Timothy Walker is an American school teacher who suffered a nervous breakdown teaching in Massachusetts before finding peace of mind and career satisfaction teaching second-graders in his wife’s homeland of Finland.
“I had no life outside of my work,” Walker says of the days leading up to his mental crisis. “There were mornings when before school I’d vomit because I was so anxious.”
Those familiar with Finland’s high-flying test scores but unfamiliar with its laid-back educational model might be surprised to find that Walker would find Zen teaching in the icy Baltic nation.
But that seems to be what he has done.
Finland excels on international test scores. It first surprised the education world in 2001 when the first International Student Assessment (PISA) scores put its 15-year-olds at the top of the world on standardized reading, math and science scores. Since then, the tiny Nordic nation has continued to place in the top ranks, standing with Asian testing giants such as Korea, Japan and China.
But unlike Asia, Finland gets its test scores with shorter school days, fewer tests, and much less pressure than American schools.
In his new book, “Teach Like Finland,” Walker outlines simple strategies he thinks could be adapted from the Finnish model to American classrooms to make them both more “joyful” and more successful.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How long are the school days in Finland?
Timothy Walker: First-graders have only 19 lessons through the week or just about three hours of classroom instruction. Second grade is similar. I call it “half-day heaven.” As students get older they will have more lessons, but the philosophy remains the same.
How rigorous and fast-paced is the instruction?
Most Finnish kids don’t learn to read until they turn 7. Their kindergarten is when they are 6 and 7, and then they spend most of their days playing. As kids get older, there are still frequent recesses throughout the day. Finnish law allows a fifteen-minute break for every 45 minutes of instruction. There is very little standardized testing. The only high-stakes tests are at the end of high school.
If they aren’t pushing harder, why are they scoring higher?
Some suggest that Finnish kids are taught by well-trained teachers throughout the entire country, with uniform teaching standards. So it’s equitable, compared to the U.S. where teacher training and quality vary widely.
You note that Finnish teachers get more rigorous preparation and that getting into the profession is highly competitive.
At the elementary school level, many teachers complete a five-year master’s degree program, and there are only eight schools where you can do your teacher training. New teachers uniformly have excellent training before they step into the classroom.
You say you burned out in your first year of teaching. How did that happen?
I got a job as a first-grade teacher at a private school in Massachusetts. I started out very optimistic, and the beginning of the school year went well. The problem was that I had no limits or boundaries. I was working nonstop, and I’d wake up several times a night stressing about different aspects of teaching, like worrying whether all the pencils in the room were sharpened.
One afternoon there was a science lesson to prepare for the next day and I was in the classroom pacing, not sure what to do. There were students walking by, and one of them said, “What’s going on with Mr. Walker?” I called my wife and told her, I can’t do this. I felt hopeless. I felt I had completely failed. That’s when I called in to get the leave of absence I needed.
I eventually returned to the school after a month of leave, and I returned as a co-teacher after the leave, and was able to get much more support and mentorship. It ended up being a great blessing.
You write in your book about how colleagues in Finland not only support each other, but even formally establish teams to help support struggling students.
In the United States, I thought of myself as a sort of lonely problem solver. Any difficulty in the classroom was my job to figure out.
Finland uses what they call a Student Welfare Team. All Finnish schools use them from grade 1 through grade 9. The student welfare team is made up of professionals, including the nurse, the social worker, the special education teacher and the classroom teacher. We would have the welfare team meet every week for a couple of hours. I was required to check in with them about my students. I completed a survey describing the emotional and physical needs of my students. It was like a check up with the doctor.
That first year, I remember my principal turning to me and asking, “How is it going this year?” That question, even though it was so simple, was very significant. I knew I wasn’t alone.
You also emphasize the importance of autonomy for students in Finland.
The breakthrough for me involved a bake sale. My fifth-graders were raising money for Camp School, where kids go away on a nature retreat for two or three nights. They have to raise all the money for it themselves.
My students approached me early on telling me they wanted to have their first bake sale. I was skeptical. I thought I would have to manage it. But they told me I didn’t really need to do anything. They would have been 11 and 12 years old. They were asking me to let go. So I decided to give them a green light, and without me coaching them, they created a sign-up list, created advertisements and posted them throughout the school.
It was a great success, and it was an anchor lesson for me. If I had decided to manage them from the beginning, I would have robbed them of the satisfaction of doing something big on their own.
How does this carry over to academic instruction?
I suggest a “start with freedom” approach. It doesn’t mean you should allow students to do stupid things. But you need to see that kids have greater capacity than we may expect and give them the leeway to surprise themselves.
At the end of my second year of teaching, my students were really interested in solar energy. So I decided to plan the unit with them. They came up with their own questions. I was blown away by their level of engagement. There was no homework assigned, but they shared information using Google Drive and started setting deadlines for themselves. This was not even graded work. It was at the end of the school year, after grades were in. It was the level of freedom and ownership that was so motivating to them.
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