Finland Teacher Tales Pt. 15: Keep Calm and Knit On

Hi I’m James, I’m a classroom teacher from Sydney... and I'm back home!

My wife Michelle and I went to Finland to find out how the famous Finns 'do school'. 

The thing which stood out for me is this wonderful piece of Finnish wisdom: lower the stress and do your best.

Did you see the news story about the Finnish snowboarding coach knitting at the winter Olympics? He was using humour to reduce the tension and stress levels in his athletes at the starting line.

We all know that high anxiety or stress affect our ability to perform at our best. But did you know that, in Australia, 41% of teachers report high levels of job-related stress? (Milburn, 2011) And teachers make more stress claims than any other industry (WorkCover, 2014). 

Some of the main causes of high levels of stress for Australian teachers are: unreasonable expectations, pressures of assessment targets and inspections,
and excessive workload and working hours (Cross, 2014). And prolonged stress can lead to emotional exhaustion - that is, burnout!

"So what?" I hear a non-teacher say. Well, "Emotionally exhausted teachers are more likely to use reactive and punitive responses that contribute to negative classroom climates and student-teacher relationships [Osher et al, 2007]" (Cross, 2014) which can lead to poorer academic and mental health outcomes for students (Bond et al, 2007).

in Australian schools we are becoming increasingly anxious and uptight about our PDPs, NAPLAN scores, and "dropping down the table" in PISA and TIMMS tests. I can even see the tension in some of my colleagues in the lead up to NAPLAN. And the 'name-and-shame' publication of individual school results plus the media's focus on "disappointing" scores add to this pressure.

Meet Tintti, the super teacher from Finland who knits! The amazing Tintti is a Year 6 teacher and deputy principal at Roihuvuori Comprehensive School in Helsinki. She has some advice for us on how to lower stress levels in Australian education - and still produce great students!

1. Let teachers teach. 
"I'm so happy that we have the liberty and the trust to have the possibility to focus on the important things - which is interacting with the kids."

2. Teach with a longer-term view.
"Sometimes you don't have the time to teach something as deeply as you would like to, but maybe it's more important to teach kids about life itself."

3. Tell students that their best is good enough.
"I don't believe in standardised testing because every kid comes with a different ability to learn, and starts learning on a different level. There are always some that work harder than the 'A' pupils only to get a D. So it's not fair to evaluate them all with the same standards."

4. Knit!
"I personally knit to keep my mind in the subject. I also knit not to be stressed. I knit during staff meetings, board meetings, when taking a course and even when I need to concentrate to listen to my pupils reading their stories. It's my way of keeping my mind on set."

Dear Tintti, when I first saw you knitting during a staff PD session I thought it was like a beautiful metaphor for how teaching should be. In my visit to your school you showed me that it is possible to be serious about education without adding unnecessary stress to teachers and students. 

Will Australia ever learn (from the Finns)? I think the Federal Education minister, Simon Birmingham, and all the state ministers, should take up knitting and reflect at length before they implement yet another policy that will add more stress and burdens on our teachers.

Read about this new national review of 'teacher quality' and be concerned that they will be making big decisions which will affect Australian teachers' mental health and wellbeing for years to come:

Birmingham and his panel of experts will be looking to place more time-consuming requirements on teachers "to improve teacher quality". But this panel needs to be far more open-minded than previous panels and look for innovative and creative ways that will both improve education standards AND reduce pressure and stress on teachers.

There is a proverb in Finland which is similar to our saying, "Necessity is the mother of invention". The Finnish version is "The naked lady soon learns how to knit". 

Simon... Once you acknowledge the real need here: that students need teachers who are fresh, fit and alert (not overworked and burnt out) then practical solutions for "improving teacher quality" will become apparent.

Teachers, please have a voice in this process and send your written submissions (or gifts of knitting needles and yarn) to:

The National Review of Teacher Registration Panel
440 Collins St, Melbourne VIC 3000

James Phelps

BTW, the Finnish snowboarders didn't win their event but they had a stress-free Olympics experience and were highly satisfied with their personal best efforts.