Yes, let’s put children at the center of how we make education policy and reform in Oregon. I am happy to welcome Whitney Grubbs, Kali Thorne Ladd, Matt Morton and Vanessa Wilkins to the Finland party on education. And would like to reiterate the final sentence from their recent opinion piece “Looking to Finland to improve Oregon’s Schools”.
“Only with courage, shared responsibility and sacrifice can we transform our state into a place where all can meaningfully contribute and thrive, where disparities are eliminated and where children take their rightful place at the center.”
As an educator in the Reynolds School District for over 10 years, working with students in early childhood at our most underserved schools in the state, I feel like I have had my share, if not more than most, of “courage, responsibility, and sacrifice.” I also went to Finland in 2015 for a summer school course titled “Myths and Realities of the Finnish Educational System.” For three weeks in August I sat in a room with educators from around the world discussing not only the Finnish educational system, but education globally. We visited Finnish schools, read about current Finnish educational issues, and saw the benefits of much that is highlighted in the Oregonian’s recent opinion piece. Students are at the center and children overall are respected in Finland. Teachers are given a lot of autonomy and held in a respected light culturally. Health and well-being are definitely tied to academic success, but not just stopping there, they are considered important for success overall.
One cannot ignore the fact that Finland is a country that provides universal health care, among many other social supports. I will never forget the moment in my class in Finland when I asked, “So how does Finland support students who are acting out in disruptive ways, like hitting or running away?”
The blank look on the professor’s face as he said, “That doesn’t happen here.”
At that moment, in my mind I begin to ask, “Well what am I doing here?” Because that is what was and is happening where I work.
I think it is dangerous to try and adapt a model or educational system from one country to another. We are not identical in needs or services. I do think we can still learn from each other, but the take-aways must be student centered, focusing on who are our students and what are their specific needs. That was my biggest gain from Finland. Local needs must be identified, acknowledged and addressed in a problem-solving manner. But above all we must direct resources to serve those needs.
I just recently returned home from three months of traveling. I visited friends, who I made during my course in Finland, in Egypt and Nepal. I went to their prospective schools and observed their classrooms. I believe and practice being a life-long learner. I set off this next week to New Zealand on a Distinguished Award in Teaching Fulbright Grant to study how New Zealand Schools implement whole-school restorative practices with long-term planning and professional development. An initiative that Portland Public Schools just reduced in their own budget.
Early childhood art class in Egypt
At my friend’s school in Nepal, he shared with me his biggest take-away from Finland was to add more arts into his students’ day. All children at his school have art, music, and dance classes. They have a full time librarian and a library filled with English and Nepali books. The school is full of joy. Teachers are eager to learn and given the time to do so with co-teachers in every classroom. Leadership at his school allowed for growth and shifted resources to support the arts. Key word here: “resources.” Throughout my time in education in Oregon, from being a student in Portland Public Schools to a Restorative Justice Behavior Specialist in Reynolds Public Schools I have seen a decline in resources, and lack of funding where it truly matters.
Early childhood dance class in Nepal
IF a child-centered classroom was what we REALLY wanted in Oregon, we would shift what we fund and why. We would have fully stocked classroom and school libraries, with actual librarians. We would fund arts: music, dance, theater and visual arts. We would encourage and provide professional development allowing for play-centered learning in early childhood. We would provide universal preschool. We would have funding for physical education and after school sports. We would fund needed counselors and support staff working with students. We would provide more professional development and support for culturally-relevant teaching practices.
On a side note, my paper for my course in Finland focused on the lack of culturally relevant classroom instruction. They may have a growing diversity of immigrants, but the homogeneity of the country and its population still dominate the classrooms and what is taught. Reynolds School District has 61 languages spoken by the students that walk through our doors. You cannot compare that reality with Finland’s. Our language demands and needs differ, our resources stretch too thin. We simply do not have the funds to provide one-on-one language classes to all our students who need it. We spend our resources instead on high stakes testing, which continues to plague our schools and students. We spend our money on curriculum adoptions that take place every few years and never allow for any constancy. We give tax breaks to our corporations so they don’t have to show “courage, shared responsibility, and sacrifice.”
I remember the student-centered education of our public schools in Oregon in the eighties and nineties before No Child Left Behind. We know what would help our students. I don’t need to go to Finland or New Zealand to find that out. I spent the last 10 years filling a classroom with books I bought in order to have a culturally relevant library of high interest texts. I sought out my own group of early-childhood educators who support and understand the value of play. I wrote my own professional development centering on restorative practices for the Fulbright Grant in order to go and hopefully to see what long-term planning and professional development support does to change a school culture and community. That was my own teacher autonomy fighting to swim upstream everyday. The same autonomy that makes me a teacher who speaks up constantly for the students I know need various supports and are not receiving them.
Our system has to fit into percentages boxes. I have seen the deterioration of educators working together because of the push for whittling down students, educators, schools, and districts to scores and numbers, breaking away the communities that we used to create and thrive in here in Oregon. I fly to New Zealand next week because at the end of the day I know it is our relationships with our students, fellow educators, and each other in our community that will make any difference in ability to transform our schools. Restorative practices in its truest form is about such relationships. Relationships that I have only witnessed be torn apart in my professional lifetime as a teacher. Relationships I cling to keeping me in this profession. For me at the end of the day, it is always about that small child, whose hand I am holding, who says, “Ms. Emily I am….” “Ms. Emily I need….” “Ms. Emily I want…” and who I look in the eye and say back to them, “I hear you.”
*Opinions stated in this piece are mine, not in connection with any organization I am affiliated with.
Former Reynolds Education Association President
Current Distinguished Award in Teaching Fulbright Awardee
Photo credits: Emily Crum