Heading into my first year of teaching in Helsinki I felt pretty nervous. One of my graduate-school professors—an award-winning math teacher—had warned me that Finnish students were academically advanced, especially in math.* Indeed, Finland’s students had excelled on international standardized tests like the PISA for more than a decade. But it wasn’t just those high-performing Finnish students that intimidated me. Their teachers did, too.
If I had chosen to pursue master’s-level training as an elementary-school teacher in Finland (instead of the United States), I would have applied to the small handful of teacher-training universities, where annual acceptance rates hover around 10 percent. These programs are so selective, claimed The Atlantic journalist Amanda Ripley in her book, The Smartest Kids in the World, they’re “on the order of MIT.” Furthermore, Finland’s classroom teacher-training programs require five years of coursework, practicum, and thesis writing. The Finnish version made my two-year master’s degree in elementary education, through a non-selective college in the Boston area, look quite humble.
Honestly, I doubted whether I would ever survive at a Finnish school, given the high-performing kids and the well-trained teachers, but my confidence lifted when I recalled one area of preparation I had received in the U.S.: how to begin the school year. When I packed my luggage for our move to Helsinki in 2013, I made sure to bring my trusty college textbook, The First Days of School.
“Your success during the school year,” wrote Harry and Rosemary Wong in this classic American teaching guide, “will be determined by what you do on the first days of school.” In my copy of the book, I had written an enthusiastic “true!” in the margins and circled this sentence in pencil. “You must have everything ready and organized when school begins,” advised the authors.
Like many American teachers I had known, I had taken this philosophy to heart—to such an extent that I had been in the habit of crafting detailed, minute-by-minute lesson plans for the first few days of school since my first year of teaching in Massachusetts. These plans were mostly centered on teaching my elementary-school students important procedures and routines, such as those for fetching paper and visiting the restroom. So, in an effort to make “everything ready and organized” for that big, first day of school in Finland, I did what I had always done as a teacher in America: I spent summer days filling my planner and arranging my classroom.
But in Finland, when that first week of school arrived, I noticed something odd. Many of my Finnish colleagues hadn’t visited their classrooms all summer long. The day before school began, I met one young teacher who admitted she was still deciding what to do that week. I was a little shocked. To my American eyes, my highly trained Finnish colleagues didn’t look particularly ready or organized for the first days of school. They seemed naively laid-back. Meanwhile, I felt incredibly stressed, as I strived to teach the textbook-perfect way.
During one of my tightly scripted lessons that week, I told my Helsinki fifth-graders we would practice the routine of walking in a quiet, straight line—and, immediately, I heard groans. Apparently, my Finnish students had been navigating the hallways on their own since they were first-graders, and my plan irked them. Embarrassed, I ditched this task and quickly moved on to another activity. I had entered that school year thinking that, as long as I controlled the clock and the physical environment, everything would turn out fine in my classroom. But my Finnish colleagues and students challenged this notion. They seemed to prefer to keep things a little loose at the beginning of the year. To understand this philosophy better, I recently spoke with a handful of Finnish teachers, all of whom had never been taught the “right” way to begin a school year.
“I think it's important to have a ‘soft start’ in order to let the school routines and procedures gently grow into the kids,” said Johanna Hopia, a classroom teacher at Martti Ahtisaari Elementary School in Kuopio, Finland. In Hopia’s classroom, the first days are usually spent discussing summer vacation, playing games, and exercising together. During this time, she neither hands out textbooks nor assigns homework. Jere Linnanen, a history teacher at Helsinki’s Maunula Comprehensive School, prefers that his students have “an organic process” of returning to school. “I want to start the school with as little stress as possible,” Linnanen said, “both for myself and my students.” This August, he and his colleagues took four groups of ninth-graders to a nearby park, where they chatted, danced improvisationally, and played Pokémon Go. Linnanen described the first couple of school days as ryhmäyttäminen, which literally translates as “grouping” but means something similar to the English term “team-building.”
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.