Reading Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms, by educator Timothy Walker, taught me a lot about blending joy and learning in the classroom. It's absolutely a resource I think teachers should have at their disposal. Here's what I think is the best the book had to offer.
Taking a Page out of Finland's Book
Finnish students consistently score high on Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This intrigues other countries' teachers because education in Finland looks very different from the systems they're used to—the school days are short, students have very little homework, and there's almost no standardized testing!
Walker, an American teacher who moved to Finland, sought to uncover the strategies that make Finnish schools so successful. He breaks the elements of education in Finland into five categories: well-being, belonging, autonomy, mastery, and mind-set. The following are my favorite strategies from each category.
Schedule Brain Breaks. Most American students go all day with few breaks; in Finnish schools, students take a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes of instruction. This may not be possible for teachers in the U.S. to emulate, but they can schedule blocks of time to promote independence and creativity.
In my classroom, I balance instruction, discussion, collaboration, and reflection each period. Additionally, because my students must dock their phones at the start of class, I give them a five-minute tech break at the end. As a result, they're more engaged during class, and they don't seem as stressed out.
Recharge After School. Almost every teacher I know works long hours after school (and on weekends) planning lessons, grading papers, and creating assessments. Walker points out that teachers need to "start pushing back on this unhelpful ideology, which tells us to assess ourselves based on how much we work."
It's essential to set work-life boundaries and keep them. While this may be difficult for most U.S. teachers to do, it's important to say no to some of that extra committee work, those online discussion boards, and volunteer work. Disconnecting and recharging will, in the long run, help us create joyful classrooms.
Know Each Child. Walker reminds us of research revealing that belonging is a major component of happiness. Building strong teacher-student relationships is critical. Try greeting each student by name at the door, inquiring about a sporting event or co-curricular activity, and cultivating personal connections—this signals that you see your students as individuals. Deepening those relationships ultimately contributes to the student's sense of belonging and their overall classroom contentment.
Pursue a Class Dream. A class dream may be attending a performance of Hamlet after reading the play or fundraising to help hurricane victims. It may be exploring an interdisciplinary unit on Vietnam by interviewing Vietnam veterans. For one of my sophomore classes, it was taking a trip to New York City if they showed sufficient performance growth on the state exam. Whatever your dream, it's important to make this decision as a class. Then discuss class roles, create time lines, and plan actionable steps. Make sure the vision of the class dream involves every student.
Offer Choices. Providing students with choices helps them become independent learners. Walker urges teachers to "get to know students' passions, make curricular connections, and offer interesting choices to them."
When a student suggested an elective on The Walking Dead, I initially laughed. But I realized the series would help students learn about everything from business and ethics to sociology and psychology. It's become one of my most popular classes, where I've seen some of the best writing, critical thinking, and problem-solving of my career.
Prove the Learning. Though Finnish schools have minimal standardized testing, they still test their students. Walker believes the "simple practice of getting students to prove their learning by justifying their answers" helps them think critically and creatively. Create assignments that ask students to give evidence of why they would vote for a political candidate, for example, or explain how the media competes for an audience. This shows true understanding.
Discuss the Grades. With the advent of computer software like PowerSchool, we can share and discuss grades with students. This allows them to reflect and gives us a chance to support their journey toward academic mastery.
Have a Thicker Skin. This truly resonated with me—sometimes it seems like everyone who went to school has an opinion on how teachers should run classrooms. But this isn't carte blanche to ignore any given feedback; it simply means you should be confident in your expertise. "As teachers," Walker writes, "it's not a matter of if we'll face issues in the workplace; it's a matter of when. Having a tough skin . . . helps protect the joy of teaching."
Vacate on Vacation. Teachers have a hard time shutting off during vacations. We take classes, participate in committees, and even present at conferences. In Finland, teachers consciously leave school problems, issues, and paperwork behind. They shut off email and phone calls to concentrate on enjoyment. Research supports that taking adequate time off bolsters performance—teachers need to hear that.
Don't Forget Joy. In the age of test-based accountability, it's hard to prioritize joy in our classroom. But Walker believes joy is largely responsible for the success of education in Finland. So, bring joy back into your classroom. Take time to build relationships with your students, get outside, incorporate music into lessons, brush off unhelpful criticism, and recharge. I bet you'll find that your classroom is a lot more joyful after doing so.
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While it's true that Finland lacks the diversity seen in U.S. schools, and has a lower child poverty rate, I believe Walker's strategies can create joyful, successful classroom no matter where they're used.