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Teacher essay: Training great teachers the Finnish way

Published July 18, 2014 12:47 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Editor's note: Laura Nelson, a French teacher at East High School in Salt Lake City, 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 Finland, most young people who choose to enter the teaching profession make that decision before they even leave high school. Potential teachers go through a rigorous application process. They have to have high scores on the matriculation exam, as well as an impressive portfolio of work to demonstrate their academic strengths.

Potential educators are then selected to participate in discussion panels where they might watch a video depicting a particular situation in a school and are then asked to discuss how they would deal with the situation. During these discussions, professors use rubrics to rate the performance of the applicants.

Candidates also complete a personal interview. After all of this, they have a 10 percent chance of being accepted. It is not uncommon for students to try to be admitted multiple times.

Once admitted, students choose to either become elementary or secondary teachers, and their programs are tailored to this choice.

The result of this system is that Finland produces highly qualified and highly respected teachers who are well-prepared and enjoy an autonomy that is unmatched in most of the world.

Though we spoke with teachers at the end of the school year when they were obviously ready for summer vacation, they all expressed enthusiasm for their jobs. They felt they had autonomy, respect, good working conditions, and adequate resources for working with difficult student problems.

It seems like we could solve a lot of problems in our system by adopting a similar teacher training process, but I fear it's more complicated than that.

For example, there is still the issue of teacher salaries. In Finland, teacher salaries are comparable to doctors and lawyers. But if you look closer, you realize that doctors in Finland make significantly lower salaries than American doctors. To many Finns, this balance makes sense, but in the U.S., we may still be committed to the idea that the higher the salary, the more respect you gain.

This difference in attitudes should not, however, inhibit our push to get the most qualified teachers possible and provide excellent training. Perhaps we could begin with some version of the Finnish system of candidate selection, to weed out those who perhaps would do better in a different profession.