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Teachers are respected and influential
An international comparison shows that respect for Finnish teachers is high; but the major challenges in teaching today require a more community-minded approach on the part of both teachers and schools.
The latest research information on teachers’ work and on learning can be found in a book recently published by the Institute for Educational Research at the University of Jyväskylä. The compilation is part of an Academy of Finland research programme called Life as Learning.
The work of teachers is appreciated
Teaching is one of the key professions in a society based on the production and use of information, according to Professor Anna Raija Nummenmaa of the University of Tampere and Professor Jouni Välijärvi of the Institute for Educational Research, who co-edited the book.
“The appreciation of teachers and their social influence is high in Finland compared with other countries. Learning results are also excellent,” say Nummenmaa and Välijärvi. “In many other EU countries, the teaching profession is equated with technical professions, whereas in Finland it is on a par with doctors and lawyers,” says Välijärvi. He adds that appreciation for the teaching profession is also evident in that it is one of the most popular career choices among young people.
Finnish teachers are influential
“Finnish teachers have an extremely strong role in decisions concerning the running of a school,” Välijärvi asserts. “The PISA survey shows that Finnish teachers are responsible in many more instances than the OECD average for teaching content, choice of textbooks, discipline and assessment policies, and school budgets and the distribution of resources,” Välijärvi continues. He goes on to say that the unusually great potential for Finnish teachers to wield influence is a reflection of their university-level training and their substantial social status.
Prospects within the European Union also underline the importance of teachers as a channel of influence. In these visions, information and expertise will form the foundation for the success of the EU Member States.
“Teachers are a key group who by their actions influence the citizens’ readiness to learn something new throughout their lives,” says Professor Hannele Niemi at the University of Helsinki.
Finnish teachers are independent education experts who leave an impression on their pupils. “In the best cases, teachers influence pupils’ attitudes and ideals, while pupils assimilate enthusiasm and vitality from them,” Niemi says. Thus teachers also have a considerable ethical responsibility. “Teaching involves constant encounters with ethical issues and the seeking of solutions to them,” Niemi continues. In 1998, on the initiative of the Trade Union of Education in Finland, Finland became the first Nordic country to publish a set of ethical principles for teachers. Many countries are only just preparing similar principles now.
Increased openness in the teaching profession
The 1990s saw the start of a considerable increase in the openness of teaching. Whereas previously each teacher worked in a classroom in isolation, these days teaching requires them to collaborate with an increasingly diverse range of individuals, parents and organizations. At the same time, the operating environment at schools is changing constantly. Teaching and the professional skills of teachers have also become the subject of public debate.
“Teachers receive an enormous amount of support from parents. Many also emphasize that expectations at home are often unreasonable and fulfilling them in a balanced way is difficult,” say Anna Kilpiö and Marja-Leena Markkula from the Helsinki University of Technology.
How well does teacher training support their preparedness to cooperate with other groups? The answer provided by the research group of Professor Kristiina Kumpulainen, which studied growing into the role of a teacher, is cautiously positive. Although learning to function in a discussion culture is a challenge, students’ interactive skills have developed and diversified during a study period based on special digital educational material. The period gave students the tools for cooperation with various professional and interest groups.
“More studies centring on a culture of interaction and discussion should be included in teacher training than is the case at present,” continue Kumpulainen and her group. The importance of updating studying methods as a way to new kind of teacher role is also underlined by Timo Portimojärvi, who has studied students’ experiences of problem-based studying in an online environment.
Mentors give support to new teachers
In Finland, mentoring has increased its popularity in the induction of newcomers to teaching. Discussion and interaction between a newcomer and a more experienced colleague acting as mentor are used to promote learning. Mentoring creates and develops the newcomers’ own teaching practices and reduces burnout. Hannu Jokinen and Anneli Sarja, who have studied mentoring at the Educational Research Institute, say that mentoring has met with an extremely good reception.
“The teachers looked on mentoring as such an important tool for becoming a part of the school organization that they wanted it to be made a permanent practice.”
Community spirit as a resource for the school and the teacher
The researchers believe that teachers will come through the challenges posed by changes to their field in the future with mutual support and with the entire school functioning as a single community.
“Other teachers can give considerable support to teachers and help them to cope in the midst of changes,” say Professor Leena Syrjälä, who has studied the life of a teacher, and her research group. Teacher cooperation is also learning. “Cooperation and community-minded teaching promise something that nobody can achieve alone. In result-management language this means improved quality and better results,” says Pasi Savonmäki, who has studied teacher cooperation at polytechnics.
Syllabuses for the National Core Curriculum for Basic Education written by teachers and schools together have been a challenge in terms of cooperation. These syllabuses will be introduced by August 1, 2006.
“The syllabus work brought schools and teacher groups closer together. The entire teaching community moved away from an individual-centred teaching culture to slightly community-oriented cooperation,” says Peter Johnson, a headmaster in Kokkola, who has studied the subject. Drawing up a curriculum is also a process of learning on the job in which teachers develop their own work together,” stress Anna Raija Nummenmaa and her research group.
Välijärvi sees community spirit in particular as a strength for schools and teachers in the future.
“Educational institutions must respond to new expectations as specialist organizations in pedagogy, and not as a collection of individual experts. Collegiality is a sign of a successful school capable of development. As financial resources decline in the future, schools will be able to achieve better results only by increasing the use of teachers’ expertise flexibly and appropriately.”
“This means the exploitation of teachers’ special expertise across boundaries determined by educational establishments, age and local government. Teachers will increasingly find themselves working in online environments. Teachers will no long be chosen for a ‘post’ but as experts for a local ‘education team’,” Välijärvi predicts.
Further information is available from:
Professor Jouni Välijärvi, tel. + 358 14 260 3202, 50 567 7210, jouni.valijarvi[at]ktl.jyu.fi
Professor Anna Raija Nummenmaa, tel. + 358 3 3551 7829, 50 567 2707, Anna.Raija.Nummenmaa[at]uta.fi
Jouni Sojakka, publications manager, tel. + 358 14 260 3230, jouni.sojakka[at]ktl.jyu.fi
Anna Raija Nummenmaa & Jouni Välijärvi (eds.) Opettajan työ ja oppiminen. (A teacher’s work and learning) Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä. 2006. 287 pp.