Teaching: A World View
Finnish Line: Teaching in Finland
In 2017, according to a European Commission report, only 13% of students who wanted to be elementary school teachers like Lehtinen — generalists who teach all subjects plus P.E., music, arts and handicrafts in first through sixth grades — won admission to universities in Finland. They must score well on the country’s high-stakes, national high school exit exams and university entrance exams and then pass a gauntlet of evaluations, including teaching a class, to screen for aptitude and personality. Lehtinen spent a year as a classroom helper to get the extra “points” that put her over the top for admission.
In the equivalent of our seventh through 12th grades, teachers are subject specialists who first must win university admission in their field. Admittance rates run 10% to 53% depending on the subject. As they work toward degrees in their subjects, they take courses and practical training in how to teach.
Antti Piiroinen, who speaks excellent English, failed to get one of the 50 slots in English studies that were sought by some 500 prospective university students. He instead gained university admission in German and Swedish and now teaches both languages at a public school — Finland has very few private schools — in Espoo, a Helsinki suburb near Nokia’s headquarters.
In Finland, aside from their native tongue, students must take English and whichever of Finland’s two official languages (Finnish and Swedish) they don’t speak at home. “You need to know languages in this country,” Piiroinen says. “I have great students. I like my work.”
Finnish teachers work on average 32 hours a week, below the 38-hour average in the developed world. But while total work hours are short, Finnish teachers are second only to Canadian teachers in the time they spend actually teaching, as opposed to doing paperwork, grading, counseling students or individual planning. (Teachers interviewed for this article spent 15 to 25 hours a week in class teaching.)
The teacher workforce skews older. Fewer than 10% of teachers are under 30. As in the rest of the developed world, the ranks of teachers are overwhelmingly female. Class size averages 20 students in elementary grades and 16 in what would be junior high in the U.S., according to Finnish authorities, but the addition of special-ed teachers and classroom assistants takes the student- teacher ratio lower.
Small and homogeneous
Finnish teachers don’t have to contend with students from diverse backgrounds. Immigrants make up just 6% of the population, compared to 20% of Florida’s population, for example. Finland also is small. The country’s population is less than the combined population of the three Southeast Florida counties, each of which has a school system ranking among America’s 10 largest.
According to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, even after adjusting for purchasing power and currency, U.S. teachers get paid considerably better than teachers in Finland. But teachers in Finland feel better about their jobs. An OECD survey found 90% of Finnish teachers were satisfied in their jobs. Some 60% felt valued by society, a percentage bested only in South Korea and a share considerably higher than what U.S. teachers scored.
Social equality is a factor. In the U.S., elementary school teachers earn 55% and high school teachers earn 58% of the pay of similarly educated workers. In Finland, elementary school teachers earn 77% and upper high school teachers earn 94% of the pay of those with similar educations.