A Tale of Two Teachers

     Mr. Smith teaches in the United States, which once boasted some of the finest public schools in the world, but has since fallen behind most other industrialized nations.
     Since teachers in his country are held in such disrepute, Mr. Smith's gifted college friends usually choose other, more respected and better remunerated professions. Indeed, he, himself, came from the bottom percentiles of college graduates. He had to spend an additional year at his own expense in a school of education focused mostly on esoteric theory instead of research-based pedagogy.
     If Mr. Smith somehow emerged, nonetheless, a great educator, he probably works at a beautiful suburban school where he prepares mostly affluent Caucasian and Asian students to go to college. If, on the other hand, he's uncredentialed, ill-prepared, just plain mediocre or worse, he's likely ended up in a dilapidated urban school to teach predominately poor African-American and Latino children--who, for some reason, drop out of high school in scandalously high numbers.
     Every day, Mr. Smith faces well over 30 or even 40 students per class. Perhaps he has enough textbooks for them all, perhaps not depending on where he works.
     He needn't be innovative because he must primarily drill his students to pass standardized tests measuring a narrow band of knowledge and skills, but requiring little to no higher-ordered or critical thinking. If he has any time to spare, he rushes through an absurdly broad but embarrassingly shallow curriculum.
     He can only rarely meet with colleagues about anything other than announcements, test scores, and schedules. His is a lonely profession.
     Poor Mr. Smith has little hope of redemption. The United States government insists on market-based "reforms" such as competition, high-stakes testing, charters, and merit pay, even though the most recent and comprehensive research proves them all to be, not only ineffective, but detrimental to both student and teacher achievement. Everyone's demoralized.
     Mr. Virtanen, however, loves teaching in Finland, a nation that, although wallowing decades ago near the bottom of international academic rankings, now places first.
     In order to become an educator, he had to beat 85% of other applicants. Finish teachers, you see, are revered, their jobs coveted. Indeed, Mr. Virtanen underwent an additional three-year, rigorous graduate preparation entirely at the government's expense, during which he received a stipend as well. He and most of his colleagues hold master's degrees in both Education and their content areas.
     Once he graduated, it didn't matter where he worked because nearly all Finland's small schools (less than 300 students) boast beautiful campuses, well-equipped, small classrooms (fewer than 30 children) and, of course, highly prepared teachers.
     Apparently, the Finish government believes the nation's children are its first priority because every student enjoys free health care, free busing, free school supplies, free counseling and free, nutritious lunches.
     Mr. Virtanen rarely lectures. Instead, he assists his students as they pursue individualized weekly and long-term goals he's helped them choose, goals that often involve teaming up with other students on research for multi-faceted, fun projects, such as publishing their own newspaper.
     Thank goodness the national curriculum is minimal, allowing Mr. Virtanen tremendous leeway and creativity. It also helps that neither he nor his students face high-stakes standardized testing. Instead, for their report cards, he writes detailed narratives of their progress, accomplishments, and challenges.
     Where does Mr. Virtanen find the time? Well, he spends nearly half his school day, not teaching, but meeting with students, communicating with parents, and collaborating with colleagues. Together they form a tightly-knit community where he thrives.
     Mr. Smith and Mr. Virtanen: Only one of them lived happily ever after. And only one of their nations did, too.
     For a more detailed look at Finish schools, read my source for this column. Just Google "Linda Darling-Hammond" and "Finland."

Published December 20th, 2010, in The Argus and The Daily Review (Bay Area News Group)

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