International observers often identify treating teachers as professionals as another hallmark of Finland’s education system. Indicative of that treatment, teachers in Finland have the autonomy and discretion to make a variety of decisions left to administrators in many other countries (such as those around meetings and professional development that we mentioned in our last post). Given the relative consistency of Finnish students’ performance on the PISA tests across groups and schools, the extent of this autonomy seems particularly surprising. Our school visits and conversations with colleagues here highlights both the variety of kinds of decisions that Finnish teachers can make as well as some interesting ways in which the need for teachers to coordinate work with others might constrain that autonomy.
Many outsiders focus particularly on the extent to which Finnish teachers make decisions about curriculum—what and how to teach—in their own classrooms, but as parents with children in a Finnish school for two weeks, we found the teachers’ control over their schedules even more surprising. While something undoubtedly gets lost in translation, we have found it almost impossible to figure out when the school day begins and ends for our 9 and 13 year-old daughters at the 1st – 9th grade comprehensive school they are attending. In part, that confusion reflects the facts that students may start or end the day at different times on different days of the week; that some students in one class may start or end the day at different times (depending on whether or not they attend language classes or religion classes, or the teacher has decided to divide the class into smaller groups); and that teachers can decide to end a little early or adjust the schedule for a field trip or other event. Furthermore, our children’s homeroom teachers may begin or end the day a period or two before or after their students who may start the day with another teacher in a language class or gym.
Until we had the chance to talk with teachers here in Finland, we really had not fully understood that they have the primary responsibility for deciding when they will teach which subject. They may begin with a largely blank schedule that has a few givens plugged in (like when their students will eat lunch and go to the gym) and then they do much of the rest. Teachers can even decide to share responsibilities for students or “swap” classes for different subjects. For example, some teachers at a grade level may choose to combine their classes (as happens at the Koulumestari School we visited), while others choose to work independently; some may decide they will “loop” with their students—our 9 year-old’s teacher for example has been with her current class since her third graders entered in first grade and our older daughter’s teachers started with a class of sixth graders last year when they were in 5th grade—but others may choose not to. These teachers, both with Masters in music education and both pursuing their PhD’s, also teach music classes for their own students as well as those of several of their grade level colleagues. In return, their grade level colleagues teach their students in subjects like art, science or religion. Teachers in the later grades may find fewer open slots in their schedule as more specific subjects like biology and physics have to be slotted in and, ultimately, school leaders have to review the schedules and ensure that the entire organization ‘works,’ but the teachers develop the plan and drive the discussion. And, as teachers and school leaders frequently tell us, whatever the decision, there always seems to be “flexibility.”
Viewing this decision-making power simply as “autonomy”, however, may fail to capture the extent to which this flexibility rests on the ability to negotiate and coordinate with others. Despite the impressions, Finnish teachers cannot do whatever they want. They need to be able to coordinate their schedules to some extent with other teachers at their grade level and to negotiate if other teachers want to do something else (interestingly, several of the school leaders we talked to suggested that their key responsibilities include facilitating interactions amongst teachers, and, if necessary, helping to resolve disputes among them). Thus, the flexibility in the system and teachers’ “autonomy” depends on the ability to take into account the interests of others and on the commitment of all in the system to common goals reflected in the core curriculum. Furthermore, the need for teachers to coordinate their own work, classes and schedules with others, as well as key activities like meetings at the school, municipal and national level to discuss and “renew” the curriculum currently underway (more on this in a later post as well) may help to foster the relationships and common understandings that can help to bring coherence to the system.
Tom Hatch & Karen Hammerness