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Teacher gains perspective from Finnish educators

A school that offers a buffet style lunch, permits students to spend the day in their socks and provides free education sounds like a dream come true for many students across the globe.

That dream is a reality for students in Finland.

Traveling to Finland was an eye-opener for Erika Suo, a Northern Lights Elementary School fourth grade teacher.

Suo roamed the country with 10 Finnish Education Exploratory Team members to form relationships with Finnish teachers and view education from a different perspective.

“We are a pilot group that traveled to Finland not only to learn and observe their education system, but also to establish relationships with the Finns in order to work collaboratively with them in the future,” Suo said. “I was very impressed by the Finnish society. I truly enjoyed every minute of my trip to Finland.”

Growing up in Oulu, Wis., and coming from a family of Finnish heritage, Suo said she always been curious about education in Finland.

“Over the past several years, Finland has become known for having one of the best educational systems in the world,” Suo said. “I’ve done a lot of reading and learning about Finnish education. I wanted to know what they were doing to achieve great success.”

Suo was determined to find a way to visit various schools in Finland. She tried to find funding for the trip, but wasn’t having any luck at the time.

Last summer, Suo attended FinnFest, a festival with solid academic, culture and business modules presenting Finnish and Finnish American Culture and Heritage, in Hancock, Mich., where teachers and top officials from Finland spoke at one day, education forum hosted by Finlandia University. Access to the forum had to be requested through Dr. Philip Johnson, president of Finlandia, so Suo sent an email, asking if him if she could attend.

“Dr. Johnson told me I was welcome to attend the forum,” Suo said. “I found the forum very inspiring and thanked them for the amazing opportunity.”

In January, Suo received an email inviting her to join a group of educators on a trip to explore education in Finland. The trip was sponsored by Finlandia University and Johnson had recommended that Suo be asked to join the group.

“That unexpected email was a dream-come-true,” Suo said. “The Northern Lights principal and administrator were both very supportive and allowed me a week of professional leave to join the FEET group on the trip.”

Suo went to Finland from March 29 to April 5. The FEET team spent one day meeting with officials at the Ministry of Education and Culture, equivalent to the U.S. Department of Education, a few days visiting schools in Helsinki, Finland, and one day in the town of Porvoo.

Suo spoke with numerous principals, teachers and students from elementary, middle and high school levels.

“I would love to be a teacher in Finland,” Suo said. “The teachers I spoke with seemed very content and passionate about their work. I didn’t sense the pressure that is common in our American schools … the atmosphere was relaxed.”

Children in Finland don’t begin school until age seven; education is free from grade school to earning a master’s degree; students do not take standardized tests until age 16 and students learn Finnish, Swedish and English.

“After hearing Ms. Suo’s stories, I want to go to school in Finland,” said Olivia Johnson, Northern Lights Elementary fourth grader. “We missed our teacher, but we are glad she got the opportunity to go to Finland. We enjoy learning about Finland.”

The school year typically lasts 190 days, but the length of school days varies based upon age. Suo said the Finnish education system puts greater stress on project-based learning. Suo has incorporated what she has learned into her fourth grade class.

“Some days I just want to stay in bed and sleep, but then I remember the fun learning games and projects we will complete that day,” said Ruby Farnham, a fourth grader. “We have book reports where we dress up as the characters, play math bingo, use Jell-O to make cells for science class and use circuits to make a light bulb light up. I love the hands-on projects because they are interesting and helpful.”

The trip also changed students’ perceptions in Suo’s classroom.

“Ms. Suo lets us take off our shoes, sit on the couch to read and have class outside from time to time,” said student Chancellor Davis. “We also get treats for being good. She is our favorite teacher because she makes class exciting. She is different from other teachers.”

Suo plans to keep in touch with Finnish educators. She’s trying to plan a way for the Northern Lights students to connect to the Finnish students next school year.

“I would very much like to spend more time learning from and sharing ideas with Finnish teachers,” Suo said. “I plan to connect with the teachers over the summer, and will hopefully be able to plan ways for our classes to interact next school year.”