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What could U.S. schools look like if students and teachers trusted one another?

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Oppi festival in Helsinki, Finland with several colleagues from the U.S. education community. Our mission: find out what makes the Finnish school system so effective and explore what practices might be adapted for our schools back home.

During our time in Finland, we got the chance to visit several schools and speak to students, teachers, and administrators about their experiences. After the trip, the phrase that resonated most in my thoughts was: “Relationships are key.”

So why are relationships so important in Finland? One of the outstanding qualities of the Finnish education system is trust. Between students, parents, teachers, and administrators, there is a shared sense of trust that all players are acting in the best interests of children.

Of course, trust is an important component in any strong relationship. Finland facilitates this relationship by implementing a rigorous national teacher preparation program that only accepts the top applicants. This puts the teaching profession on par with doctors, lawyers, and the like. As a result, autonomy (and trust) is given to highly capable individuals, allowing effective teachers to engage in their calling. 

Mark Sandy and a Finnish teacher

Teachers then relay a similar trust in their interactions with students. For example, students are trusted to move freely within buildings without close supervision. In turn, students trust teachers to nurture their sense of play and creativity (and even their sense of ethics, which is taught widely in schools). Within this trust-based relationship, students and teachers are responsible to one another. Failure is not an option.

Obviously, nothing is perfect in any school or institution. I believe that proper investments in infrastructure, professional development, and other key components are needed in order for any system to thrive. However, in Finland, it seems much more likely that those investments will be made based on the value students, parents, and administrators place on teachers and the respect they have for one another.

Ultimately, what the U.S. educational system needs is better developed relationships of trust between teachers and students. We also need to be able to trust that policy makers and the prominent players in education are invested in the wellbeing of those they serve. 

I’m optimistic that this shift is on the horizon for the U.S. because of the incredible group of educators and advocates who shared this journey with me. Throughout the trip, our group could not stop talking about our takeaways, even during our time away from the festival. We often reflected on the classes we had observed and how we might implement something amazing and new in our own. 

I returned from Finland committed to forming deeper, more invested relationships with my colleagues, principal, parents, and, most importantly, the children whom I teach.  I will continue to advocate for higher standards and preparation for new teachers, as well as more autonomy to create positive outcomes for our students.  And I remain committed to deconstructing notions that standardized testing are the main gauges of teachers and students’ worth.

One of my favorite songs is “Russians” by Sting. Inspired by events in Russia during the 1980s, the song posits: “I hope the Russians love their children, too.” I don’t know if it’s the nostalgic overtones of the journey or the “out of the box” way that things are done in Helsinki, but I found myself wondering, “I hope the Americans love their children, too.”

I know my colleagues in the education community and I really do love our students—and I’m committed to building up relationships of trust with them!

U.S. educators at the Oppi festival

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Read more posts about the Oppi Festival:

Beer, Badges, and Belief in a Brighter Future: 3 Lessons From Oppi by Lori Nazareno

Happy Teaching, Happy Learning: 13 Secrets to Finland's Success by Sophia Faridi

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Mark Sandy is a 4th grade teacher in Mount Ranier, Maryland, and father of two children. He serves as a Member-at-Large to the Board of Directors for the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, as well as a grade level chair and the chair of the Planning and Management team at his school. He is also a member of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Teacher Advisory Council and the CTQ Collaboratory.

5 Comments

Justin Minkel commented on June 30, 2014 at 8:52pm:

Wonderful post.

Mark, I haven't met you, but we were in a mind meld this past week--I just posted a blog titled "Trust," with references to Finland, and I kept nodding as I read your blog. Love the Sting song and your question.

You make a great point about the way systems for kids tend to reflect systems for teachers, with the example of students being free to move about with being constantly monitored. Teachers often get pounded in the name of student well-being, yet policies that strip dignity from teachers tend to create climates that strip dignity from students as well.

Thanks for sharing your trip.

Sean Padilla commented on July 2, 2014 at 5:36pm:

Math

I completely agree with the points made within this post. As a teacher beginning his journey in earning a Masters in Teacher Leadership, I can easily see how the presence of autonomy and trust in educators are vital pieces to effectively improving education for better student growth. With increasing demands (such as high-stakes testing and accountability) continually being made, teachers must embrace this and be given a freedom to accomplish this through meaningful collaboration with peers and decision-making input. If more value is to be brought to teaching, than the first opinions should come from the ones who value it the most--teachers themselves. Let the discussion with parents, students, and policymakers build from there to increase their own responsibilities in the process, but ensure it begins with the autonomous teacher.

Lisa Plichta commented on July 7, 2014 at 4:41pm:

What a Coincidence!

I was drawn to this post because I read and commented last night on Justin Minkel's thoughts on trust and Sean and I (the previous commenter) are classmates in the same program.  Interesting!

Anyway, I applaud you for venturing to Finland to see firsthand what the buzz is all about.  I've heard incredible things, but I've also heard from other educators that what they do there "can't be duplicated here".  Maybe as a whole, they are unique and they can make things happen for reasons that don't apply to our circumstances or culture, but I am so happy to hear that you discovered many take-aways that you could start implementing here regardless of our system that no one else seems to be trying to duplicate.

The concept of schools and education is about as fundamentally human as it gets--complicated, messy, frustrating, unpredictable, yet fascinating, beautiful, and life-giving.  Undoubtedly, many kinds of relationships lie at the heart of education and relationships are all of those adjectives I just listed.  At the heart of healthy relationships, of course, is trust.  As Americans, what we seem to do is to remain skeptical until some undefined amount of time and effort tell us that someone has finally earned our trust.  How different things would be if we were more willing to just give it.  What if trust became a self-fulfilling prophecy in our system instead of a reward that no one is quite sure how to obtain?

I can tell you that in my own classroom, I refuse to wait for someone above or outside to trust me before I trust my students.  While we Americans work to iron out so many issues in our system, the respect and trust I place in my students and their families is something I feel deeply in return.  Despite the mess, confusion, bureaucracy, and exhaustion, I am extremely satisfied with my job and it's surely because of those precious relationships.

I am inspired by your enthusiasm to make your American classroom experience the best it can be! 

Laura Calderisi commented on July 9, 2014 at 12:19pm:

Value

Your blog caught my eye for several reasons.  First, the buzz about Finland is high, and I was curious about your first-hand experiences there.  I'm officially envious of your trip! Also, your statement that "relationships are key" and emphasis on trust and autonomy directly relate to themes in the teacher leadership courses I'm taking.  They are such basic human needs and the American education system as an institution doesn't seem to value those needs in adults or children.  After reading the link to Sophia Faridi's article  and Justin's blog on trust, that word value takes on more significance.  The Finnish system places value on the person as a whole, satisfying the need to have quality, trusting relationships in the school building and the ability to be autonomously effective.  It's truly a matter of national priorities, and I'm hopeful that our nation will find room for the value of trust at the top its list of priorities for education. 

 

Mark Sandy Mark Sandy commented on July 11, 2014 at 7:10pm:

Thanks

As a newcomer to the CTQ community I have been very encouraged and impressed by the thoughts and experiences shared by everyone.  My trip to Finland reinforced that even after I do everything I can for my kids in the classroom; I still need to fight to change the “system” that prevents greater success.   

Thanks for the feedback on my first blog.

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