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Finding the teacher in me

Kimmo Tuunala's picture



First of all, I want to say how proud I am of being a Finnish teacher. Although I don’t know that much about other education systems, I feel that I’ve experienced something extraordinary as I’ve gone through the ladder of Finnish Education. Working abroad for the last one and a half years has also shown how much people value the Finnish Education system and especially its teachers; it is a privilege to be part of that.

Being a teacher - not a dream but decent work

I never planned to be anything else but a teacher. On the other hand, I can admit that being a teacher wasn’t a definite dream to me, rather a good job for me to earn my living. I had always liked teaching but feeling enthusiasm towards my work was a bit unfamiliar to me.

I graduated in 2011 and started working as a class teacher. From the very beginning finding the connection between University -level teacher training in Finland, which is highly valued and recognized worldwide, and daily practices was challenging for me. School structures were already built, for better or for worse, and the only thing I needed to do was basically to get the books from upstairs storage and to start the work. One double-page per lesson, one exam per month. I can do it!  Curriculum, the huge book in our staff room, was familiar to me from teacher training but it was quite rarely opened by the staff members, including myself.

“Surrendering” into this format was easy and felt safe. As a recent graduate, I didn’t have enough courage to choose my own way. Instead of trying out my limits and taking chances I chose the “this is how we’ve done it” method. I went with the flow, trying to do my work well, of course. Every now and then I caught myself asking questions like ‘does this make any sense?’, ‘why do we even do this?’ or ‘would there be a better way?’ but still decided to keep these thoughts inside. My work was okay but something was missing; teacher identity and passion. What was ‘my thing’ and ‘my way’ of doing the work?

Moving abroad - a step towards unknown

In 2015, I got the chance to work abroad. Working abroad or travelling in general had never been any fundamental goal for me except for fly fishing trips to Norway and Finnish Lapland. Already the recruitment process showed that in order to get the job, not even to speak of being successful in it, professional growth and reflection was needed. I decided to test out my wings without really knowing where that step would take me.

During the first days in my new work I realized that the situation wasn’t the same as in Finland. Now I was the one who was responsible for the work and nothing happened without my contribution. I’ve quite many times compared the difference between my work in Finland and abroad to skiing and running. To me working in Finland was like skiing; I still moved, only a bit though, without putting much effort in my work. Working abroad was different. You all know what happens if you stop running, well, nothing.

I needed to start building the teacher identity from the beginning, obviously, because it didn’t exist before. In Finland we often talk about the teacher’s freedom but I actually didn’t feel it before starting the work abroad. The freedom to do anything I want, following the school values and curriculum of course, felt absolutely great but on the other hand I was lost. What is the way how I want to do my work? What kind of teacher did I want to be? That was the question which was so many times asked in University by the teacher trainers and now I had faced it, after already working several years.

Stepping out of comfort zone

“Not being afraid to try out new things is the goal for him to reach the next level and learn new things.” This is the sentence I quite often either say to my students or write it in their report cards. If they have the courage and support to try out their wings, the sky will be the limit. The same thing applies to us teachers as well. We make the decisions, we make the change.

There has to be a definite need for reform, we shouldn’t just change something without having a reason. For me the reason behind the reform was that I felt that I was carrying out work planned by someone else. Filling in the books, repeating the same things day after day felt neither comfortable nor motivating. The work for me was just something that needed to be done and the life began as I left the school after class hours. It didn’t feel right, not for myself, my colleagues or the most important, for my students. There was a clear need for reform.

“This is how we are used to doing it” method is not a bad thing. This method has been built by us teachers over the years, even decades and to some extent it definitely feels good to do things that we already know and master. But this coin has also the other side; does this method keep us interested and motivated in our work? If the answer is NO, how can we then expect interest and motivation from our students. The talk about twenty-first century skills can be heard daily when we discuss education. In order to teach these skills, we teachers need to reform or at least re-evaluate our way of teaching. This can be done by challenging ourselves and stepping out of comfort zone. “This is how we are used to doing it” doesn’t work as such, it needs updating.

Be critical - become better

Building the foundation

How do I want my group to look like? This is the question I keep asking myself day after day. This refers to classroom practices, daily routines and behaviour policy. We can’t expect certain behaviour from our students if even we don’t know the standards. And yes, this process is continuous and needs constant reflection from both the teacher and students. However, it is worth the effort and gives the foundation for making the “I can do whatever I want” method possible.

Building the foundation includes also the idea how you want learning to happen in your classroom. What kind of methods do you want to stress? Hands-on, collaborative, student-centred, project- and phenomenon -based, you name it. The world is full of methods and by trying them out you will find the most suitable ones for you. The method doesn’t matter as long as students are motivated, the learning goals are achieved, everyone knows what are the expectations and the most important, you are committed to your work.

Accepting the failure

If you want to reform your way of teaching, say hello to trial and failure method. Doing the things we master, minimizes the risk of failure but also minimizes the chance of learning new things. Failure is always present when trying out new things but that is just the fact we need to accept. The teacher stands on the same side with the students; we don’t have to master everything and sometimes it is a relief to admit that students may know more than us.

Book is only one tool, not the “only truth”

During the past two years I’ve seen quite many school books from different countries. From my point of view, the Finnish school books are great and definitely they play an essential role e.g behind the good PISA results. Fortunately or not, in our world information is rapidly changing and that should be taken into consideration in terms of book usage as well. In my opinion the school books should diversify the learning processes, not restrict them. A book is not the curriculum, it’s a reference.

What kind of role do books play in your teaching? That is again something you might want to think when rebuilding your way of teaching. I’ve noticed that instead of filling in pages using the books more selectively gives me more freedom. ‘Not being stuck with the book’ also makes cross-curricular themes, project-based and hands-on learning, the methods that the students love, easier to arrange.

What is the profit? What do you get?

Re-building one’s professional identity is an exhausting process. It requires constant self-reflection and consists of trial and failure. You really need to take a step towards unknown and accept the fact that you can’t master all the things. Sometimes even the students teach you. “Don’t just do but also think what you are doing” is the thing we expect from our students. Now we need to start doing the same thing. It’s a never ending process, I would say. And it requires a lot of courage to start questioning the methods you’ve used for years, even decades.

Why to even start if it’s only sweat and tears? My work descriptions in Finland and abroad have been basically the same but to be honest, I feel that I haven’t actually taught anything for real before starting my work abroad. Working as a teacher has become ‘my thing’. It looks like me because I’ve had the freedom to test out my wings as an educator and my supervisors and colleagues have given me the continuous support. I never thought I’d be this committed to my work or feel so passionate about it. So many times I’ve asked myself what has been the turning point. Every time I end up in the same answer; challenging myself, seeking for the comfortable way of doing my work and not taking the easiest way have been the factors that have helped me to take the next step as a professional.

Enthusiasm, curiosity, motivation and eagerness to learn new are all crucial factors in learning processes. And they are contagious. A good teacher believes in what and how he/she is teaching. And the students can sense it. For example, discovering the cross-curricular connections between several topics makes you believe in what you do. You have found the connection, you are the pioneer and the fountain of that innovation.  And it shows! Teaching in a way you believe is something visible and it promotes also students’ commitment.

Finnish Curriculum 2016 has been constant topic, both the positive and the negative, in staff lounges for years. It is more open, it gives more freedom and it provides more possibilities to a teacher taking our education system to a new level. On the other hand, it requires more planning, especially in terms of cross-curricular themes. Skill-based teaching is about to defeat content-based. We can’t teach the content that is needed as our students start their work careers. But the skills, such as collaboration, critical thinking, character, citizenship, communication and creativity, won’t expire. From my point of view, the new Curriculum provides a perfect platform for teacher development. It gives the framework, and within those borders the teacher is free to find his/her own way of teaching. Achieving a new level as an educator, feeling the enthusiasm and passion is only one step away. I don’t mean that working abroad is the definite key for finding it, you can do that anywhere. It is up to you.


Author of the article is Kimmo Tuunala, a Finnish class teacher from Qatar-Finland International School