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May 1, 2011
Vol. 53
No. 5

Trust, Professionalism, and Truth

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Here's a true story.
Recently, I participated in a study group that visited schools in Finland. I was talking to a group of English literature teachers in their common workspace when I noticed one teacher with a stack of books that looked worn, but vaguely familiar. I ventured the question that incites so many of us literacy folks to conversation, "What are your students reading?"
The teacher replied, "Well, we decide together what we'll read. Right now it's Jim Morrison and William Burroughs."
Quick recollections of Maya Angelou, school board meetings, and ensuing parent permission slips framed my reply: "Do you have to get a "choice curriculum" and William Burroughs approved somehow?"
With a puzzled look, the teacher glanced at her principal and said, "No. My principal trusts me." The principal agreed, stating, "She's a professional."
This revealing conversation solidified what I had been observing throughout my week as part of an ASCD study team. Trust. Professionalism. Truth. I found these words circled in my notes time and again.
Although a first reaction to being in a country with world-class schools and acclaimed PISA results might be to observe what schools are doing and attempt to recreate those things at home, I instead approached this experience as a valuable opportunity to learn, discuss, share, and listen. I imagined the many ways in which the lessons I was learning could transform the way I teach and my students learn.


There is trust in the Finnish school system. From the Ministry of Education to the administrators, teachers, students, and parents, you'll hear the word "trust" repeated like a mantra. Trust seems to come from the security of constancy, and it's that same constancy that creates a common vision. There is a set of national standards (not a national curriculum) that stays constant even when politics shift. Although the standards are malleable, changes made to these standards are purposeful and manageable. A relatively concise document, their national standards feature precision without management and clarity without directives. Finnish educators have discovered that trust is the sustenance on which learning thrives.


In the Finnish system, there is only a modest amount of assessment or wide-scale testing.
"How do you know your kids are learning if you don't test or measure them all the time?" I asked the same teacher.
She replied, "Failure isn't a bad thing; it's how we learn. That's even true for teachers."
I probed further. "So, do you mean that testing, by default, places blame? That when we test all the time, we just focus on the results?"
"Yes," she said. "Sometimes, we want to be perfect, but failure is OK."
Her principal exclaimed, "I'm so glad to hear you say that!" They shared a hug. "We've been working on this," the principal said. "She will embrace the mistakes of her students, but not her own. I'm so glad that she sees this is part of her learning too."
As American educators, we often think of professionalism in terms of compensation. And although that is a worthy and necessary component of advocating for the profession, I saw a different kind of professionalism in the many teachers I encountered in Finland.
The teachers I met didn't seem to have extravagant lifestyles. It's true that the status of a teacher is more commensurate with that of a doctor or engineer in Finland, but these external measures of professionalism don't necessarily define them. It's rather an intrinsic empowerment to do the right thing, at the right time, for every student.
Without scripts to follow or countless assessments to send to someone else for scoring, teachers seem to be liberated from fear and blame. This is not to say that Finnish educators are not held accountable, but they are accountable for how they use data to assess for learning and their ability to have numerous pathways to that common vision.


One of our hosts, Pasi Sahlberg, implored, "When you go back to the United States, don't tell people that we are trying to be the best in the world; that's not our goal." But where does the truth about their success lie if not with competitive spirit or far-reaching goals? Their story suggests that the path toward achievement and the path toward enlightenment are not necessarily the same thing. Their truth is also about a culture that embraces what Carol Dweck frames as "a growth mindset" in which the fixedness of achievement is outweighed by a process of learning.
As often as we heard reverence towards the word "trust," we also heard the maxim of "no dead ends." Students have fluid movement within the system, retaining the ability to change their pathway to fulfilling their education goals. Of course, it seems only poetic that in letting go of fixed achievement goals were they able to realize such success.
In the end, my study trip to Finland left me with a paradox to reconcile. In variegated patterns, we could find many similarities between our system and the Finnish system. But if the dominating differences are concepts like trust, professionalism, and truth, then what separates us is culture. Is culture a story we're willing to rewrite?


EL’s experienced team of writers and editors produces Educational Leadership magazine, an award-winning publication that reaches hundreds of thousands of K-12 educators and leaders each year. Our work directly supports the mission of ASCD: To empower educators to achieve excellence in learning, teaching, and leading so that every child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. 

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