I’ve jokingly told people that my job over the last few months is “to have interesting conversations with interesting people”. While meant lightheartedly, it is also the most accurate way of portraying my work in Finland. I can’t call myself a researcher, nor a teacher. Somewhere in between, sure. But most of the learning I am doing these days comes from listening, and being able to ask the series of questions that come to mind.
Over the course of four months, I’ve visited several schools throughout the Helsinki region. Many of them have welcomed me multiple times, and allowed me to work with students. I’ve come to learn that teenagers are pretty much the same in Finland as they are in the States - eager to learn, funny, musically gifted, apathetic, loyal to a particular team, anxious, artistically inclined, curious, and future oriented.
I’ve also had the chance to share (many) cups of coffee with educators at all levels. Consistently, I am comforted by their passion for teaching, learning, and nurturing young people. And beyond that, I have been fortunate to hear their stories- of how they came into the classroom, and who they are outside of it.
For four months, my brain has been buzzing with ideas, sometimes in ways that compete or contradict one another. So when it came to presenting my research thus far, I balked. Did I have pithy conclusions or anything novel to share?
Letting the experiences guide
In going through all of my notes, scattered as they are, I realized the answer to that question is…yes. Because the Fulbright Forum on Education, Innovation and Art wasn’t to prove that I was an expert on Finnish education. It was to recount the non-linear, warmly lit path I have walked since January; to share my story, borne of the teachers, professors, administrators, and officials that have shared theirs with me.
My aim has been to learn about Finnish pedagogical strategies and systemic norms that implement competence based learning. But in the process, I’ve learned to adapt, to challenge my original assumptions, and to let experience guide instead of preconceptions dictate my learning. Finnish classrooms have reminded me how deeply trust can permeate a system and what that can produce. Finnish schools have shown me it is possible to connect business, non profits, parents, social services, and government agencies to actualize the notion of lifelong learning.
But perhaps I’ve learned more in the “non academic” parts of this experience - namely, just how far kindness reverberates. Sometimes it comes in the form of mämmi or Fazer Easter eggs, or an invitation to a family dinner table. Other times it’s been board games or experiencing the crowd of a Tampere hockey game. And it’s always the walks surrounded by towering Nordic pines. The uninterrupted peace of this setting allows newfound friendships to ease into comfortable silence and bond over campfire sausages.
In putting together my presentation, I gained some clarity - finally able to discern patterns and overarching themes, takeaways that I know will make me a better teacher, researcher, and advocate for change back home. Because four months of “interesting conversations with interesting people” have grown deep roots. And without a doubt, those roots will shape the ways in which I view and interact with the world moving forward.