Monday, June 10, 2013

The Flip Side of Autonomy

Teachers in Finland have lots of autonomy. It’s a cultural thing. Since teaching is seen as a highly regarded profession it comes with the territory. Admission into the primary education training program is very competitive and although a little easier for subject teachers is still seen as difficult to become an upper secondary teacher. Teachers must complete a bachelors and masters degree before they can hold a fulltime position in a school. Teachers get to decide what the curriculum looks like at the local school level and they ultimately are in control of what gets taught each day. Teachers are trusted to do their job and so are not bound to being on campus unless they are teaching a class or attending a meeting. There are no evaluations, observations, lesson plan posting or required board configuration that often fill a US teacher’s day. There is a well organized, easy to use web based communication system that all stakeholders (teacher, parents, students) are expected to check regularly for information on grades, attendance and specific student concerns or successes. Teachers are professionals here and they are trusted to do their job.

But there is a flip side to all of this autonomy. I recently met with the head of teacher training at the University of Jyväskylä as a way to understand the teacher training process better. I have recently been reading a lot more about the educational reform and Finnish history that has happened in the last 60 years. I have been struck with how all of the information talks about how the pedagogy of the teacher training program has changed from being teacher-centered to student-centered. However, when I spend time in high school classrooms I am still seeing a lot of lessons that are primarily teacher directed and textbook driven. What happens to teachers after they leave University that changes the way they teach?

Dr. Tiina Silander answered very simply- the culture of the old way is too strong and first year teachers are too overwhelmed to fight against it. Sound familiar? When a new teacher is stressed out, they revert back to the way they have been taught and they way the older teachers in the building are teaching. Since they are autonomous, there is no way to mandate supports or structures that would help. It seems  that often the work is undone from the past 5 years of practical theory that they learn. Obviously this doesn’t happen to every teacher, but just like in the US it happens to many. 

Every year Finnish teachers have to attend 3 professional development days. There is a law that says that the topics of those days cannot be mandated and that teachers can choose the professional development they want to attend. Although this sounds wonderful, the flip side is that there can’t be a requirement to have teachers study student-centered methods. Because administrators don’t regularly evaluate or observe teachers, there are often areas of growth that go unnoticed.  There are several strategies that have been put in place to help support teachers and their professional growth such as mentors, peer group mentoring and a seemingly strong culture of collaboration.  But none of these initiatives can be mandated making them only useful if you are in the right space to take advantage of them.    

Students also have a lot of autonomy. I recently attended a learning cafe where there were multiple stakeholders gathered to help brainstorm some solutions to problems that are routinely coming up in vocational schools. One of the common problems was that there can be little to no communications between multiple organizations who are helping students- social workers, health services, and the school. There are a lot of laws that support student privacy and so there are ways that students are using this autonomy to "work" the system. One of the solutions that was presented was to create a flowchart outlining what each stakeholder's responsibility is so that student's cannot be double-dipping into resources but the student's could maintain their autonomy.

Even though there are days in my US classroom where everything feels mandated, I have to remember that the flip side has its disadvantages too. As with many things, it is only in the middle that we find a true balance and it is in the conversations that we learn the value of that balance.

1 comment:

  1. Karen- your photos are amazing- your thoughts are thoughtful! You are learning so very much