Learning for Learning’s Sake

educational-headerStudents in Finland are incredibly independent and self motivated.  When they are asked to perform a task they don’t wait for someone to tell them specifically what to do and how to do it.  They don’t feign incompetency so that someone eventually does the task for them.  And when something is put in front of Finnish teenagers they get started on it right away with almost a sense of relief instead of complaint.   It is as if most of them were simply waiting for the teacher to stop talking so they could start the work.

As far as I can tell, a typical Finnish student would much rather be working than listening.  I am not the only American teacher who has noticed this marked difference between Finnish middle school/ high school students and those found in the U.S.   We have all been initially extremely bothered by the amount of Finnish teenagers on their phones during classroom instruction.  Instead of listening to the class lecture, a good majority of the Finnish students are watching videos, playing games, texting or on facebook.  Most teachers don’t seem to mind and they definitely do not confront the students or redirect them during lecture.  ( To be fair, some teachers have a stricter cell phone policy than others, but on a whole in-class cell phone usage is a LOT higher in Finland than the U.S.)   As an American teacher seeing kids on their phones in class feels like bugs crawling all over my skin.  It takes everything in me to not ask the students to put away the video game and listen to the teacher.

I have asked a few teachers about this and they simply state that it is up to the student to decide if they want to listen to the lesson. It is not the teacher’s job to force them to pay attention.   The teacher then said that these students (14 to 18 years-old)  are seen more like adults than children.  They explained that it would be inappropriate to force an adult to get off of their phone or take a phone away from them during a professional lecture or meeting.   They give that same respect to these teenagers.  The phone is their personal property.  The students have the choice to listen or not listen and the consequences will be found in their overall marks.

That trust in the student to make their own choices is astounding and so foreign to me.   We have all heard the phrase; “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.”   However teachers in the US are trained to believe it is our duty to force everyone to “drink the water”.  It is seen as a personal failure if we can’t get our students to decide to learn.   I feel like the amount of students not listening to me in my class is a reflection of me as a teacher not a reflection on the students as learners.  In Finland it is the opposite,  the decision to learn or not to learn is made by the student, not the teacher. hmmmm.

All the same, it still really bothers me when they are playing video games/ watching movies during class lecture.   HOWEVER, those same kids who were distracting me the whole lesson with their phones put the phones away VOLUNTARILY when they are actually given something to do!  As soon as a tangible assignment is placed before them they start working and paying attention.  All of the phones get pushed aside and the learning begins.

They also know that these assignments are more than likely not going to be collected or graded.  No one asks how many points the assignment is going to be worth.  No one asks if it is going to be for a grade or how many of the questions they have to do to “pass”.   They are doing these assignments because they were asked to do them.   If they finish with the suggested math problems they may even look in the back of the book for more practice problems.

This is the exact opposite of an American classroom where kids pay attention (or at least pretend to listen) during the lesson, but then do not do the work after it has been assigned.   For some of them it is like pulling teeth to get them started on the work, others rush through and try to get it done as fast as possible without any real thought or effort.  During the work time is when they are tempted to be on their phones or talking to their friends.  ( Maybe this is also because we don’t give them any breaks during the day.)  They also inevitably ask me if the assignment is going to be for a grade and  how many points the assignment is worth.  They need to know to what extent the assignment will affect their grade, so they can choose if it is worth doing or not.

Grades are not that big of a deal in Finland.  I have tried to talk to some students and teachers about grades and how their grades are earned and it doesn’t seem to concern either the students or the teachers too much.  In Finland the competition for grades isn’t really there.  None of the students really know who makes “good grades” and who makes “bad grades”.  I mean they can tell you who is smart/ works hard, but the grades are not the “end all be all” of a student’s existence.

I know growing up I found most of my identity in those A’s I earned.  I worked like a maniac to make sure that I earned a perfect grade point average and I felt like a failure if I lost even a few points on an assignment.   It didn’t matter how much I actually learned on that test that was an A- instead of an A+……all I could see were those points I missed and I instantly tried to calculate how much it was going to affect my overall grade and how much I needed to do to earn more points to compensate.

This is our problem.  We have trained our students in the U.S. to see an assignment in terms of monetary value, where grade point average is the currency.   Even the best students don’t do the work because it is going to help them learn, they do the work because it is going to give them points (money).  In a truly American style we have systematically removed all intrinsic value of learning and exchanged it for a capitalistic incentive.

Those with A’s have worked hard, earned the points, put in the hours and hours of work and by all measurable means are “successful”.  Those who don’t care or buy into the grading currency system didn’t do the work because it isn’t important to them to save up “A”s in the bank.   And no amount of coaxing them to do the work will help.  They simply don’t care what is in their academic “bank account.”   They don’t see how that “bank account” is going to help them in the real world and they don’t want to waste their time doing what is perceived as arbitrary work.

The book Freakonomics describes the social implications of exchanging a moral incentive with a fiscal one.   The book says that when society gives a monetary value to something that was once perceived as a moral obligation, society looses that moral obligation forever.   The book talks about how a daycare, who was fed up with tardy parents, started charging a late fee. However, the fee made parents more likely not less likely to be late.  Before the fee, parents felt guilty for being late and really did make an effort to be on time.   However, the fee took away the moral obligation in the minds of the parents.   The fiscal incentive was not as strong as the moral one and once the guilt was removed parents were willing to pay more to have their children stay longer.  The daycare took away the fee and tried to go back to as it was before, but what they discovered is that once that moral incentive was taken away, it was gone for good.

In our grading focused, exam-centric, data driven education system we have removed that moral incentive to learn from our classrooms.  In an effort to “trick/ force” our students to learn we assign points and grades and homework.  Hundreds of points can be assigned to one project if we really want them to do the assignment.  What we gain are stressed out students with too much homework,  teachers with tons of grading and students who simply give up.    We give our students all of these inauthentic incentives to do the homework but we never show them WHY they need to LEARN the material.

I wonder what would happen if we took a page out of Finland’s book and we assigned less.  What would it look like if we took the pressure away from the students.  Maybe instead of  just trying to get the work done and fill in the correct blanks so that they can get the “points/ gold star”  they would think about the content.   Maybe instead of assigning so much work that they must stay up past midnight every night just to get it all done, we can give them a few assignments in class in which they can authentically attempt to understand. Maybe if we gave them the freedom and choice to learn or not learn , they would actually take school more seriously.   Maybe if we slowed down and did less, we would give the students the option to really learn the material and the content just for the basic joy of learning.  Maybe then our students would learn for learning’s sake!

11 Ways Finland’s Education System Shows Us that “Less is More”.

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When I left my 7th grade math classroom for my Fulbright research assignment in Finland I thought I would come back from this experience with more inspiring, engaging, innovative lessons.  I expected to have great new ideas on how to teach my mathematics curriculum and I would revamp my lessons so that I could include more curriculum, more math and get students to think more, talk more and do more math.

This drive to do more and More and MORE is a state of existence for most teachers in the US….it is engrained in us from day one.  There is a constant pressure to push our students to the next level to have them do bigger and better things.  The lessons have to be more exciting, more engaging and cover more content.  This phenomena  is driven by data, or parents, or administrators or simply by our work-centric society where we gauge our success as a human being by how busy we are and how burnt out we feel at the end of the day.  We measure our worth with completed lists and we criminalize down time.  We teach this “work till you drop” mentality to our students who either simply give up somewhere along the way or become as burnt out as we find ourselves.

When I arrived in Finland I did not find big flashy innovative thought provoking math lessons.  I did not find students who were better at mathematics or knew more math content.  In fact the Jr. High and High school math classrooms have been rather typical of what I have experienced in Indiana.  And most of the struggles (like students not remembering their basic math facts) were the same.  The instruction and classroom structure of a math classroom in Finland follows the basic formula that has been performed by math teachers for centuries: The teachers go over homework, they present a lesson (some of the kids listen and some don’t), and then they assign homework.  While some lectures have been wonderful and I have gotten to observe some fantastic teachers, I would say that on the whole I have seen more engaging and interactive secondary math instruction from teachers in the United States.  It is rare to see a math lesson that is measurably better than those found in my district and I have seen several that were actually far worse.

So, what is the difference?  If the instruction in secondary mathematics is the same or sometimes worse than those found in the US,  why are Finnish students succeeding and ours are failing?  The difference is not the instruction. Good teaching is good teaching and it can be found in both Finland and in the US.   (The same can be said for bad teaching.)  The difference is less tangible and more fundamental.  Finland truly believes “Less is More.”  This national mantra is deeply engrained into the Finnish mindset and is the guiding principal to Finland’s educational philosophy.

Less IS more. 

They believe it.  They live by it. Their houses are not larger than what they need in which to comfortably live.  They do not buy or over consume.  They live simply and humbly.  They don’t feel the need to have 300 types of cereal to choose from when 10 will do.  The women wear less make-up.  The men don’t have giant trucks (or any vehicles at all, really).  Instead of buying hundreds of cheap articles of clothing the Finns buy a few expensive items of high quality that will last for decades rather than months.  They truly believe and live by the mentality of less is more.

Conversely in the US we truly believe “more is more” and we constantly desire and pursue more in all areas of our lives.  We are obsessed with all things new, shiny and exciting and are constantly wanting to upgrade our lives.  Out with the old in with the new!  This mentality of “more is more”  creeps into all areas of our lives and it confuses and stifles our education system.

We can’t even stick to ONE philosophy of education long enough to see if it actually works.  We are constantly trying new methods, ideas and initiatives.  We keep adding more and more to our plates without removing any of the past ideas.  Currently we believe “more” is the answer to all of our education problems— everything can be solved with MORE classes, longer days, MORE homework, MORE assignments, MORE pressure, MORE content, MORE meetings,  MORE after school tutoring, and of course MORE testing!   All this is doing is creating MORE burnt out teachers, MORE stressed out students and MORE frustration.

Finland on the other hand believes less is more.  This is exemplified in several ways for both teachers and students.

Less = More


1.  Less Formal Schooling = More Options

Students in Finland start formal schooling at the age of seven.  Yes, seven!  Finland allows their children to be children, to learn through playing and exploring rather than sitting still locked up in a classroom.   But don’t they get behind?  No!  The kids start school when they are actually developmentally ready to learn and focus.  This first year is followed by only nine years of compulsory school.  Everything after ninth grade is optional and at the age of 16 the students can choose from the following three tracks:

• Upper Secondary School:  This three year program prepares students for the Matriculation Test that determines their acceptance into University.  Students usually pick which upper secondary school they would like to attend based on the school’s specialties and apply to get into that institution.  I think of this as a mixture of High School and College.  (In recent years a little less than 40% choose this option.)

Vocational Education:  This is a three year program that trains students for various careers as well as gives them the option to take the Matriculation test to then apply for University should they so choose.  However, the students in this track are usually content with their skill  and  either enter the workforce or they go on to a Poly-technical College to get further training. (A little less than 60% choose this track.)

(But wait!  Shouldn’t everyone take calculus, economics, and advanced chemistry?!  Shouldn’t everyone get a University degree?!  No, not everyone has to go to University! Hmmm….. interesting….. What if we provided options for those who want to become successful (and very profitable) welders or electricians?  What if we didn’t force students who know that their talents reside outside of the world of formal academics to take three years of high school classes that they found boring and useless?  What if we allowed them to train in and explore vocations they found fascinating and in which they were gifted? What if we made these students feel valued and like they had a place in the education realm?)

• Enter the workforce. (Less than 5% choose this path)

2.  Less Time in School = More Rest

Students typically start school between 9:00 and 9:45.   Actually,  Helsinki is thinking of creating a law stating that schools cannot begin before 9:00 am because research has consistently proved that adolescents need quality sleep in the morning.  The school day usually ends by 2:00 or 2:45.  Some days they start earlier and some days they start later.  Finnish students’ schedules are always different and changing; however they typically have three to four 75 minute classes a day with several breaks in between.  This overall system allows both students and teachers to be well rested and ready to teach/learn.

3.  Fewer Instruction Hours = More Planning Time

Teachers have shorter days as well.  According to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development)  an average Finnish teacher teaches 600 hours annually or about 4 or less lessons daily.   An average U.S. teacher almost doubles that teaching time with an average of over 1,080 hours of in-class instruction annually.  This equals an average of six or more lessons daily.  Also, teachers and students in Finland are not expected to be at school when they do not have a class.  For example, if they don’t have any afternoon classes on Thursdays, they (both teachers and students) can simply leave.  Or if their first class on a Wednesday starts at 11:00, they don’t have to be at school until that time.  This system allows the Finnish teacher more time to plan and think about each lesson.  It allows them to create great, thought provoking lessons.

4.  Fewer Teachers  = More Consistency and Care 

Elementary students in Finland often have the SAME teacher for up to SIX YEARS of their education.  That is right!  The same teacher cares for, nurtures and tends to the education of the same group of students for six years in a row.  And you had better believe that during those six years with the same 15-20 students, those teachers have figured out the individual instructional needs and learning styles of each and every student. These teachers know where each of their students have been and where they are going.  They track the kids’ progress and have a personal invested interest in seeing the kids succeed and reach their goals.  There is no “passing the buck” onto the next teacher because they ARE the next teacher.  If there is a discipline or behavior problem, the teacher had better nip it in the bud right away or else deal with it the next six years.  ( Some schools in Finland only loop their elementary children for three years at a time instead of six, however the benefits are still the same. )

This system is not only helpful to a child because it gives them the consistency, care and individualized attention they need, it also helps the teachers understand the curriculum in a holistic and linear way. The teacher knows what they need to teach to get them to the next step, while also giving the teachers freedom to work at the pace of their students.  Teachers don’t feel the pressure to speed up or slow down  so that they are “ready” for the teacher next year.  Again, they are the teacher next year and they control the curriculum!  They know where the kids are and what they have learned and will plan according to the students’ needs!   I really believe this is a HUGE part of Finland’s success story and it does not receive enough attention.

5.  Fewer Accepted Applicants= More Confidence in Teachers

So……children have the same teacher for three to six years.  What if your kid gets a “bad teacher”?  Finland works very hard to make sure there are no “bad teachers.”  Primary education is THE most competitive degree to get in Finland.  The elementary education departments in Finland only accept 10% of all applicants and turns down thousands of students annually.  A person not only has to be the best and the brightest to become a primary teacher, they also have to have passed a series of interviews and personality screenings to get in.  So, it isn’t enough to be the smartest in your class, you also have to have the natural ability and drive to teach.

Finland understands that the ability to teach isn’t something that can be gained from studying. It is usually a gift and passion.  Some have it, some don’t.  The few universities with teaching programs in Finland make sure they only accept applicants that have that gift.  On top of excellent grades, and a natural disposition to be a teacher, all teachers must get a Master’s degree and write a Master’s Thesis.  This generates a lot of confidence and trust in Finland’s teachers.  Parents trust the teachers to be highly qualified, trained, and gifted individuals.  They do not try to interfere or usurp their authority and decisions.  I asked a math teacher how many emails they typically get from parents.  They shrugged and answered “About five or six”.  I said, “Oh, I get about that much a day too.”  They then answered…”No!  I meant five or six a semester!”  Again, what would it be like to live in a society based on trust and respect?

6.  Fewer Classes= More Breaks

As I stated before, students only have three to four (or rarely, five) classes a day.  They also have several breaks/recesses/ snack times during the day and these usually happen outside come rain or shine.  These 15 to 20 minute gives them time to digest what they are learning, use their muscles, stretch their legs, get some fresh air and let out the “wiggles.”   There are several neurological advantages for these breaks.  Study after study supports the need for children to be physically active in order to learn.  Stagnation of the body leads to stagnation of the brain and unfocused, “hyper” children.

The teachers also have these breaks.  The first day I was in a school in Finland a teacher apologized for the state of the “Teacher Room.”  She then commented on the fact that all teacher rooms must look like this.  I laughed and politely agreed, but in my head I was thinking; “What is a teacher room?”  A teacher’s room is what used to be called the teacher’s lounge in the U.S…back before they went extinct.  In Finland these rooms are always full of teachers who are either working, preparing, grabbing a cup of coffee, or simply resting, socializing, and mentally preparing for their next class.

Secondary level teachers usually have 10 to 20 minute breaks in between classes and often have a few skip (prep) periods as well.  These rooms are different depending on the school, but from what I can tell the basic formula is a few tables, a few couches, a coffee pot, a kitchen, a selection of free fruit and snacks, and teachers to talk and collaborate with.  A few of them even have massage chairs! Ha!

So, why don’t these rooms of collaboration, support and solace exist in the U.S.?   We do not have TIME!  Every day we teach six to seven classes in a row with no breaks.  The three to five minute passing periods we do get are often used to answer emails from parents, erase the board, get ready for the next class, make copies, answer student questions, pick up the mess left behind by the students, and (heaven forbid) go to the bathroom!  If we have a spare moment we are then expected to monitor the hallway because we can’t trust students to get to class without supervision.  The luxury of actually sitting down for 10 minutes and enjoying a cup of coffee with some colleagues is an absolute dream, and having a day with only three classes—that is a fantasy!

7. Less Testing = More Learning

Imagine all of the exciting things you could do with your students if there wasn’t a giant state test looming over your head every year.  Imagine the freedom you could have if your pay wasn’t connected to your student’s test scores.  Imagine how much more fun and engaging your lessons would be!

Although it still exists, there is overall less pressure on the teacher in Finland to get through the curriculum.  The teacher is simply trusted to do a good job and therefore they have more control over their classroom and its content. The teacher is able to take more risks and try new things and create exciting, engaging curriculum that allows students to become skilled individuals ready for the real world.  They have time to teach skills that allow students to develop into individuals who know how to start a project and work systematically to accomplish a goal.  They have time to teach craft education where students get to learn how to do real life skills like sewing, cooking, cleaning, woodworking and more!   And while they are learning these amazing skills they are also learning math and problem solving and how to follow directions!

8. Fewer Topics = More Depth

I have observed several fifth through ninth grade math classes in Finland.  I have looked at the curriculum covered over these five years of education and I realized that I attempt to teach the content of five years of  Finnish math education in one year.  Each math topic presented in every grade level I have observed here is include in my seventh grade curriculum.

Again, the American mentality of “more is more” simply does not work.  If I am to get through everything I am expected to do in one year I have to introduce a new topic/lesson every other day and I always feel “behind”.  Behind what, I am not sure, but the pressure is there pushing me and my students along.  In Finland, teachers take their time.  They look deeper into the topic and don’t panic if they are a little behind or don’t cover every topic in the existence of mathematics in a single year.

Also, students only have math a few times a week.  In fact, after Easter Break, all of my seventh graders only have math ONCE a week!  My heart still panics a little when I hear this!  I can’t believe that is enough math time!  How will they be ready for the tests?!  Oh— wait.  There are no tests.  There is no need to rush through.  The students get to actually understand the material before they are forced on to a new topic.  One teacher showed me a course book and said that it had too many topics for one five week grading period.  I looked at the entire book and had to stifle a chuckle because it essentially covered what would be found in ONE chapter from my textbook.  Why do we push our kids in the U.S. to learn so much so quickly?  No wonder they are stressed out!  No wonder they give up!

9.  Less Homework = More Participation 

According to the OECD, Finnish students have the least amount of homework in the world.  They average under half an hour of homework a night.  Finnish students typically do not have outside tutors or lessons either.  This is especially shocking when you realize Finnish students are outscoring the high performing Asian nations whose students receive hours of additional/outside instruction.  From what I can observe, students in Finland get the work done in class, and teachers feel that what the students are able to do in school is enough.  Again, there is not pressure to have them do more than what is necessary for them to learn a skill.  Often the assignments are open-ended and not really graded.  Yet, the students work on it in class diligently.  It is very interesting to see what happens to the students when they are given something to do.  The students who were not listening to the lesson at all put away their phones and start working on the task set before them.  Even if it is just a suggested assignment, they give it their full attention up to the end of class.  It is almost like there is an unspoken agreement: “I won’t give you homework if you work on this while you are in my classroom.”  This system has really made me think about the amount of homework I assign on a daily basis.

10.  Fewer Students = More Individual Attention

This is obvious.   If you have fewer students you will be able to give them the care and attention they need to learn. A Finnish teacher will have about 3 to 4 classes of 20 students a day- so they will see between 60 to 80 students a day.   I see 180 students every single day.  I have 30 to 35 students in a class, six classes in a row, 5 days a week.

11.  Less Structure =  More Trust

Trust is key to this whole system not structure. Instead of being suspicious of one another and creating tons of structure, rules, hoops and tests to see if the system is working, they simply trust the system.  Society trusts the schools to hire good Teachers.  The schools trust the teachers to be highly trained individuals and therefore give them freedom to create the type of classroom environment that is best for their individual students.  The Parent’s trust the teachers to make decisions that will help their children learn and thrive.  The Teachers trust the students to do the work and learn for the sake of learning.   The Students trust the teachers to give them the tools they need to be successful.  Society trusts the system and gives education the respect it deserves.    It works and it isn’t complicated.   Finland has it figured out.

Less IS More. 


Finland: Initial Thoughts, Experiences and a trip to Jyväskylä.

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Helsinki Harbor

I have been in Finland a little over a week now.   When I first arrived I was shocked to discover how warm it was. The Polar Vortex of 2013 followed by another historically cold Indiana winter had drastically changed my definition of cold. That combined with the fact that I was just a few hundred miles away from the Arctic Circle made me brace myself for truly glacial temperatures. I was certainly not expecting to be greeted with the mild(er) temperatures of Helsinki. Yet ever since I arrived the temperatures of this humid city has been comfortably shifting between 35 to 45 degrees. I have even slept with my windows open most evenings.

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Apartment Living Room

I arrived Wednesday morning and went straight to my apartment and it was perfect! (Blog post on the apartment coming soon!) I unpacked all of my things and set up camp for the next few months. I took a short nap and then I went out exploring that afternoon. I got lost a couple of times, but I eventually figured out how to get to the University. I also found Kampi (the main shopping center) where I could buy some essentials that I was not able to bring with me (EU hair dryer and hair straightener).   I also got a small amount of groceries and bought a bus pass and a Finnish Phone system. By the time I did all of this I was quite exhausted and I made the trek back home to my apartment. (I had not yet figured out the tram system and as I had reached my limit of learning new processes I decided it was just easier to walk.)

The next morning I woke up early and set out to meet my adviser. I got to campus early, met with the director for international students, filled out some paper work and then I and got the keys to my office. I had no idea I would have an office on campus! This made me realize how well respected the Fulbright program is in Finland. While this is quite an honor it also made me understand the level of performance that is expected from me during my time in Finland. This is when my insecurities started to rise. I suddenly began to worry that I may not be what they were expecting.

IMG_1028So, I was suddenly even more nervous to meet my academic adviser. Ever since he had been assigned to me I have been reading all of his papers and research in the field of mathematics education. I came in with so much respect for him coupled with the intense fear that I would disappoint him.   However, He was great, and helped me observe a math education course for first year education majors at the University.

Then we discussed my project. I instantly realized I was not as prepared to discuss my research as I had previously thought. I am in a whole different ball game when it comes to University level research at an institution as dedicated to academic research as Helsinki University. I left the meeting feeling very insecure about my abilities to perform at the academic level and produce doctoral level research. I realize now, that was partly my fault. I had not accurately communicated the expectations of my program goals or the level of my own experience when it comes to formal quantitative research.

I left the meeting feeling very tired and worried. It was probably a combination of jet lag, exhaustion, hunger, and my personal demons of intellectual insecurity. I also realize now that I had just had my first meeting with a Finnish person. They are not known to be overly talkative and enthusiastic. Many people had warned me that the first time you meet a Finn you might not think they like you. Looking back with a different lens perhaps he was perfectly receptive to my project. He just didn’t respond to it the same way an American would.

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View From Restaurant

Later that evening I met up with my adviser again and He and his girlfriend took me out for dinner to a very nice restaurant that overlooks Senate Square, the most beautiful and iconic spot in Helsinki. It took a little while to warm up, but once we did, we realized we had so much in common. The evening was perfect. It was full of laughter, fun and conversation. They told me about their incredible lives and I was able to entertain them with some of my classic “Kelly Day” stories. We also made fun how uncomfortable Americans (in general and me specifically) are with silence, while Finns think that silence is a perfectly normal part of a conversation.   After Dinner Dr. Hannulu took me for a walking tour of Helsinki and it was nice to see the city from the perspective of a native Finn. It is true what they say- the Finnish people are reserved when you first meet them, but once they open up they can be some of the most fun and inviting people in the world.

image_previewThe next day I got to work. While I am sure many of my insecurities were self imagined I also knew that I still had a lot to prove. Then there was also the added pressure of my looming presentation in Jyväskylä.  in just a few short days. Other than a short trip to Suolimena island with some newly made friends, I spent the next several days bunkered into my apartment researching, reading and creating a cohesive presentation.

Finally, the week of the Fulbright Forum arrived. I woke up early to catch my train to Jyväskylä, a small city in the middle of Finland. About 10 minutes outside of Helsinki, I realized how unique the capital is to the other parts of Finland that are not surrounded by the temperature moderating Baltic Sea. The rain I had experienced the past three days suddenly transformed into snow and I found a whole knew country that looked like a winter wonderland. The sudden difference was quite a shock. It was as if someone had drawn an invisible line in the ground and I had magically entered the land of Narnia.

As I watched from the train window I was suddenly enchanted by the Finnish countryside. It was covered with brilliantly white snow, perfectly green pine, quaint little farms and sprinkled with frozen lakes and ponds. I don’t know if it was just me, but the greens were greener, the snow was whiter and there were moments where I wished I was not in a high speed train, but in a one horse open sleigh exploring the powdery forests filling with quiet snow.

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Although there is a fabulous foot Bridge across the Lake in Jyväskylä, some local students still walk on the ice to get across to the University.

Once in Jyväskylä I check into my room, practiced my presentation for the umpteenth time and then headed to the town in search for food. I suddenly realized that the beautiful snow came at a cost. The city of Jyvaskyla does not salt or plow its sidewalks. Instead they sprinkle it with small rocks to give it traction to the many pedestrians and bikers who use these sidewalks daily. While this is a financially sound decision (especially considering the amount of snow they receive), it does however create a very cold and slushy 20 minute walk into the city center.   And while the view was gorgeous along a beautiful frozen lake, I was a little less enchanted with the snow than I had been while watching from my comfortable train window. I was also very hungry. In my feverish attempt to create an awesome presentation for the Forum I had kind of forgotten to eat in the past couple of day.

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Jyväskylä Harbor

I needed something good and something Hot. I wasn’t sure where to go. So I asked a woman on the street. In true Finnish style she went above and beyond the call of duty. She told me that if I allowed her to drop some things off at the post office she would then walk with me to the city center and help me find a good place. 11054502_991214752146_5336294002768095866_nSo after a wonderful stop at the post office we headed towards a Viking restaurant. She not only took me there, she followed me inside, helped me order from the Finnish menu and sat and talked to me while I ate. ( She had already eaten lunch.)   This was so incredibly kind and we had a lovely chat and visit. I think I made a real friend. Now, fully fueled and warmed, the walk back to the hotel felt a lot less daunting and I was able to enjoy the gorgeous Jyväskylä Lake.

That evening I was able to meet up with some of the other Fulbright researchers in Finland. We went as a group to visit the Alto Museum that showed the amazing contributions this Finnish Architect made to the world.  They are an incredible group of individuals and it is quite an honor to be counted as one among them. The U.S. Ambassador to Finland also made an incredible and inspiring speech to the Fulbright crew. This reminded me again how much respect and esteem the Finnish people have for the Fulbright program. IMG_1185

The next few days we did our presentations and I was immediately impressed by the breadth and depth of knowledge represented.   My presentation went very well and I am proud of what I was able to produce. I feel like I conveyed my message in an informative, clear and interesting way.   I left the conference feeling absolutely amazed by the individuals studying here in Finland.   I was inspired by the diverse and incredible projects presented. The topics ranged from the mechanics of wind turbines, the transformations in information technology, education reform all the way to the gene expression of the Stickleback Fish. It was clear this world is full of interesting, intelligent and passionate individuals and there is just soo soo much to learn from this world!

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I left the conference feeling like I had made many friends and I was ready to be a Fulbright recipient. I also left feeling a great sigh of relief. My presentation is over and while there is still a lot of work to be done I now feel like I have the freedom and time to focus in and do the work I set out to do over the course of the next five months.

But first I must visit Russia!

Tune in next time to hear about my exciting one day trip to St. Petersburg!

How Fulbright? Why Finland?

1538713_915985696776_2591682710804324384_nHow did I become a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher?  How did I end up here in Finland researching at the University of Helsinki?  Why did I choose Finland?  These are all very interesting questions and the answer is very simple.  God planned it.  He set out an intricate plan for my life.  He wove a very intricate trail of experiences that have led me to this point at this time for His purpose.

It all started with me wanting to spend a year in Bolivia in November of 2013.  Yes. Bolivia.  A country that couldn’t be more different than Finland if it tried.  I don’t know why in particular I wanted to spend a year in Bolivia.  Maybe I had just hit the 5 year slump as a teacher and felt I needed a change…… and teaching in Bolivia would be a real change.  I do know that in October of 2013 I suddenly felt very restless.  I had started dating a great guy, but I realized I didn’t want to settle down.  I was terrified of commitment and I wanted to do something else.  Something big.  I broke it off with him and knew that right now if a “normal” life with a house and kids was not what I wanted then I had better start pursuing what I did want.   I remember finally expressing this decision out loud for the first time to my group of girlfriends at our favorite restaurant in November.   I told them my fears of leaving a school I loved, but that I felt like I needed….more.  More of what I wasn’t sure, but I know I needed change and a challenge and Bolivia seemed like as good as place as any.  I could learn Spanish. It would be cheap.  And that was all I knew.  I had literally just picked Bolivia out of thin air, as if I had just picked it out of a hat. I knew it was in South America, but that was about it. The following weekend I told my parents I was planning on spending a year in Bolivia.  I didn’t have a plan or a reason, however I have the most supportive friends and family in the world and they told me that I needed to follow my heart!

So, I had finally made my proclamation and verbalized the fact that I wanted to move on to something new. Now I just needed a game plan.  I remembered that a woman I had met  randomly in July 2013 when I was researching in China suggested I looked into researching for Fulbright.  I was telling her about my project in Asia and she said a Fulbright placement was just right up my alley.   I  hadn’t heard of it before, but I wrote it down and thought I would check it out later.   God had sent her to me all the way in China to plant this seed in my head.  However, He usually has to drop me several hints before I recognize His plan.  Then last October (2013)  I found myself back in Idaho with my great aunts visiting my great uncle.  Idaho is where I go to recenter myself and this trip meant so much for several reasons.  During my time there, I was starting to discuss my feelings of unrest with my Uncle.  He also brought up Fulbright.

IMG_0763So a few weeks  later when I was looking up opportunities in November of 2013, Fulbright was fresh in my mind.  I started trying to find a Fulbright placement in Bolivia.  I didn’t meet the requirements for the placement, as I would need a PhD.  I decided it would be easier to switch programs than get a PhD.   So, I started looking down a different rabbit hole.  I looked into other Fulbright placements and found myself in a placement described the Fulbright Distinguished Award in teaching.  I read the description of what this program did and I KNEW this was for me.  I JUST barley made the requirements.  You had to have 5 years of teaching experience.  I was currently in my 5th year.   You needed to have a minimum of a master’s degree, which I had JUST completed thanks to a seemingly random and quick decision on my part 18 months earlier. I just kind of woke up one morning and signed up to get my master’s degree.  I literally went to work one day not even thinking about going back to school. Then I got an email advertisement for a program through Purdue and signed up that afternoon.  It seemed like a whim, but it was God working everything out!  He had me start and finish my degree just in the nick of time!

So, I met ( barely) the Distinguished Award in Teaching criteria, but there was one problem.  They didn’t have a program in Bolivia.  So, I started looking at where they did offer this program. I looked at the list and Finland instantly jumped out at me.  I didn’t know much about Finland so I started to research and read about its education system and became mesmerized and obsessed.  The more I read the more excited I got about the prospect of studying and learning here from some of the BEST educators in the world.  I discovered that Finland was one of the few countries where girls out performed boys in mathematics and I knew I just had to figure out what they were doing to support female development in math!   So I sent a text to my parents and my friends:  “Change of plans:  Finland, not Bolivia.”   Yes,  like Finland, Finland!  And they were all instantly relieved.

So, I started the application that fateful morning!  And as I did I started to laugh and cry at the same time.  I prayed that God would use this, and I thanked him for leading me to this point in my life.  I was so filled with joy at the prospect of going to Finland and researching here, but more importantly I was filled with absolute glee at knowing I would be fulfilling God’s plan for my life.   I thanked him for that and my heart was in a state of reverent worship and total giddiness as I wrote my application. I seriously sat there laughing and crying because I knew….I just knew that God was going to make this happen for HIS glory!  And if He didn’t, he had something even better planned.  The absolute joy of knowing God is in control of your life is truly indescribable.   He was in control not me.  I don’t have to be perfect.  And although I just barely met the criteria for this award, I knew that if He wanted me to go He would make it happen!   This became even more apparent to me when I botched the interview.  I did not do very well on the interview, but I am so thankful for that.  If I had done well, I would have been tempted to give myself the glory.  However, God gets all of the glory here!  He worked it out even though I was/ am imperfect and I messed up.   This is the beauty of our God!  He uses imperfect and messed up people like me to fulfill His purpose and to bring Him glory!

IMG_0815So, why am I here?  I am here because God led me to this point.  That is all I know for now…and that is good enough for me!  I know that without a question of a doubt.  I just pray that I am open to the opportunities He sends me to expand His Kingdom and bring Him all of the Glory and Honor and Praise forever and ever!