This guest post by Emily Parks, Assistant Superintendent in Westwood Public Schools, is another in a series by members of the Massachusetts Education Delegation touring Finland.
During our time in Finland, again and again, we have heard from Finnish educators and policy-makers about a pervasive culture of trust. We keep asking questions about evaluation and accountability; they keep telling us about the expertise of teachers, teachers’ ability to work collaboratively to make choices about how to best teach each child, and the trust that principals and parents have in these professionals to do their job effectively.
I was particularly interested today, therefore, to go to the University of Helsinki to hear about teacher education. Once again, the respect afforded to teachers and the trust that society has in them to teach children was apparent. What emerged for me today is that this belief in teachers’ effectiveness is tied to how they are prepared to enter the profession.
We learned today that at the University of Helsinki (one of 20 teacher education programs in the country – all run by the state), fewer than 10% of applicants to the teacher education program are admitted. The admissions process is rigorous:
- A written test in which applicants are given several articles to read and then demonstrate their ability to analyze what they have read
- An interview designed to understand their motivation for becoming a teacher
- A 90-minute process in which a group of applicants are given a pedagogical task and the admissions evaluators observe how the candidates think, communicate and interact with the group.
Very important knowledge and skills are assessed not as the final step in a licensure process, but at the outset of the training process. Our speaker, Matti Meri, the head of the teacher education program at the University of Helsinki, emphasized that the university wants to select people who are good thinkers, strong communicators, ready to work in a team, and able to reflect on their own experience as a student. The admissions evaluators spend 3 days in training to clarify and calibrate the admissions criteria so that they are ready to make careful selections about who is admitted.
Clearly, just getting accepted to a teacher education program is a challenge. From there, students begin the 5 year process to becoming a teacher, including earning both a bachelors degree and a masters degree. These university students spend multiple years in schools observing teachers and students while completing coursework at the university before they complete a teaching practicum. They have one full-year of study about instructional pedagogy before earning their degree. To then get a job as a teacher, a candidate might be asked to spend 2 or 3 days in a school, teaching sample lessons, meeting with potential colleagues, and speaking with parents while being considered for a position.
As our group tries to understand the layers and complexity that contribute to Finland’s educational success, it’s apparent that there isn’t just one magic factor to be identified. It seems clear to me, though, that the high caliber of teachers in Finland must be related to rigorous process of entering the profession. And as I keep coming back to the echoing theme of trust, something is starting to take shape for me. I do trust people who are highly-skilled, reflective, and collaborative and who have a keen understanding of and commitment to the purpose of their work. As a teacher, those were the kind of people that I wanted to work with and learn from. As a principal, those were the kind of people that I endeavored to hire. (And, was often fortunate to do so.) And, as a country, those are the professionals we should be sending into our classrooms. Which leaves me to wonder: How do we make the teaching profession attractive enough to recruit and retain talented people who have many choices for the direction of their careers?
Emily J. Parks is Assistant Superintendent in Westwood, MA Public Schools