From the Finnish View: Review Part 2

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Teachers and Leadership

In part 1 of the review, I ended with a quote on how Finnish teachers perceive their careers as professional with obligations and responsibility. This does not mean teachers or the general population of say – the United States would claim the opposite for American teachers. Actually, I imagine many people arguing otherwise. For which I am glad. However, teachers are often lauded or demonized in rapid succession by media, parents, governments, and politicians for being great or failing miserably.

But I’ll get into to that in another post. Right now we are looking at how Finland’s teachers act as leaders. Here’s what the article had to say:

No Buzzword

In Finland ‘Teacher Leadership’ in not a common buzzword. It’s probably not going to saturate the media or academic articles as the new ‘cure-all’ to the ongoing and new problems in education. Sahlberg reasons this is due to Finns attributing leadership to the profession because it is the nature of professions.


 Teamwork is a key part of the Finnish teaching profession. Greenhorn and veteran alike must work as team players so all students and staff learn and grow.Teachers implement and evaluate what and how they teach, but that cannot be done alone. Curriculum working groups help teachers address concerns, develop solutions and activities, and discuss individual student support.

*as a side note: There is little ‘power teaching’ in Finland. Student-Teacher relationships are relaxed and informal. There is little to no stopwatch drilling of core knowledge (I’m looking at you Japan). Teamwork helps teachers to find ways for student-engaged learning to take place.

Work Load

But let us get down to some cold hard facts. The teacher workload is lighter in Finland compared to the USA and Japan (especially Japan). In Finland:

Elementary school teachers teach 4-5 45 min classes per day

Junior High School teachers teach 5-6 45 min classes per day

-and both of these have 15 min breaks between classes every day!

(points to Japan for giving teachers 10-15 minutes breaks between classes – but points deducted for making teachers regularly stay well past 6 pm with few days off even during holidays)

Teacher Education

 One thing that makes Finland’s education system famous is how they select and train new teachers. Finland has created a system where teacher training programs pick from the top 1o percent of high school graduates. Every year only 700 spots are open for primary school teacher education programs. Students earn a rigorous graduate degree (5 years) that is on par with doctors, lawyers, architects, and engineers. It is an academic graduate degree based on research .

Teacher education has equal department status with regular reviews and evaluations, and all university are equipped with clinical training schools (like university hospitals). Finnish teachers-in-training spend more time gaining in-depth knowledge of child development, pedagogical content, creating curriculum, assessment, school improvement, and leadership. To top it off when teachers graduate they have the autonomy to use what they have practiced and studied.

Sahlberg notes that a North Carolina study found that teacher credential had little effect on student achievement. He is quick to counter with the fundamental difference in teacher education (all of the above). Finland has no alternative routes into the teaching profession (i.e. online programs, Teach for America (USA), Teach First (UK), etc.). So there is a higher and unified quality control. Sahlberg says it simply,

It is difficult to become a teacher [in Finland] without a high level of general knowledge, good social skills, and a clear moral purpose.

Teacher credentialing isn’t all there is to student achievement but when it is done with a unified and controlled purpose through a system that recruits the best talent and whose goal is to challenge, engage, and prepare not only teachers but researchers who are instilled with a sense of leadership and responsibility to their students and profession it is impossible to dismiss its effect on the entire education system.

From the Finnish View: Reviewing Teachers as Leaders in Finland article PART 1

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The first reading I tackled for week one was also the shortest. Written by Sahlberg in 2013 “Teachers as Leaders in Finland” for Educational Leadership Magazine,  is an article discussing the idea of teachers are leaders in Finland’s schools and the lessons that can be learned from the Finnish experience.

Since surprising the world (themselves included) with top marks on the first PISA test, Finland has become synonymous with excellent teaching and teacher training, teacher autonomy, and very little standardized testing. This near romanticized teacher’s paradise has prompted many educators and governments to travel to the Nordic country to learn the secrets of their success.

Sahlberg asserts that well-educated teachers benefit the entire education system. For the past 30 to 40 years, Finland worked to reshape its educational system with this in mind. The teaching profession became as sought after as doctors and lawyers. It became a reputable profession where university programs can pick from the top 10% of graduates. And those professionals can expect:

Collaboration > Isolation


Autonomy > Top-down Authority


Professional Responsibility > Bureaucratic Accountability


Professional Practice > Prescribed Procedures

This allows Finnish teachers to exercise, expand, and explore what they learned during their education and training and they won’t be alone or without support. They can put their students’ educational needs first without worrying about next round of test scores. They can implement solutions and practices outside of prescribed procedures they had no input in creating or that don’t benefit their students. These practices and ideas have helped to create a world-class education with a high professional satisfaction. A satisfaction grounded in what Sahlberg calls the ethos of a teacher’s work; where Finnish teachers “[perceive] themselves as professionals with obligation and responsibility to implement, and evaluate the outcomes of their work.”

Introducing: The Ghost Student

Hi! I'm the Ghost Student.Nice to Meet you!

Last year when I started this blog I also stumbled upon the website of renowned Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg. On his website he talks about his current position as a visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. For the first time in my life I wished I was a Harvard student. I wished I was a student again even though I was about to move to Japan to start a new job. So there was nothing I could do – until I found his course syllabus for


Sahlberg had posted his course syllabus free for anyone to see. I had struck gold! It was like finding buried treasure. Not only was there a course description but also a required reading list, and a week-by-week break down plus weekly focus questions and assigned reading. I would miss the lectures, guest speakers, and group discussions, but I had the back bone of the class. I could learn a lot from the resources, theories, and critiques regarding education. I decided to become a ghost student. I was going to follow the syllabus and learn all that I could.

And that is how I came up with this series – The Ghost Student. I want to document and share what I had learned and what I thought about the course. I also want to share more of my educational journey with all of you. I am still working on posting regularly. I dropped the ball these past three months. This is my big splash back into regular blogging.

Here is what you can expect from The Ghost Student:

  1. Two weeks of posting for one week of class
  2. Learn the basics of education systems around the world
  3. Key points from the assigned readings, papers, and movies/videos
  4. Responses to the weekly focus questions
  5. A funny anecdote or two from my time as a student and a teacher

And finally The Ghost Student Series is kicking off on July 15th!

 You can check you Sahlberg’s syllabus here. I will be posting more on the syllabus in the next few days – stayed tuned!

ALT Perspective: NPR ‘How To Be A Great Teacher’

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JET ALTs reside in the limbo of teaching. We are Assistant Language Teachers, the keyword being assistant. Many of us didn’t, and will never, get a TOEFL certification; not to mention the majority didn’t study education or Japanese in college/university. That doesn’t stop us from wanting to be in Japan and believing in the potential of having a native speaker in the classroom. Difficult teaching situations are bound to happen in JET like having unruly/disinterested students, too many/too little classes, being the repeating tape recorder, or being T1 (first teacher) in an elementary school. I have experienced a few of these issues but not all.

If you are a ALT you are probably nodding your head. We are in a difficult and interesting situation. We are teaching but not full fledged teachers, trying to navigate a foreign work place and school system,  trying and our best to adapt and do well.

So when I stumbled on NPR’s  How to be a great teacher, from 12 great teachers by Anya Kamentz it clicked with me. I want to be a teacher, but most JETs won’t enter the teaching profession after their time in Japan. But anyone who works with children (or adults), aspiring teacher or not, can learn a thing or two from this list.

The article itself is short and sweet so I have decided to put my two cents in from a JET ALT perspective. For me being an ALT puts me on the road to becoming a teacher. Check out the article to see the quoted teachers.



1. Realize teaching is a learned skill

This was a hard lesson for me to learn. In the beginning it felt like I knew nothing or that nothing I tried worked. I had to ask for advice from other ALTs and my teachers. I also had to accept and learn from my mistakes. No one know is perfect the first time, everyone has to learn.

2. Get to the Truth

“I’ll tell you the truth, you tell me the truth. The rest is commentary.” – Molly Pollak

This is the only line under this tip in the article. I think it sums it up well.

3. Build Trust

Oh boy! Isn’t this the truth. If students don’t trust you, good luck. The best way to have a good class experience is for the students to trust you. A lot of trust is built outside of the classroom. For example:

One of my schools is a “Yankee/Yankii” school. It’s my favorite school, but many of the students don’t see the point in studying (particularly English) or paying attention in class. However most of my yankii boys are on the baseball team (that seems to be a trend around here) so when one of the pitchers invited me to the last game of season I jumped at the chance. After the game their attitude towards me and my classes changed. It didn’t magically make them behave or be better students but they did start listening to me and work with me during class. I call that a win.

4. Assume a secret identity

I can see how this works for normal teachers but this is hard for ALTs – if you are placed a small town everyone knows you and probably what you ate for dinner. Even in larger cities with multiple ALTs assuming a secret identity can be difficult, but on rough days you learn to put on a smile and exude energy you don’t have.

5. Be Sparring Partner

When I think of being a sparring partner I image students honing a knife of knowledge on me and I hone my knife of teaching on them. We get nicked, and bruised during our mistakes and failures but we never get dull. We can laugh together or they can laugh at me. I don’t mind.

6. Be Someone to Watch Over Them

When ALTs work in many grades at multiple schools it can be hard to watch over students. Not speaking the language, not being Japanese, and not having a the power to discipline students is frustrating, but asking a teacher for help understanding students, or just being present in situations can help.

Correcting extra work (I have a student who can write in cursive!) and talking to students outside of class has helped me a lot. I got one my yankiis to fill out his vocabulary pages by adding baseball vocab to his list.

And try to learn as many names as possible. Students appreciate it and are usually surprised.

7. Be a Teacher, Not a Friend

Currently I am trying to figure out where I need to draw that line with my students. From my own experience this distinction is vital. In high school I had a new teacher who was smart and talented but acted more like our friend to win the class’ favor. In the end there was less respect and no control in the classroom. It was one of my most difficult and enlightening experiences.

8. Believe in Their Success

Success manifests is different ways. As teachers or ALTs we may not see it during a students time with us. It might be in test scores, class participation, in hallways, how many times a student tries or that a student finally decided to do class work. One of my best English speaking 7th graders doesn’t pay any attention during class, or does any of his work. However if I bring up a topic he’s interested in he’ll start speaking. My goal is to teach students English and encourage them to use it. If they use it with me that is a success.

9.Recognize it Takes Vulnerability to Learn

I never thought of it this way before and now I see it. I see it in my students who won’t try speaking for fear of making a mistake or the students who won’t do the work because they might not understand and fail. Going back to number 3 on the list, to be vulnerable means to trust. If a student doesn’t trust you then it is harder for them to learn and harder for you to teach.

10. Look for the Success Stories

Sometimes no matter how hard you try to engage a class or a particular student it fails. Shake it off and try again but remember the students you have reached.

11. Blow Off Steam, But Remember Why You’re Here

Living and working abroad can cause a lot of stress and frustration with language barriers, culture shock, and general work/life situations just being more difficult/time consuming. Let it out. Vent to a friend, a family member, or go dance it out at a club. Try not to hold on to it. Negativity is a slippery slope. Be honest with yourself and the problems you face but be productive – yes rest or venting can be productive. Remember why you wanted to be an ALT – why you wanted to come to Japan. Reevaluate that, then pursue it.

12. Be Grateful to Your Teachers

As an ALT I have felt old. Often I shake my head at my students wackiness, drama, or lack of common sense. I realized how annoying it was to try and catch chatting students attention. And I realized that someone had to put up with the 7th grade me, too.

And I am eternally grateful.




First Week at Hilltop Junior High

~Disclaimer: I changed the name of the school~

Woah where did the time go? I planned to have this out two weeks ago. In this short period of time I finished up my jikoshokai/self-introduction classes and experienced a typical Japanese Sports Day – Junior high school style. Anyways here is what my first week or two at school looked like.

I started my first week on a Tuesday at Hilltop. It was the first day of the fall semester, but that didn’t mean classes had begun. It was the first time I encountered all of my students and teachers. The day started off with a morning assembly in the gym.  Everyone took off their shoes before entering.. All of the students were lined up by grade and class. I sat off to the side, in a suit while everyone was dressed in their jerseys.

The assembly started after everyone mumble-sang the school anthem to one of the students playing the piano. Halfway through speeches by the principal (Kocho-sensei) and vice-principal (Kyoto-sensei) I was invited to introduce myself in both English and Japanese. I froze briefly during my Japanese introduction and accidentally made it shorter than the English version. Oops.

After speaking I was escorted back to teachers’ office. At my desk I found a stack of 40 pink notebooks. It was the students’ summer homework. Needless to say I am still grading them and today I found more on my desk. While I was grading homework students and teachers spent the day practicing for the upcoming sports day.

The students and teachers spent a lot of time during the summer break practicing and preparing for the day. Even during break almost all of the students and teachers came to school. I teach at Hilltop on Tuesday and Thursday but with the wonky practice schedule I didn’t start my self-introduction classes until the next week, because that Sunday was the long awaited day. Instead of working on Thursday I came into school on Saturday.

Despite spending my first days in the teachers office grading homework I did get to interact with students. The yankii/yankee students (the rowdy, punk-ish kids) were in and out of the teachers office all day – sometimes in trouble, sometimes being obnoxious. On Saturday one of the infamous second years (eighth grade) decided to enter the school through the teachers office for lunch and swiped the megaphone from a teacher. He stood two feet from me and yelled “Hello, I love you!” That line followed me for the next two weeks.

While everyone was outside practicing I took the opportunity to explore the school. It is three stories in a U/rectangle shape. On the right side of the building are the regular classrooms. Third years (ninth grade) on the first floor, second years (eighth grade) on the second floor, and first years (seventh grade) on the third floor.The teachers office, principle’s office, school administration, and specialty classrooms (music/science/arts etc.) make up the left side. An open air dirt tennis court makes the inner courtyard. The school entrance is a giant genkan where everyone – student, teacher, and guest alike – switch from outdoor shoes to indoor shoes. Every student and teacher have their own small cabinet to place their shoes. My first day I that my predecessor left three pairs of shoes!

On Thursday I took a break from grading and wander the halls to observe the students practicing indoors for their particular events. Many students pointed and whispered when I passed by but many more greeted me in the hallway – in English! It my anxiety and fears at ease. I have only grown more comfortable and excited about working at Hilltop and getting to know my students and fellow teachers. So far they have been nothing but welcoming and helpful.

Series: Ghost Student: Intro

or….The one time I wish I went to Harvard

To my excitement and dismay I found out that Pasi Sahlberg, lauded Finnish and International Educator and author of Finnish Lessons, is currently a visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. He is teaching a course called The Teaching Profession Around The World and I would kill to sit in his classroom. Fortunately, Sahlberg posted the course syllabus on his website complete with required texts and focus questions.

I decided to turn myself into a “ghost student” and self-study my way through the course. I am not ready for grad school but that doesn’t mean I should not challenge and expand my mind. I want to learn as much as I can about education in the United States and in other countries. I know from experience some of the best lessons come from personal intention and unexpected opportunity. I can’t sit in on his lectures or hear his guest speakers, nor do I have classmates to bounce around new knowledge, experiences, and ideas, but I do have the opportunity to explore new resources and guide my thoughts with critical questions.

So here is the plan:

I will post bi-monthly summarizing what I learned, responses to the focus questions, and my own personal thoughts and ideas regarding education. Since the course is broken down into weeks each post will contain one week’s worth of work.

You can check out part 1 and 2 of the syllabus here:

Check out Pasi Sahlberg on his website