Half as Long, but Just as Powerful
By Kelsea Turner
Published on June 22, 2020
"For the beggars and the peaceful, the fairies and the children, the wild and the voiceless. The presidents and the heroes, the helpers, students, grownups and dreamers. For us." (Excerpt of the dedication painted on the wall of the new library in Helsinki.)
Nothing captures the essence of Finland quite like Helsinki’s new flagship public library, affectionately known as Oodi. So, it felt somehow fitting that this is where I found myself on the day it became clear that my Fulbright would come to a premature end.
When I say that I “found myself” there, I mean that literally and figuratively. After spending a cold, drizzly day wandering the city alone, I wound up in Book Heaven, Oodi’s crown jewel. It was there that, with an unexpected parting of the thick cloud layer that had blanketed the city for days, I suddenly saw the light. In this futuristic space amidst the robots and 3D printers, the board games and sewing machines, the newly ubiquitous jugs of hand sanitizer and the fearful faces of other people who, like me, wondered how their stories would be shaped by this pandemic, I found my way to a radical acceptance of the unknown… and realized I had been practicing this in Finland all along. I would just have to carry it home with me a little sooner than I’d hoped.
I arrived in Finland with my family on a grey and frigid day at the end of December. And though I experienced many other kinds of days during my three months there - sunny, crisp, snowy, rainy, brisk, and windy - I found it notable that it was again grey and frigid on April 1, the day that we would ultimately depart.
My time as a “Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching Semester Research Grantee” was the highlight of my professional life so far. I was genuinely curious about this arctic wonderland where students managed to outperform other countries on the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) PISA Test (Program for International Student Assessment) in spite of shorter school days, flexible start times, little homework, and no standardized testing or teacher oversight. This sounded like a utopia to my 14-year-old daughter who was ecstatic to have the chance to be a student in a Finnish school.
We hit the ground running but armed with advice from previous Fulbrighters to take it slow and give ourselves time to adjust, I didn’t have a sense of urgency initially to fill my schedule. It took longer to arrange school visits than I expected, with some teachers not responding to emails quickly or at all. At the risk of generalizing, Finnish email culture seems to be a bit less urgent than in the U.S., though I am a huge fan of their use of emojis (especially smiley faces) in professional emails to soothe the sting of a two-week wait for a response. All of that to say, I had a slow start getting into schools. But with an advisor who was attuned to my goals, once I connected with many of the teachers he introduced me to, things seemed to fall into place.
I felt equipped to handle the ups and downs, began to get creative about finding insights into my research questions, and really started loving the research process. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t feel myself slipping out of the honeymoon stage and in and out of periods of discontent. I found myself alone and smiling at random moments dumbfounded by how I ended up here… at this place in my life.... that this had become my life. I loved it.
The goal of my Fulbright inquiry project was to determine the role Finnish teachers play in cultivating agency and purpose in early adolescence. In other words, what approaches could I bring back that would help students find more meaning in their learning and that could help equip them to thrive, no matter what happens in life? These seven words would come to hold very personal meaning for me through the spring and summer of 2020.
I hoped to see schools and teachers in action doing the real work that was behind Finland’s success story in education reform. I knew that many Finnish teachers were amused by the hype sometimes even asking, “What does that PISA test assess again?” and I couldn’t wait to hear their thoughts about it all. I wanted to interview students, take classes, and know what it was like to be a parent of a student in the Finnish school system. I got to do all of that in the time I had there… just not for as long as I would’ve liked.
My mom and my brother were visiting in early March when it was becoming apparent that New York would be the next “hot spot” of the pandemic. When they arrived on March 9th, travel had not been impacted nor had I heard that it would be. But on the morning of March 12th I got an email from my husband saying that President Trump had closed the borders to the U.S. The announcement was vague, and clarification had not yet come that the ban did not apply to American citizens. So, we wondered, “What would this mean for my family’s travel plans?” and then, “There’s no way this could impact my Fulbright… is there?”
Over the next several days in a flurry of bewilderment and confusion, almost all of my cohort had returned to the United States. I was determined to stay as long as we had a choice, but by the last days of March guidance from the U.S. Embassy and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs felt stronger and more ominous. The latest update included a specific date in April by which we should plan to leave Finland as flight availability beyond that was uncertain. Schools in Finland had moved to distance learning for the foreseeable future and I was having meetings via Zoom from my bedroom in Jyväskylä while my daughter was outside making videos of herself completing a “forest parkour course” of her own design and construction for her gym class. With my husband and elderly parents in the U.S. and our world in Finland getting smaller and smaller, I made the decision to return home on April 1st. It was time to go, ready or not.
I’ve been back home for two months now, and my radical acceptance of this reality ebbs and flows. I often return to Finland in my mind, knowing that my work there was supposed to be wrapping up just now and I would be settling in for a month of leisure at our house on the lake, our endurance of the long winter finally rewarded by the midnight sun and the arrival of our family. My Fulbright experience feels both alive and distant at times. I alternate between feeling productive and stuck. The acceptance part has been harder than I imagined. But I carry with me many moments of revelation and awe that Finland delivered during my three months there just like that day at Oodi.
Finland taught me that experiencing the beauty of one’s inner and outer landscape is every man’s right. I didn’t go to Finland to find out what it looks and feels like when equity is a fundamental educational value, but since I’ve returned to the U.S. which has been throttled once again by multiple murders of African Americans at the hands of police; it is all that I think about. I was invited to emerge from my cocoon of silence about racism in America when a ten-year-old boy raised his hand to ask me an essential question of his own during class at a school in Rovaniemi: “Why do police kill so many Black people in the United States?” His teacher prefaced his translation of this question for me with the too-generous disclaimer that he wasn’t sure it was answerable. It is. And we all know it.
On my Fulbright journey, I carried with me the dream of self-actualization and discovery. Being extracted from this transformative time so abruptly and learning how to summon that version of myself forward into the new energetic patterns that I am creating in my old life at home is full of stops and starts so far. Some days my Fulbright self is fully present, some days I can’t remember who she is, and some days it feels like it would be easier to just go about life as if it never happened… but I won’t do that. I will share what I learned and who I am with others.
"Teachers know that a good assessment doesn’t just show what a student already knows; it deepens their learning. By this measure, my Fulbright was a very good test: half as long, but just as powerful."
I must help my students know that learning like this exists and that it took me too long to learn how to ask questions; that it is inspiring to carry burning questions with you into the world and find answers in the most unexpected places… or better yet, find more and more questions. When I applied for a Fulbright, I never pondered questions like, “What could I learn in Finland about teaching for social justice in the United States?” or “How would I handle the crushing disappointment of having a Fulbright opportunity only to have to return to the U.S. with a few days’ notice in the wake of a pandemic?”
My mind goes to uncomfortable places sometimes and explores unwelcome thoughts like, “Maybe in a non-Covid world where I made it to the end of my grant term, I would’ve found that my research wouldn’t have amounted to much.” But it is through sitting with these thoughts that I have finally understood that the product can’t always be what matters most in life. Teachers know that a good assessment doesn’t just show what a student already knows; it deepens their learning. By this measure, my Fulbright was a very good test: half as long, but just as powerful. Maybe even more.
I lost a lot on my Fulbright journey. I lost my transactional cultural perspective, I lost my cloak of defensiveness about my teaching, I lost some assumptions, and I lost my willingness to be quiet about racism and inequity. I found a lot, too. I found the connection between autonomy, trust, and responsibility. I found my way back to the values that mean the most to me. I found answers to the questions I carried with me to Finland. In the end, I found meaning in my own learning and faced a test of whether I have what I need to thrive no matter what happens in life… so far, I think I am passing. The most important thing I found in Finland, though is the belief that if we can’t say the same for all of our children when they leave our American schools, then we have so much urgent work left to do.