Editor’s note: Russ McKell, a social studies teacher at Summit High School in Orem, was among 32 Utah educators who recently visited schools in Finland with Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Europe. Read the related story here.
In general, Finnish teachers are happy. They are professional. They are focused on students.
And their classroom sizes are half the size of ours.
In the small community of Siuntio, we toured an art classroom where art teacher Mari Sarviaho proudly showed us the work her students had produced. Paintings, sculpture, architecture and graffiti decorate her room. She believes deeply that art drives students to understand themselves and that it is necessary in all classrooms. It was inspiring to listen to her.
Afterward, we talked. She said how much she loved teaching, how much she adored her students, and how she cared about their futures. I felt like I had found a kindred spirit.
The last thing she said to me was, “It’s about knowing your students. It’s about making a connection.” She made that looking gesture, turning two fingers from her eyes to an imaginary student, and said, “It only takes two minutes to let them know I care.”
I couldn’t agree more.
I teach in a small school. For our faculty, it’s about building relationships, knowing a student’s background and their personal struggles. I have about 12 students per class. I know them deeply. I know who they are, what their family life is like and what their goals are. My school is highly successful.
But as this teacher talked to me I thought about my own daughter and her teachers, about her classroom size of 40 students. I thought about our first parent teacher conference. Her teachers didn’t know her.
Good, well-meaning, highly trained teachers couldn’t even identify her as their student, let alone know her name.
If it only takes two minutes, that’s 80 minutes per class, per day, and I wondered, “Where does the time go?”