in Finland: How to motivate the Finnish teachers?

Feeling ownership of the things you do and being part of a team are key components of the wellbeing of teachers, says principal Jukka Sarpila. We met Mr. Sarpila to discuss pedagogical leadership, motivation, and this year’s educational goals.

What are your educational goals for this school year?

The city of Espoo in Finland has three main targets for this year, which I find very appropriate for these times. The first is improving literacy. As research has indicated literacy is in decline, we need to think about ways to turn the tide with strong support from teachers and families. Our second goal is student wellbeing and in particular, how to support students proactively. The third goal revolves around the skills needed for technology in education, which is getting more and more essential in today’s society.

What makes a good pedagogical leader?

In Finland, it is a good thing that pedagogical leaders have a certificate in education as well as teaching experience. Good pedagogical leaders stay closely connected to the teaching profession and the classroom so that they can make well-informed decisions to improve teacher and student learning. At the same time, it is important for pedagogical leaders to develop a strong personal vision, that is based on instructional practice as well as the latest research and developments in the field of education.

Perhaps what is most important when working with a team of professionals in an expert organization such as school, is the need to have effective communication and social skills, so that you can effectively support the teachers you are working with and the students under their care.

How do you stimulate your teachers to challenge themselves and keep them motivated?

I think we are lucky that in Finland teacher training is researched-based and at a university level, which usually means teachers already come to the profession with a certain level of critical thinking, a willingness to develop education and their own professional growth. Often teachers approach me with valuable ideas and I need to be able to execute those ideas and try new things.

My experience as a principal tells me that the more engaged you are and the more you have ownership of things, the happier and more successful you are. As a principal, it is important to facilitate an environment in which this is possible.

Many teachers are struggling with the hectic pace of the teaching profession. How do you support teachers with time management and prioritization?

This is a really key question to which there is not one-size fits all answer. One thing that is clear is that teacher well-being affects student learning. Our aim is to set up effective collaboration practices and to diversify the workload so that teachers are not reinventing the wheel all the time. Many teachers enjoy working together. Successful collaboration is definitely a high indicator of teacher well-being and many teachers have higher job satisfaction as a result of good professional relationships.

At a whole-school level, I think it is important to emphasize that less is more. Although there are many pressing things that need attention in education, we cannot do them all and do them in a way that ensures quality. If we focus on literacy, wellbeing and digital skills this year, there might be important areas like sustainable development or mathematics, that will have to wait. Making our priorities clear in a whole-school strategic plan at the start of the year is therefore helpful.

In many places in the world teachers and school principals hold Finnish education in high regard. What makes it so good? What do you think is lacking in the Finnish education?

A key success aspect of the Finnish education system is by far that it is based on equal opportunities. Everyone goes through the same educational system, with no exceptions. There is no need to choose an academic path by the age of 10, for example.

Also, we invest in our teachers and have high expectations of the profession. It was a conscious decision in Finland in the 1970’s to move teacher education to university. That seemed to be an excellent decision.

I am not an expert in the American education system, but I feel we can learn from ways in which we can preserve and school’s reputation, which can be made visible through sports clubs and hoodies. Also, I am in favour of fostering positive attitudes, and the ways in which we can create a culture of constructive feedback- not focus too much on errors. Positive pedagogy has only recently arrived in Finland. I also think that we have a lot to learn in education from international settings. It’s estimated that in 2030 our population in the capital region will consist of 30% non-native Finnish speakers- we need to make that into a success story, too.

What is your dream school like?

In my dream school, there are 188 successful school days for students, teachers, and families. (number of school days in Finland in a school year) My dream school not only supports the education and wellbeing of the students but empowers students to increase the good in the world. I welcome my colleagues to visit our school and discuss the future of education!

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