Finland Day 2: The Power of Trust

August 23rd, 2012

Category: Early Childhood Education, Policy and Practice

As we walked through the small city primary school on the outskirts of Helsinki, I noticed that the children were not wearing shoes in the classroom.  As I looked in the hall, I saw shoes strewn on the floor and jackets randomly hung up. They didn’t catch my eye at first because this is a common scene in my house with three kids ages 9 to 15. But this was unusual for a school. No lockers, just simple hooks. No worries about sneakers disappearing. No discomfort with padding around in socks.  This was a safe place.  A place that kids and adults felt comfortable.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post in regard to the early childhood classroom I visited on Monday, the classroom instruction in this school was not unusual, not much different from what one might see in a Delaware classroom. 

However, there was a pervasive commitment to support every child in a way that was exceptional.  You see, this was not just a neighborhood school; it was a magnet school in which 100 of the 300 students had special needs.  This was the school for everybody.  There was no stigma associated with the special needs children. When asked about the lack of stigma, one teacher said, “We (meaning the students and faculty) just are.”

And when asked about students dropping out, another teacher said, “We don’t let that happen. We are the only option; there are no private schools, no charter schools, so we just work with the parents to make it work.”

One teacher we met works with students with profound disabilities. She had five children in one room and four adults happily helping them work through their lessons. Later over lunch, when I asked her assistant principal why this teacher who had been working with these students for more than a decade was so energized, the AP explained, “She stays with the children over time, and she sees progress.  One student came to her at seven unable to walk; she could only crawl and could not communicate.  When that child graduated at 13, she could walk with canes and could write and read. I still remember the day that girl got off the floor and on to her knees.  She was so excited to see more than the floor for the first time.”

We still have a lot to learn on our trip, but this I think I know: the Finns know how to take care of their people.  They trust in government and in each other.  They pay a lot in taxes, but they only have 4% of their children in poverty as compared to 20% here.  Again, more to learn, lots to sort through and process, but inspiring work.

(By the way, when I asked why they take off their shoes, a teacher shared that they want to keep the snow and salt out of the classroom. So even though it was 60 degrees and sunny, I guess the teachers were getting the students used to the practice.  The kids didn’t seem to mind.)

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Paul Herdman



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