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Teachers and trust: cornerstones of the Finnish education system

Jaime Saavedra's picture
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Public school teachers in Brazil, Indonesia or Peru have stable jobs, enjoy high level of legal protection, and are part of teacher unions that shield them politically. Public school teachers in Finland also have stable jobs and are rarely fired. They are represented by a powerful teacher union, which is very influential among other stakeholders in policy discussions. Why do student learning outcomes among these countries vary dramatically?

1. Teachers’ prestige, selection and training

In Finland, teachers are highly valued. The teaching career is prestigious, demanding, and reserved for the most talented and hard-working. Only one fifth of all applicants to primary teacher education programs in Finnish universities are admitted. Admission depends not only on high academic achievements, but on interest and passion to become a teacher. This is very different to what happens in most middle-income countries (and some high-income countries, including the United States), where getting admitted to Faculties of Education is easy. Sometimes, even ensured.

For those admitted into education faculties, the Finns invest heavily in pre-service teacher education. Since the teaching profession requires a master’s degree in education, it takes approximately five years of university studies to become a qualified teacher. Primary school teachers oversee most of the subjects for their grade. Therefore, those becoming teachers for this age group major in educational sciences and choose two or three minors which can be school subjects (e.g. mathematics, history, music, literature, drama, English, Finnish, etc.) but other alternatives such as philosophy or sociology etc. are also available. While in training, they learn a combination of theoretical studies of educational sciences and pedagogy, combined with practical studies of all school subjects. In addition, there are various practicums which begin during the first semester of studies and are carried out both in the university teacher training schools and in regular schools.

Secondary school teachers oversee specific subjects for each grade. To become experts in the topics they teach, as well as pedagogical professionals, they study their respective school subject for about five to six years and must complete a year-long practical training combined with pedagogy and studies of educational sciences. For both primary and secondary teachers, each practicum has a specific theme, and those being trained to become teachers work daily with a mentor teacher (who supervises the practicum and teaches a class or subject in a regular school) and a university teacher educator (who is a tutor teacher).  

You can become a qualified teacher in Finland and be ready to oversee a classroom, all by yourself, only after several years of study and numerous hours of classroom hands-on practice. In many middle-income countries, a recent graduate can be thrown into a classroom without much, or any, real classroom experience.

2. Trust

Once Finnish teachers are hired and in classrooms, they are given a lot of responsibility. With such a high quality human capital, school management can be performed differently. The country does not have classroom inspectors or supervisors. In its place, principals act as pedagogical leaders and provide teachers with trust and steering, instead of control. Teachers are encouraged to work in close collaboration with their peers, constantly mentoring and tutoring each other.  The aim of this ongoing initiative is to provide the support needed to make sure that the best pedagogical practices are implemented in every classroom.

Although Finnish teachers must follow the national core curriculum (which is student-centered and provides the overall framework and learning objectives), they have autonomy when it comes to its implementation. Students in Finland study various subjects with structured courses, but in addition, teachers coordinate projects so that the same subject is seen through different disciplines. Students don’t get a lot of homework and spend less time at school compared to their peers in other OECD countries. However, time is used effectively, with regular breaks after 45 or 90 minutes when students usually go outside.

With great teachers and immense trust, every student (including those with diverse educational needs) can receive quality education at their nearby school, across the country. Even if parents are free to select a school for their child, most prefer the school closest to their home. Teachers are respected. Their autonomy is paired with great responsibility. They, and society, know that the future of children lies in their hands.

Is this degree of autonomy feasible or desirable in all contexts? No. It is efficient and conducive to high levels of achievement only under certain conditions:  when selection of teachers is meritocratic and demanding (not when politics play a role in the selection or deployment of teachers),  when a lot of effort is required to become a teacher (not when education is not an attractive profession for students with high potential), and when career advancement depends on professional development and accomplishments (not just years on the job).  Teacher reforms in many countries require yet to put those conditions in place.


Submitted by Sammy Asava on

A teacher is key in the learning process. When he/she is not recognized and highly motivated, the learning process and outcome will eventually be low and unproductive. Most countries under rate the role of teachers in the learning process. Some go to the extent of glorifying IT at the expense of teacher physical availability and role. The fourth SDG will never be achieved unless the teacher is made the flag bearer and carrier of the agenda

Submitted by h mumtaz on

A. Teacher. Is. A. Role. Model. In the. Socity. Provided. He/. She. Is the. Well. Trained. And have
Better. Education.

Submitted by adefunke ekine on

Great piece! How I wish leaders in the education sector in my country Nigeria can borrow a leaf from the Finland education system

Submitted by Debotah Magbegor on

If I can still remember the First day of my schooling life and what took place, I think teachers should be paid very well. After my parents, comes teachers. They shaped my lifeI f or the best. Both academically, morally and my IQ is very good.The slogan then was; " Come to Sxhool and Don't be L:ate "
Teachers shold be paid well for quality education for our children.
Early Childhood learning is the key for our children to be more equipped in the acadamic world for them to compete with their peers Globbally/

Submitted by Abdelilah Kehihel on

Really glas teachers are so highlighted somewhere! As a retired teacher of English respecting all the positive values of teachers and learners would like to exploit my skills in Finland. With given such status I feel I can add some values to any new setting. It's really challenging and I enjoy any new experiences that would face me. I also feel I can adapt to those unknown learners' needs. If only I could!

Submitted by Anonymous on

That is great. Developing young talent require intelligent teachers. They create a younger generation who will continue to develop and increase wealth for the nation.

Submitted by Malom Saring on

The Indian education sector is one of the worse. It is because of the political interference in the education system in a negative way. SSA and RMSA scheme would have played a vital role in the development of educational system in the country but again this scheme is one of a political tool for various political parties in the states in filling up their financial needs by not paying even the meager salary on time which directly and indirectly affect the teachers' performance.

Submitted by Mostafa Kamal Majumder on

This is a great article reminding us of our teachers who were not only guides and endless stores of knowledge but also role models even in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). They were a different breed. Nationalisation of schools, centralised recruitment and its politicisation have opened the doors of corruption leading favouritism at the cost of merit and aptitude. Now even evaluation of examination of scripts is manipulated by the political bosses who control the centralised system and in turn, this has eroded the respect the teachers once used to command. There are unions which are not strong enough to stand up against neutralisation of the profession.

Submitted by Joseph Joejoe Bajigbayei on

The new president of my country Sierra Leone has prioritized education, hence a flagship program for the rest of his tenure. How i wish the world will support us in on-boarding great initiatives like these of Finland!

Submitted by John Ohagah on

Great article and an eye opener. It’s important that other upcoming economies including my lovely country Kenya borrow a leaf from the Finish. Teachers are the caretakers of the future. They can either make the future or break he future. It is important that a teacher is accorded the necessary respect and rewarded appropriately.

Submitted by GOPILAL POWDEL on

Great thoughts on investing in teacher education as well as entrusting them with caring for the young minds. Wonderful piece of writing . Most developing countries do emphasise on the quality of education but the teachers are often over burden with too much workloads and are often lowly paid.

Submitted by Christopher Ofikwu on

This is quite interesting! In the case of Nigeria the government is not interested in funding education, the UN minimum requirement has never been met. Politics have taken over common sense. I wish our policy makers will read piece like this.

Submitted by Bah Mamadou Bhoye on

Education is so important that developing counties should follow the Finnish example

Submitted by Sulleiman Adediran on

THE SYSTEM IS BETTER OFF.....when both the led and the lead do the right things rightly. If each one of us just stops complaining and does his/her own share of the needful, then we will go the Finnish way The conditions attached for the System to work are also instructive.

Submitted by ADENIYI ELEGBEDE on

A Masterpiece! Teachers are the fulcrum of development of any nation. Unfortunately, in my country, Nigeria, teachers are regarded as third class citizens. How then can the country grow? I wish our leaders will learn from this article and treat teachers well.

Submitted by Juan M de Cardenas on

How to manage powerful teachers union is key. How to motivate them to make its members take courses that improve their teaching skills and give them access to higher salaries. Some teachers unions are perverse. They prefer lower salaries but to keep control of its members.

Submitted by Chigozie Chikere on

Quality education is the machinery that drives development and that is one reason Finland will continue to fly high. I am really motivated by this article and wish curriculum planners, education managers and supervisors in Nigeria can learn from the Finnish model.

Submitted by K.SHIVAKUMAR on

The teachers are to be congratulated for their efforts and having high qualifications working for the children Good model and others can follow

Submitted by Aminu Sanda on

The report is absolutely insightful. This must serve as a point of reference for governments and education policy framers, especially in Ghana, where teachers from the basic to the tertiary levels are not adequately developed pedagogically and practically, to have full management control of their classrooms.

Submitted by Basil Ogbozor on

The Finnish educational system is indeed a veritable global template for quality education in our modern world. The philosophy behind the success of the Finnish educational system is their realisation that human capital development is the most valuable asset of a nation and the key to its optimal welfare and prosperity. The amazing aspect of the system is its effectiveness in simplicity, devoid of over-stressing the learners and their parents/caregivers with overwhelming homeworks. Every serious minded country, both OECD and non-OECD countries should understudy the Finnish educational system and borrow as much as they require to upgrade their existing systems.

For my country Nigeria, I suggest that the government mandates the Federal Ministry of Education to arrange for bitateral partnership of selected Nigerian universities with Finnish universities with strong teacher-training educational prorams so that they can understudy the Finnish system and adapt their teacher-training programs to the Nigerian context.

Submitted by Emmanuel Mireku on

Very interesting and Captivating. This is the way to go. The better teachers are served and encouraged, the future of a nation is secured. They hold the key to responsible and excellent minded human resource. My country Ghana should watch and learn.

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