The Finnish Way

I was recently in Finland on a learning and leadership tour hosted by the Ontario Christian School Administrators Association (OCSAA). The trip was set up to help Ontario Christian School leaders consider what is good about, and happening in, the Finnish education system.  I saw many things, but I want to introduce you to someone that I met while I was there, who will forever be etched in my mind as someone who embodies the Finnish Way.

Humility and Passion
This is Ms. Kaisu Otsamo. She is a woman with so much humility and passion that it was inspiring to just hear her talk. She, in fact, was one of my highlights of the week. There was just something about her that made it so inviting to listen to her.

Maybe it was her eyes: they seemed to have seen everything in education, and yet still sparkled as she talked about learning and her students. Maybe it was her poise in front of us Canadians: she presented in English (which was certainly better than my Finnish) and did so with a beauty and mastery. She startled me with her Finnish-to-English translations of ideas that are dear to me in learning.

Maybe what made Kaisu inviting to listen to was the story of a huge project that she was involved in. It was a school-wide, interdisciplinary project that was set up to celebrate their community’s 100th anniversary. This project had many moving parts and involved a whole host of people within the school. Simultaneously, Kaisu was doing research for her PhD, studying the learning happening in the project. So as she shared with us, she was sharing her researched findings.

Maybe it was her humility. The Finnish people have a saying that goes something like this: “He that rises himself up will be cut down.” It is a reminder to stay humble; humility is an ethos baked into their culture. Kaisu embodied this humility in every sense of the word. As she was sharing about her work with a number of student teachers and with the project, she talked of the good things and the bad things that she encountered and documented. She certainly didn’t have a proud bone in her body.

Maybe it was her commitment to Student Teachers. Kaisu is involved in the development of a number of student teachers in her school every year, a responsibility she enjoys because it is for the benefit of all the children of Finland. She often referenced how learning was her life and how much she learns while she is teaching and working with Student Teachers.

Care for the Next Generation
Any one of the reasons I listed is enough to appreciate Kaisu as an excellent educator. And even though each of these things are impressive by themselves, it was her purpose that made her an inspiration to me. She did all of these things because, at her very core, she believed it was good for children: not just the children in her care, but all of the students in the community. When I think it through, what I appreciate the most about Kaisu is what I also found so compelling about the whole Finnish Education system. People throughout are totally committed to the wellbeing of all Finnish children. As a country, Finland has a mission to care for the next generation. This mission is established in their constitution and it is lived out in the education system. This value was clear from the moment we first walked into a Finnish school: we could see that the well-being of children is central to the heart of what every teacher does.

I’m grateful to Kaisu for embodying this mission. Her work was a reminder to me about what matters in schools: it is the students and their wellbeing. All the other stuff — the projects, curriculum, innovative learning strategies, technologies, new learning spaces, etc. — these are all tools that help to accomplish the mission of student wellbeing.
Nathan Siebenga