Today, Stella (9) and Clara (13) spent their first day at a practice school in Helsinki. Practice schools are regular public schools, serving students who live in their neighborhood. The school our children are attending is a ‘comprehensive school’ for children in grades 1-9, with an associated kindergarten next door. Practice schools have been developed expressly for the purpose of preparing and supporting the learning of prospective teachers and are staffed with what might be called mentor teachers in the US (or “practice teachers” in Finland). Practice teachers teach regular classes for pupils in the school but then are also responsible for supervising, observing and co-planning with student-teachers. The principal estimated that at any one time, the school has between 30-36 student-teachers placed in various classrooms throughout the grades. Practice schools receive additional government funding to pay for the special work they do.
In some cases, practice schools have been designed specifically to accommodate and support the new teachers. In fact, our daughters’ school has a suite of rooms for student-teachers including a room with tables for their meetings; their own lockers and bookcases for materials and resources; and a coatroom and lunch space. The meeting room, equipped with the latest technology, underscores the importance that is placed not only upon learning to teach but upon analyzing (and learning from) teaching. In these rooms, student-teachers meet with their practice teachers to debrief plans and lessons and to talk about next steps. This attention to the cycle of planning, action, and reflection / evaluation is initially modeled in the student-teacher’s University classes, and they are expected to engage in similar kinds of analysis and inquiry when they have their own classrooms. These parallel activities underscore the notion that learning in practice does not happen “on its own” but rather requires concurrent opportunities for teachers to analyze their experiences and to make connections between research and practice.
Stella’s day today was led by a substitute as the regular teacher was out of the classroom because she was spending the day at the Finnish National Board of Education working on the national Curriculum (in the coming years, the national curriculum is due to revised and updated). Stella’s Finnish teacher is qualified to teach not only primary teacher education but also music education (having obtained an additional master’s degree) as well as 3rd grade—she leads the choir and also music instruction courses. Clara’s teacher is currently working on his doctoral dissertation after having completed coursework at an institution in the United States; his studies have focused upon religious studies and music. (While the advanced educational experiences of Finnish teachers is particularly notable, Stella’s teacher back in her public school outside New York City is also at work on an additional Master’s degree, currently working on a second master’s degree in writing children’s literature).
Stella’s day began at 9 AM with a hug from the substitute teacher, and then introductions as the teacher asked each child to stop by Stella’s desk, shake her hand and introduce themselves. The classes included two sessions of math (as well as a math test), an English lesson, two recesses and lunch. We thought originally her day would end at 12:45, when students who are not taking religion headed home. However, she was invited to stay, and ended the day with another recess, and then the religion class when the teacher led the students in a series of games.
Clara’s day started with a meeting with her teacher, who had made plans for her to first tour the school with (and get to know) several English-speaking classmates, before joining the whole group. At 9.45 she joined the students in their homeroom class—her classmates had started their day at 8.00 with two hours of language instruction (either English, German, or Swedish). In addition to the language classes, the day included art class, preparation for the end-of-the-year ceremony (to be held at the end of next week), as well as a music class. Her homeroom teacher led the group to a well-equipped music room and introduced them to an animated computer program to help them all learn to play chords on acoustic guitars.
–Karen Hammerness & Tom Hatch