When I left for my Fulbright experience at the University of Helsinki I fully expected the experience would change the very course of my life. I had begun to stagnate and feel restless in my teaching position. I had always loved my job as a teacher but after an unusually difficult year, I began to wonder if it was time for me to move on and pursue other opportunities.
When I received word that I was selected to receive the great honor of being a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher, I saw this experience as an opportunity to take a breath, step back from teaching for a time, recollect and reevaluate my life. I felt like I was approaching a symbolic fork in road of my life. I was certain I would return from this experience a changed person with a renewed sense of purpose and direction. When I left for Finland I prayed I would gain a clear picture of what I should do next and how I was to move forward.
In many ways I saw this experience as a stepping-stone in my path towards a formal research career. I thought perhaps earning a PHD in education would appease this restless desire growing inside myself to do and accomplish more in my life. I felt like I had more to give and it seemed like the logical next step. I could see myself, armed with the power of the Fulbright crest gleaming on my resume, ready to enter into the world of formal academia and research. I had great dreams and plans to go get my doctorate at an impressive university, like Stanford, Harvard or Yale. I had decided I would spend my days being important, highly admired and respected. I was ready to start an impressive research project that would prove my intelligence and importance to the world and springboard me into a life of lectures, conferences and publications.
However my time spent in Finland taught me that, while I could be successful in the world of formal academia, it was not where my heart resided. I learned quickly that my heart was not in formal research. My heart is and will always reside in the classroom. My most favorite days in Finland were the days I spent playing with the 3rd graders at recess or teaching my group of 7th grade Finnish students the intricacies of geometry. I am so thankful for the opportunity I got to co-teach a 7th grade geometry course at an English speaking school in Helsinki. I looked forward to this weekly class and it became one of the highlights of my experience. Not only did it give me a very valuable glance at the teacher’s perspective of Finland’s education system, it also demonstrated my need to be in front of a classroom.
When I was observing other Finnish classrooms I often felt a surge to stand up and teach. It was hard sometimes to not step in and interject some of my thoughts on a certain topic. I also kept thinking about the amazing ways I would improve my own teaching when I return to my school this fall. This experience, taught me that my passion resides in front of a classroom.
I am a teacher. I am a practitioner. I do not belong in an office reading studies, collecting data and analyzing survey results. I belong in the classroom. I come alive there. When I attended formal doctoral lectures, or attended PHD seminars and conferences I learned valuable information but I also felt restless and confused. I met some very intelligent individuals with impressive theories and theological arguments. I learned a lot of facts but nothing that seemed applicable or helpful to an actual living-breathing classroom.
I often sat there pondering the applications of these theories, projects and papers. I wanted to see them put into action instead of being merely discussed and debated. I realized there is a huge difference between educational researchers and practicing teachers. Many educational researchers had spent years studying education, but had never actually taught a classroom of students. And while they have many theories (some good, some bad) about how teaching should be done, they have never experienced the joy of actually watching their students learn and grow throughout the course of a year.
Researches don’t know what it is like to be entrusted with 180 beautifully unique and talented individuals whom I write on my heart each year. They don’t know what is like to have these students consume my thoughts and actions. Yes, as a teacher I stress and constantly think and worry about my students. I pour my heart and soul into them and serve them with everything I have. It is stressful, it is time consuming and it is hard. But I love it. At the end of the day the research may not have the stress, the anxiety and the pain of a practicing teacher. However, researchers are also missing out on the joy of knowing they are helping young individuals become who they are destined to become.
I am so thankful for the many experiences I had during my time in Finland that reminded me of that joy and the passion I have for my chosen profession. I am a teacher, not a researcher. That is what I have learned and knowing that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing with my life is an invaluable gift. I cannot wait to start applying what I have learned about education in Finland to my classroom.
I also learned that I am a writer. I have something to say and people who are willing to listen. While In Finland I started writing about my experiences in my blog. This blog usually has a small readership that extends only to my mother and a few dedicated friends. However suddenly, because of this Fulbright experience, people became interested in what I had to say and I was able to share my thoughts and experiences in Finland with several thousand people.
Because of this incredible exposure, I was able to meet with and share educational ideas with people from all around the world. My article was published in an Australian Education journal, was listed among the top 100 educational blogs in the U.S. and was also mentioned in Finland’s most prestigious and wildly circulated newspaper. My article about Finnish education has now been translated into Portuguese and Korean and is being distributed as part of teacher training system at a Korean university. I have had so many doors and opportunities opened and presented to me because of this Fulbright experience.
This has taught me that I do not have to be in the world of formal academia to have a voice. I can express myself and change the world by being myself, doing what I love and sharing my experiences and ideas with others. I can teach and make a huge impact on both my students and the education world by sticking to my talents. I am a teacher and a writer and this experience in Finland has taught me how to balance both of those skills.
I hope to take what I have learned in Finland and become an even better teacher to my students. I also intend to continue to write about education and hopefully promote educational change and reform in my school, state and perhaps one day my country. I believe, however, the best way to do this is to remain in the trenches so to speak. I do not feel like a higher degree is in the cards for me at the moment. Instead I realize I can make the greatest impact in front of the classroom and in the hearts of my students.