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Teacher Profile - Karen Lee

Country Visited: Finland

Program year: 2012-2013

I often struggle to talk about my time in Finland. It was too transformative of a time to be answered in a simple response to the question of “how was Finland?”  The 7 months I spent there were challenging both personally and professionally. As a result I have become a person who slows down to enjoy the world around me, I listen more than I speak and ask questions of the educational pressures placed on US teachers in a more meaningful and productive way. The task of capturing the wonderful intentionality of the Finnish culture often comes out in anecdotes and observations from experiences in the grocery stores, on busses, in classrooms and in meetings with teachers and policy makers. In Finland, I truly learned the value of investing in human capital and the strength that comes with believing first in the person and second in the system.   

The influences of Finland can be found not only in the changes I have made personally, but in the way my classroom is run. My Fulbright project was focused on students’ choices and the motivation and influences that result in individual educational paths. From the conversations I had with teachers and students, it became clear that when students are in control of their learning, they are more invested in their learning. Whether it was in the classroom of one of the 53 different vocational studies offered or in a more traditional high school classroom, students were trusted to make the right choice when it came to their education. As a high school teacher in Washington DC, I have begun to trust my students more to make the right choice and to follow their interests into deeper understanding of concepts and standards. I have created a classroom that is much more student-led than teacher-led and allows student interest to dictate curriculum decisions. From Finnish teachers, I have learned that although our end goal will always remain the same, there are many ways for students to reach that goal and each of those paths have value. As a result, I have found that both students and I have higher expectations of each other.   

I learned a Finnish word while visiting a friend’s home, sielumaisema. It means “soul landscape.” It can be described as the landscape that “hits you in the center of your chest, the one that you will always carry with you, the one that immediately feels like home.” My experience in Finland, allowed me time to find that place thousands of miles away from what was my “home” and allowed me the time to reflect, research and plan while enjoying the new landscape around me. I will forever be grateful for this season and will often dream of the sielumaisema of Finland. 

Karen Lee photos