Teacher Appreciation Week has always struck me as...odd...until, a few years ago, when I reframed it for myself: Teacher Appreciation could be my opportunity to express my gratitude for having the privilege of being a teacher, for being able to work at a job I love, and to work with students and colleagues who inspire me.
This year, I have so much to be grateful for; my appreciation runs deep and wide. Being in Finland the past 3 months and being in Finnish schools with educators and students has been life-changing. I'm inspired. I'm hopeful. These months have been a time of discovery and creativity. It's also been a time of reflection.
Being a teacher inspires me to be creative in ways that allow me to thrive. Being a teacher is challenging in ways that has brought me to my knees. There's a poem written and performed by Taylor Mali called "What Teachers Make." If you haven't seen Mali peform it, I encourage you to take 3.5 minutes to do so.
This teacher is making a living, supporting my family, and, with my loving husband, raising a daughter.
This teacher has dreams in and out of the classroom.
This teacher has always wanted to be a teacher and has never regretted this journey.
This teacher makes lesson plans and activities. This teacher makes songs to make kids laugh before they go into standardized testing mode. This teacher has made cookies and limonada de coco and has sewn book bags and made holiday tree ornaments.
This teacher has made mistakes. Those split-second decisions we teachers often face...yeah, I've hit some and I've missed some. This teacher makes a memory for many of those moments of 'success' and most of those moments of 'failure.'
This teacher will, surely, make more mistakes. And she'll work to make peace with herself.
This teacher loves the company of other teachers. She feels most at home in the classroom.
This teacher worries about the state of education in the US and still knows that there is extraordinary work done - every minute of every day - by American teachers and students.
This teacher is making a life as an educator, for better and worse (most days and years have been so good), richer and poorer (well, teacher pay could and should be improved), in sickness (over the years think pink eye, flu, strep throat, hand-foot-mouth disease - all shared with and by students and colleagues) and in health (oh, it feels so good to feel good), as long as I can teach with joy, hope and the belief that I can make a difference.
My months in Finland have been steeped in asking for help. For my project, this means asking for access to schools, time with teachers and students, and it has meant asking question after question so that I can make sense of what I'm seeing and experiencing. I think some schools in Finland have Visitor Fatigue. After all, there have been throngs of people from all over the world wanting to know the secret to the success of Finnish schools. I've made many cold calls to schools - Hi, I'm Jennifer. I'm a Fulbright Teacher. Can I come visit?
I've gotten more yesses than nos. And I've been overwhelmed by the gracious, warm welcomes I have received.
I have been honored to be able to watch teachers teach and interact with students. I have smiled watching kiddos play ping pong in between classes. I've wiped away tears listening to children make music. I've loved being in teacher rooms, having conversation with educators about teaching and learning and life over a cup of coffee. I have had the privilege of making presentations and teaching lessons on New Mexico, the US, World War II, the American economy and jobs, and adolescent literature. Today I worked with 9th graders after a lesson I did with 3rd graders.
In the past 8 days alone, I have had joyful, intriguing visits to schools. Let me tell you about them...
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Last week, I visited a school in Lapinlahti, a small community in eastern Finland (about 60km south of Kuopio.) Sarah and I had traveled to Kuopio the day before and caught an early commuter train to Lapinlahti on Tuesday. We were the only passengers to disembark and the platform was empty. We found the upper secondary school, a beautiful space, which serves as a typical, academic upper secondary school and a visual arts school. In fact, students come from all over central Finland to attend this school for the arts. The halls are brimming with work done by current and former students. I loved my time at this school, talking with teachers and students about the universality of visual arts and how this school connects students to the world as global citizens through art.
On Wednesday, I traveled to Vantaa, outside of Helsinki, with my friend and university adviser, Josephine. We visited a school that serves community children and immigrant and refugee children. It was lovely to see the diversity of students. In one 2nd grade class, for example, 14 languages are spoken. Language education, cultural integration, social and emotional development, and academic learning is a common element in schools across the United Stations, but it's not as common in Finland. The landscape is changing, however. It was a privilege to observe a community working to support students from diverse backgrounds.
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On Thursday, Sarah and I traveled to Rantasalmi in eastern Finland with two other Fulbright teachers. Our first stop was to visit the community school which houses preschool through an upper secondary school that specializes in music. Students come from around Finland to attend this program which has a reputation for annual musical productions and musical excellence.
We had come to see the student production of Uneton Saimaalla, a beautiful play about life in modern Finland.
That night, we had dinner at the home of two musicians and music educators in the community, Janne and Marja. It was a joy and a profound privilege to meet their children, to share a meal, and to spend time sharing stories. The next day, we had the opportunity to watch Marja conduct and Janne and their two daughters play in community bands at their Vappu Day concert. My favorite part of this concert was watching people of all ages playing together on one stage, in one band.
My day began with an impromptu tour by two 7th grade boys who boldly used their English to tell me about their school. Equipped with Tapani's master key, they proudly showed me classrooms and hallways. We then met up with Tapani and his assistant for cake and coffee before the boys returned to their class which was leaving for a field trip. We then met with the 9th grade class in the auditorium. The relationship between Tapani and his students is evident through humor and dialog. They respond to each other with mutual respect and trust. I think this is one reason this group of students was so talkative and responsive (most classes in Finland I've been with are quiet...so very quiet.) These kiddos had questions and insight. Like most Finnish students I've met, they were polite, gracious and welcoming. During this hour, I talked a bit about my home and, of course, my love for green chili. And there, at the table where we had lunch, was a plate with peppers and chili paste. It was an extraordinary gesture.
The warmth and graciousness with which I was welcomed is humbling and illustrative of the nature of the Finnish people.
A few hugs goodbye and I was racing to catch the bus back to Tampere. My heart was full - committed educators, innovative programming, motivated and bright students - and I had the chance to share this one day with them.
Today I spent a joyful morning at a school in Jyväskylä, my second visit to this lovely 1st - 9th grade school. I had the chance to work with 3rd, 8th and 9th graders today and their wonderful English teacher. Tomorrow, I'll head to a school outside of Jyväskylä, my first visit to this school and my last 'new school' visit I have planned before my Fulbright experience is over. The heart of my time here has been in the schools, with teachers and students, and I could not be more grateful.
Teacher Appreciation: Part 4
I'm grateful for the teachers Sarah has had in her life. I'm grateful for the teachers I've had in mine. Thank you, Teachers of the US for the everyday miracles you create in classrooms across the country and in the face of standardized testing frenzy and the assault on teachers. Thank you, Teachers of Colombia, who are on strike to improve working conditions in schools which means improving student learning for the children of Colombia. Thank you, Teachers of Finland, for showing the world how teachers and students can thrive when teachers are given professional autonomy, respect and trust.