicts arise and by the end of freshman year, teachers aren’t so idealistic.

Teacher: “I deplore some of the things that I see develop at BCAM. [sound of profanity] The use of profanity. The disrespect of elders. That wasn’t happening at BCAM in the initial stages. I think you have to regulate but you have to regulate from the onset. The “hammer-hug,” right? You’re hammering the kids with high expectations for behavior and then you show them love. Like the principal’s office should never be a space that’s more comfortable than the classroom. [At] BCAM the intention is to avoid creating an authoritarian environment. But, you just got to be realistic. “

Jenny Brundin: At the end of the first year, the principal meets with teachers to talk about how they feel. One says he feels straight up despair.

Ryan Warner: So then we flash-forward to September 2010, the first day of senior year. The school now has 450 students and 50 teachers. Almost half of the 100 students in their founding class have transferred or dropped out. Only 30 kids are on track to graduate. So what happens?

Jenny Brundin: The school makes major adjustments – more discipline, and they get rid of arts for seniors. Students say they’re not excited to be there now. So here’s why this film is important. Everyone in the education world is running around in circles trying to find the winning “formula” for schools to succeed. Yet what the film does so well is document that there are so many complexities, challenges, and personal dramas in every school, all interconnecting in different ways. And on top of that, teenagers are extremely complex social beings, each with extremely different needs.

Ryan Warner: Jenny, you say this film deals head-on with one of the biggest issues in education -- that involved parents ensure that a child will succeed.

Jenny Brundin: Yes. Take Moses, a sharp kid who in his freshman year was headed to college. His mom is there for every meeting, is on her son every time his grades slip. By senior year though, Moses is messing around, cutting class, and he gets caught smoking weed. There’s a very touching scene of the mom breaking down in front of her son. She’s had it with him.

[Mother crying] “You have no idea all the crap that I’m sacrificing. You know what Moses? Just show me! Just show me!”

Ryan Warner: But then there are other kids who have no support from home.

Jenny Brundin: Another student, John -- his mother has an illness and stares off into space a lot. When his father dies, things get worse at home. John gets college rejection letter after rejection letter. So - no support at home– but with the incredible support of teachers and the principal, he manages to get accepted to college. In the end, about 30 or so kids graduate. Here’s teacher Kevin Greer:

“Inner-city school teaching is like no other job because you’re dealing with basic American inequalities. Our society’s problems are so enormous and they’re all foisted upon the schools to fix them all. Sometimes it feels Sisyphean, like you’re pushing this boulder up a hill and it’s eternally falling back on you. But, you know, while it may not be the complete answer, I do believe that schools are their best chance.”

Jenny Brundin: So some teachers learn you can’t just push academic rigor down kids’ throats – you have to start on their level. It also paints a picture of the delicate dance that so many schools are trying to do – striking that balance between academic expectations and discipline, but also respecting the humanity of the students, respecting what they bring to the table, and understanding that this is an age of tremendous social and emotional growth and students can’t behave like robots.