At my Helsinki public school, I found a similar policy, where teachers and students started with a half-day and a regular class schedule didn’t start until the following week. Even at the high-school level in Finland, it’s “very common” for students not to have regular classes on their first day back, according to Taru Pohtola, a foreign-language teacher at Vantaa’s Martinlaakso High School. At Pohtola’s school, freshmen get an extra day to settle into the new school environment. “We want them to feel more at home at their new school before the real work begins,” she said.
Many of the Finnish educators I spoke with recognized that classroom structure, which typically stems from establishing rules, routines, and procedures, is valuable, but they emphasized the importance of fostering a welcoming, low-stress learning environment first. A similar sentiment is found in Finland’s newest curriculum framework for basic education: “Learning is supported by a peaceful and friendly working atmosphere and a calm, peaceful mood.”
According to Paul Tough, an Atlantic contributor and the author of the new book Helping Children Succeed, establishing a school environment—“where [students] feel a sense of belonging, independence, and growth”—helps children to develop key noncognitive abilities, such as resilience, perseverance, and self-control. Tough calls this a “different paradigm,” but one that more accurately represents what happens in today’s successful classrooms: “Teachers create a certain climate, students behave differently in response to that climate, and those new behaviors lead to success.” One of the most compelling findings of researchers, according to Tough, “is that for most children, the environmental factors that matter most have less to do with the buildings they live in than with the relationships they experience—the way the adults in their lives interact with them, especially in times of stress.”
During my first days of teaching in Finland, I led my fifth-graders to one of our school’s gymnasiums for structured, group games during their only recess blocks. I had picked the activities; they followed my rules. But this routine quickly grew boring, mostly because I ran out of fun games to introduce. Thankfully, one of my Finnish students suggested that we play “Kick the Can,” as it was something that my class had played with their fourth-grade teacher. I agreed, and the little blond boy returned with an empty plastic soda bottle.
For the next few weeks of school, I played Kick the Can with my Helsinki fifth-graders, at least once every day. Actually, it was the only group game they wanted to play with me. Moreover, they wanted me to be “it” every time, which meant that I’d count to 20, they’d hide, and I’d try to find them. Every time I’d spot my fifth-graders and call out their names, we’d link arms, creating an amoeba-like force. If I caught every one of my students, I’d win, but alas, that never happened because a sneaky fifth-grader would inevitably kick over the soda bottle (with a triumphant shout), freeing all of my prisoners.
Through our wild rounds of Kick the Can, I saw that the most valuable thing I could do during those early days of school was relax—like my laid-back Finnish colleagues—and simply enjoy relationships with my students.
* This article originally stated the author's graduate-school professor was a Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. We regret the error.