“What do you do when a teacher is struggling in the classroom?
We support them.
What if you support them and they continue to struggle?
We support them more…”
Conversation with the Finnish Minister of Education
In America, we have yet to learn that “sink-or-swim” isn’t even a good way to teach swimming, but it still constitutes the de facto professional development model in most school systems. Each autumn, more than 9,000 teachers greet our more than 125,000 students here in Prince George’s County. In any given year, it is likely that we replace about 10 percent of the teaching force. In bad years, it has been as high as 20 percent.
“Why so many?” you may ask, on the mistaken assumption that teaching is a highly-coveted gig. Our turnover issues, though, are the result of having learned little from the most celebrated model for public education in the world, as outlined in the documentary, “The Finland Phenomenon.”
In Finland, teachers provide a little less than 700 hours of direct instruction to students annually. Here, the average time for direct teacher/student interface nearly doubles that figure at nearly 1,100 hours.
For Finnish teachers, the remainder of the work day is devoted to inter-collegial collaboration, observation and job-imbedded professional development. American teachers scarcely have time to visit the restroom, much less for productive collaboration with peers.
Every teacher knows the three behaviors of effective instruction: planning, planning and more planning. However, our contractual allotment of 45 minutes for planning remains wholly inadequate to prepare for our daily 250-plus minutes of instructional delivery.
An overwhelming majority of our teachers devote both evenings and weekends to revising lesson plans, grading assignments and attempting home contacts. There is nothing more frustrating than spending an hour of preparation for an activity that will consume ten-to-fifteen minutes of a lesson.
Before and after the contractual school day, teachers volunteer to tutor, sponsor activities and perform administrative chores.
The 37.5-hour week is an absolute myth that should be relegated to the dustbin of history; ample evidence suggests that teachers, on average, dedicate 55 hours weekly to their vocation.
Conservative ideologues would have you believe that collective bargaining and due process impede progress in education while ignoring the inconvenient truth that teachers are unionized in Finland.
Talking heads seek to attribute blame for “low student achievement” in socio-economically challenged schools on teacher tenure while remaining curiously silent on the gross disparities in facilities and resources that reign here in the United States.
Furthermore, according to Dr. Tony Wagner of Harvard, Finland makes no use of standardized testing. Instead, the No. 1 country in education provides for the equitable distribution of adequate resources and, then, trusts teachers to meet the needs of children.
[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on Thursday August 14, 2014.]