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


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


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.

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