Finland in danger: Never stop trusting your teachers

Two countries, two primary school teachers, both of them young and with similar experience, both of them Masters of Pedagogic. However, there is a huge difference between them as they are seen by their societies in a completely different way. The Finnish one respected professional happy with the job, the Czech one at the edge of a society. Yet, there has been a feeling spreading among the teachers in Finland – they have have been losing the feeling of trust. A discussion about teachers´ rights and professionalism has been put on fire and the example of the Czech Republic proves, that Finland should take these discussions seriously, as there´s nothing as important for a teacher´s motivation as trust and appreciation by the society.

by Barbora Pilná

Helsinki, Finland / Prague, Czech Republic: People all around the world ask themselves the same question of what can the rest of the world learn from Finland and its educational system, which is supposed to be among the best ones in the world. When I entered the primary school classrooms in Finland and in the Czech Republic, I could not see much of a difference. Curious eyes of young pupils, colorful pictures on the walls, a teacher at the front interacting with those children, trying to motivate them and make it fun. After talking to the teachers over a cup of coffee, however, I found the biggest difference in the world:

–    In general, teachers in Finland are quite appreciated and it is an attractive job, says Rea Ristola, a Finnish primary school teacher, from her own experience, there is a lot of people applying for the pedagogical education.

–    A teacher used to be appreciated and respected, seen as a professional, says Zbyněk Vrána, a Czech primary school teacher. Not anymore, though, nobody respects teachers, not even parents.

Yet, a Finnish society has been facing a danger of losing its trust for their teachers recently, as a teacher has been fired in Helsinki because of use of physical force to remove a disturbing student from a cafeteria. It has been a big issue as Finland ask itself what could happen if they stop trusting their teachers. As there is nor respect, neither trust for teachers in the Czech Republic, it can answer that question.

A perfect educational system

Finland is famous for its great PISA results, in which Finnish children have reached the TOP 5 ever since the year 2000. According to the PISA results is therefore Finnish educational system one of the best ones in the world. However, when you look closely at the PISA results and compare Finnish results from years 2000-2003, 2006 and 2009, you can easily find out, that Finnish PISA results have been worsening since 2009. The results are still pretty good, but compared to the previous years, Finland did not even reach the TOP 5 in Math in 2009. To find out, what has changed in Finland and what are the circumstances of those changes, we first need to understand, why had been Finland doing so well after its educational reform in 1970’s.

PISA results from 2009.

 

–    I think it is quite a good system, it is equal, it is free, so in theory everybody has a same chance to get any education they want. I suppose we have also quite good special education for those who need, we support children who need any kind of special help, says Rea Ristola when asked, what are the reasons of Finnish educational system to be so successful in her point of view. She has been a teacher for two years now.

Rea, a Finnish primary teacher preparing for her class. Photo: Barbora Pilna

Equality, a same opportunity for everyone to be educated, is a main point of the Finnish educational system, as there are no tuition fees whatsoever and no private schools in this Nordic country. All the primary schools are comprehensive, children do not take any exams to be accepted, and the first entrance exams are taken at the age of 16.  As Rea said, they also try too keep problematic children and children who needs a special treatment in the normal classes as long as possible, while having special assistance for the teachers.

Because the very next pillar of the successful Finnish educational system is a teacher. All the teachers, no matter where they teach, must have a Master degree. Finnish teachers are also very well motivated as the job is appreciated by the society like for example doctors or lawyers. Therefore most of the teachers do the best they can to do a perfect job. And as teaching is such a prestige job, only small percentage of the interested are accepted to the University and only 10% of the graduated find work. Therefore only the best one of the best ones become teachers in the end.

–    I feel that it has been changing a bit lately, says Rea Ristola. Teachers must be more careful as they have become less respected by parents.

A teacher fired in Helsinki

You do not have to try hard to find a proof of her words. Only a week ago The Helsinki Department of Education has dismissed a teacher at the Alppila middle school over an incident in which the teacher forcibly removed a pupil from the school’s cafeteria who was causing a disturbance. When Annti Korhonen decided to remove a disturbing student from a cafeteria by using a physical force, he probably did not have a clue, that he actually put on fire a discussion about teachers’ rights in Finland.

If you want to make your own opinion on whether the teacher´s physical intervation was appropriate, or not, watch the video below:

 

According to the Department of Education, the action was inappropriate and indefensible. Antti Korhonen argues that he was acting in accordance with the letter of the law on basic education when he removed the pupil from the cafeteria. And Rea Ristola agrees:

–    It is in the law that the teacher is allowed to touch a student, if they are disturbing. Nowadays students and their parents are just so aware of their rights and they question the teacher’s work more then ever before. And they judge them as well, she says.

Teachers gathering in Helsinki to support Annti Korhonen. Photo: Morten Refsgaard.

Annti Korhonen does not fight his battle for the teachers’ right alone. The petition titled “Save teacher Antti Korhonen” gathered more than 150,000 signatures. Petitioners are calling for the country’s education authorities to restore discipline to schools by laying down common guidelines for handling difficult situations. However, the support has not been shown only online, teachers gathered in the street of Helsinki to support their colleague.

 

Gathering of the teachers in Helsinki to support the fired teacher. Photo: Morten Refsgaard

 

–    I sympathize with the teacher. There is far too little discussion  about the conditions in high schools, says Marko Skyttä, a Finnish teacher in a secondary school for visual arts.

–    It is necessary for teachers to have some rights concerning behavior in schools, said Henrika Zilliacus, Vice Rector at University of Helsinki, and my impression is that the teacher handled in a way that can be justified.

Also Speaker of Parliament Eero Heinäluoma is on Annti Korhonen’s site and claims, that his recent dismissal looks to have been illegal and should be cancelled.

–    So that, in future, every teacher can rely on the support of school principals, departments of education and the whole of society in the demanding task of education, Heinäluoma wrote.

Teachers’ authority being questioned

Apparently Finnish authorities are very well aware of the importance of trust between teachers and the society. But according to the experience of Rea Ristola, it’s not only the current issue of Annti Korhonen, the discontent has been growing among the teachers for years:

–    Nowadays it is always about the student’s rights. There’s a funny picture on Facebook about relationship between students, teachers, parents and grades in the 60’s and today. Bad grades used to be a student’s fault, today they are a teacher’s fault. So I think it has really changed, she says.

funny-parents-grades-teachers-comic images

As the funny pictures become more and more real in Finland, a teachers’ society has started to feel the changes and tries to explain, how it is important for them to being trusted:

–    It would be really difficult to work if for example the parents would always be questioning me, says Rea Ristola, I need their trust that I am a professional and I can do my job. I think the trust is one of the most important things. It is a motivation.

No respect, czeched

Can the rising trend of questioning the teachers authority and the discussion of teachers’ rights be the reason, why the Finnish PISA result have been slightly worsening?

Zbynek Vrana, a Czech primary school teacher. Photo: Barbora Pilna

Zbyněk Vrána is a primary school teacher in the capital city of the Czech Republic, Prague. He has been teaching Math and PE for three years. Czech Republic is one of the developed countries in OECD (together with Brazil, Mexico and Hungary), which invest least money into education. Average salary of a Czech teacher is 950 €, in Finland it is 2500 €.

–    When I told my former teachers, that I have chosen to become a teacher, they called me a foul, pleased me to change my mind and choose a different job, says Zbyněk Vrána. Because teachers do not really do well in the Czech Republic.

However, money is not the main reason for that. As Zbyněk Vrána feels it, the way a society treats a teacher is the main part of their motivation, and therefore the main part of a successful educational system. But teachers in the Czech society are not respected at all:

–    Everyone trusts children, everything is about the pupils’ rights. But no one trust a teacher, who is an educated professional. I hear my colleagues to be called “idiots” all the time, even in the corridors by parents telling their children, he says.

What more, it is not only parents, who disrespect their children’s teachers, it’s also the official authorities supporting this situation. ČOSIV, Czech Professional Society for Inclusive Education, made a short video in order to support the idea of an inclusive education. In this spot, there is an annoying teacher complaining about the students. Students simply gang up against the teacher and put a wet sponge on her chair, so she will be punished for her demands, when she sits. Sounds like fun, until Tomáš Feřtek, a Co-Founder of EDUin, non-profit organization focused on education, uses this video as a perfect illustration of how the Czech society sees its teachers:

–    The teacher is the bad one and children have to gang up to punish them. It is a common thing, that teachers are shown as idiots, who can be blamed for everything. Everybody likes to spit on them, so they have this almost irrational need of someone speaking about them in a positive way, says Tomáš Feřtek.

This is the video illustrating the attitude of a Czech society towards teachers:

 

Gained respect, gained success

As in Finland, this spot has started a debate among the professional public about teachers’ rights in the Czech Republic. According to Zbyněk Vrána, there is only one teachers’ right – to strictly follow the rules. The pupils on the other hand are literally allowed to break the rules, as everybody trusts them and they are not easily punished. However, nobody really knows, what to do with such a situation in the Czech Republic. Teachers who are around 45 years old are desperate when they think of 20 years of teaching in front of them and dream of a retirement.

–    When I talk to teachers, the main finding is, that they completely lost their hope and they do not trust anyone and anything, says Tomáš Feřtek.

Zbynek, the Czech primary teacher in his class. Photo: Barbora Pilna

Therefore, Finland takes these doubts of not trusting teachers spreading among the teachers’ public seriously, as The Helsinki Department of Education questioned a teacher’s authority and professionalism by firing him for using physical force. It seems, Finland might be dealing with the same problem as Czech Republic lately, as Marko Skyttä, a Finnish teacher in a secondary school, says:

–    People are worried about what is happening in the schools. The kids in the schools have a lot of freedom, but there is no responsibility. We would like those two things to get in balance, he says.

There is a long way for the Czech Republic since it understands, how important teachers are for the society. As Finland already knows that, the current Helsinki issue is a way backwards and so a danger for the Finnish perfect educational system. Because as teachers agree, it is not the money, what makes a happy and motivated teacher and therefore, a successful educational system.

–    I do not need more money, I just need more respect from parents, children and the society, ends Zbyněk Vrána.

Could you be teaching for the rest of your life?

–    Well no, I cannot imagine that, said Zbyněk Vrána.

–    Oh, yes. I mean it is my dream profession, said Rea Ristola.

 

To find out more about the teachers and their motivations, watch the portrait video Through Teachers´ Eyes: