Special Report: Teaching at a Finnish School

Note: Special interest piece about an educator and her humorous first experience teaching abroad. Not at all travel related.

There’s a saying: “Good things happen one at a time. Great things happen all at once.” In two days’ time, I completed my TEFL course and taught (albeit briefly!) a grade 3 class of Finnish elementary students on their second week of English. Initially, my visit to the school was just to observe how an English class was taught. It’s one thing to read a ‘how-to’, and another to do it, right? Well the teacher, being shy and nervous that I would be judging her English abilities, decided I should give a lesson as well!

Enter nervousness. I hadn’t quite pictured my coursework being so relevant so soon! But at the same time, I was enthralled to teach these kids anything.

I’m driven by my lovely Finnish host, who’s like a second mom, to the school. It’s modern yet rustic. Kids are out in the courtyard, running around, laughing, smiling. They still take recess here. Tall glass windows dot the building. It’s a cozy school.

grounds
Courtyard of the school. Courtesy of the school’s website

I’m greeted immediately by the English teacher, who is wide-eyed and happy to see me. We exchange greetings and two girls approach us. The teacher speaks in Finnish to them, then tells me they will be giving me a tour of the school. Oh how cute!  I coo. They lead me inside and there’s a foyer with shelves of names.

Then they slide off their shoes and motion for me to do the same.

In Finland (and nearly everywhere else in Scandinavia, I’m told), it’s customary to remove shoes before entering a building. Avoid tracking in dirt, mud, snow, and anything else from outside, right? Keeps the buildings cleaner and the adults (more) sane. I remove my shoes, and then it occurs to me that all of the classes are done in socks. Or barefoot. Whatever the kids wear to school that day, they go to class sans shoes.

The two elementary girls give me a tour in English, of the school. It’s laid out like a U, with classrooms on each side and the cafeteria in the middle. Each grade has its own classroom of no more than 16 students. There is also have a music room and a woodworking shop. Students begin woodworking in grade 3; they make top-open boxes, periscopes, and wooden art that is painted and displayed. if they don’t want to do that, they can practice textiles.

Adorned in fuzzy and colorful socks, we walk back to the English classroom where the 45 minute class just began. I sit at the back of the class, and had I not already seen these kids at a birthday party, I would have been incredibly interesting. The teacher instructs in Finnish, tells the students to open the textbooks and they begin counting numbers 1-10 in English. The teacher says ‘One’, the students wait, and then say ‘One.’ So it continues until they reach ten. After a couple repetitions, though, students get excited and begin counting ahead of everyone else. They break up into pairs of two: one student knocks on the desk and the other student counts how many knocks. This lasts about five minutes, so they move to a song about bananas, which seems to engage only a few students. Then I hear quick Finnish and my name.

Melody. Some laughter. Melody. There it is again. Oh, she is talking about me.

The teacher asks me to come up to the front of the class as I am going to give a lesson!

I walk up look at this beautiful energetic bundle of students. Oh, I wish I had something brilliant for them! Then the teacher asks them to go one-by-one, say “My name is..and I like…ice cream.” After they do this I feel infinitely relieved.

And then I have an idea: let’s play Red Rover!

I tell the teacher the gist and we head outside. The kids are over the moon excited. Anything outside is better than a classroom, right? Now there’s the issue. The teacher is by no means fluent in English. It’s okay for third graders, but this is better shown than explained. So I split the group into two sides.

7 students with me, 8 students with her. My group stays on one side of the field and the teacher’s group opposite us.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had to communicate with someone who doesn’t know ANY of your language, but demonstration is probably the most entertaining. I hold a girl’s hand, and I hold up our joined hands and point to her and the next girl’s hand. They start laughing, but it works. Children are amazing copycats. Soon we have a hand-holding line. The group across from us sees what we’re doing and quickly follows suit.

Now I sing the song: Red Rover, Red Rover, Come on..over!

And I demonstrate running toward the line and breaking the human chain and if I break the chain I become part of it.

It occurs to me now that when I break the chain I’m supposed to bring someone back with me to my line. Ughhhhh! Must know for next time!

We go back and forth with this for maybe 30 minutes. I see smiling faces, running kids, and every other turn, I make them count as we lose and gain people.

One, two, three, four…eight, nine, ten!  One, two, three…six, seven!

Over and over again. They’re counting. I ask “How many people?” And they count. Over and over. I feel like they’re more comfortable using the words.

The class-time ends much sooner than I wanted to, and in one final motion we all run toward the group opposite us. This becomes a running fest. A girl tags me, like ‘Tag, you’re it!’ So I begin chasing after her with Jim Carrey’s “The Claw!” from Liar Liar.

Liar-Claw

These kids think it’s hilarious. Three more kids join in, tagging me and activating The Claw. Two more kids join in, and then I make The Claw break down, and I turn into a zombie chasing them about the courtyard and then they shuffled them back into school for their next class.

Moral of the story? Best day ever. And nothing can stop The Claw.

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