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Lessons From Finland on Teacher Retention


Noah Zeichner

Brianna Crowley, in her comment on my last post, wrote that many teachers leave the classroom because "our profession's structure seems stuck in a 1950's model of industrialized, unionized labor rather than a professional model of flexibility and autonomy." This reminded me of a conversation I had last month with an educator from Finland, a nation with a highly unionized, yet amazingly autonomous teaching profession. And their teacher dropout rate is impressively low: 90 percent of trained teachers remain in the profession for the duration of their careers.

I've been reading a lot about Finland lately. If you want to know their secret, Finland is top in the world because they put equity ahead of standardization and test-based accountability. But let's look a little closer at how teachers' time is structured to understand how they have reached such a high level of teacher leadership and professionalism (key ingredients in teacher retention).

Talking with my Finnish colleague, Marianna, I learned that teachers' class loads often vary by term. In other words, in one term, a teacher may teach four or five courses, and in another term, only two. This was mind boggling to me. How could teachers' schedules (and schools' master schedules) be so flexible? In the United States, most teachers teach five or six classes every day for 180 or more days.

Marianna explained that teachers are trusted as professionals to use their time effectively. If you have a family at home and you are done teaching at noon, you might stay at school and get your grading and planning done so that you can be completely free in the evening. If you are single, and are done early, you might head to the gym and stop at a coffee shop later to do some grading. Can you imagine?

I am fortunate in my current hybrid role to enjoy a high level of trust and autonomy. (I too can work from a coffee shop some afternoons.) This autonomy and professional trust has allowed me to grow much more quickly as a teacher leader. And as I mentioned in my first post, I feel more committed to my profession than ever before as a result. Teachers deserve to be trusted as professionals. And while it will take a paradigm shift fueled by some serious political will to get there, I am optimistic about the future of our profession. Are you?

Noah Zeichner divides his time evenly between teaching social studies at Chief Sealth International High School in Seattle and supporting the Center for Teaching Quality New Millennium Initiative's efforts to improve Washington's schools.

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