Below is the sixth and final in a series of posts I'm writing from Finland, as part of a trip with a delegation of U.S. education leaders. For a week, we've been immersing ourselves in Finland's top-performing education system.
Without getting into a Finnish civics lesson (don’t worry, I know too little to take a stab), what impressed me was the role that female leaders played in the early days of governance. For example, in 1907, when the country's first parliament was elected, 19 of its 200 members were women. Finnish women were the first in the world to be able to both vote and be elected to parliament. And today, the female MPs (Members of Parliament) total 85.
In 2000, Tarja Kaarina Halonen became the nation’s eleventh, and first female, president. President Halonen had been an MP for more than 20 years after a career in trade unions and NGOs. She had very high approval ratings—over 80 percent—during her twelve-year tenure as president, a time that coincided with deepening investments in Finland’s teaching profession.
I am convinced that Finnish success on PISA (Program for International Assessments of Student Achievement) has a lot to do with the kind of leadership women have brought to bear on education policy, especially teacher preparation and support.
Unlike in America, the Finns’ respect for women and the children they bear is visible and palpable. Walking into the Session Hall, in Parliament House, chatting with my fellow U.S. delegates, I was immediately drawn to a group of bronze statues: four men facing forward and one woman—turned backward but holding a baby gazing ahead, waving to those who sit and deliberate on the future of Finland. Indeed, the male statues are named “The Pioneer,” “Intellectual Work,” “Faith,” and “The Harvester.” In the middle, the woman, proudly and boldly holding up her child, is “The Future.”
Worldwide, teaching is generally a female-dominated profession (67 percent of Finland's teachers are women, and 76 percent of America's teachers are female). But unlike in Finland, America’s policymakers—and our incoherent system of teacher development—show little respect for those who teach. And in part, teaching still is beset by gender discrimination. Such disparities have been historically linked to misconceptions that teaching is an unskilled job that does not warrant higher salaries, responsibilities, or leadership.*
In America, teachers are typically appreciated for serving children but mocked for their assumed lack of intellectual ability and their perceived inability to compete in the larger labor market. Indeed, the younger the student, the less status his or her teachers hold. Even in prestigious professions, like medicine, pediatricians earn less than any number of specialists. In America, taking care of the young has never generated much prestige for any occupational group.
This is not the case in Finland.
I learned from Raija Vahasalo, who chairs the Education and Culture Committee, that the Finnish government, a coalition of six political parties, has “quite a good consensus over how to improve our education system.” MP Vahasalo is a conservative, not a social democrat (or other left-leaning Finnish party member), but she was far more trusting and respectful of Finnish teachers than most U.S. government representatives—from both political parties.
In Finland, the respect for teaching and teachers is profound. It runs deep in its culture, but it is also rooted in the nation’s respect for women. This respect aligns with the nation’s intellectual, forward-looking leadership, and its search for consensus—not conflict. And inland places emphasis on professional responsibility, not rigid accountability. As MP Vahasalo reminded us, “Our teachers are good, not bad.”
In America, we have many women who know teaching and learning as well as Raija Vahasalo does in her country. We need to make sure these knowledgeable women are the people leading our country's charge to professionalize teaching.
*Grant, G. & Murray, C. (1999). Teaching in America: The slow revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.