By Dr. Denise R. Ames
We only had one day in port in Helsinki, Finland. I could have spent much more time exploring the city and talking with the people, many of whom spoke English. But I would have to be content with a one-day tour of the city with Darren, our excellent guide. He greeted us with hardy handshakes, certainly different from the St. Petersburg guides.
We left the Senate Square in the heart of Helsinki and ventured to the Church in the Rock. The church was an underground house of worship that was blasted out of native granite and capped with a ceiling made of copper wire and 180 windows. Although it has superior acoustics and is the site of many concerts, I found the place rather cold and dreary, I couldn’t wait to get out. Luckily for me, we had almost an hour to see the church and explore the surroundings. I bolted out of the church and started to explore the neighborhood.
I lucked out. I encountered several troops of pre-k children out for a stroll before lunch time. There was also a classroom near by the church. The children were adorable. I immediately thought of my 4-year-old granddaughter who was also in a pre-K classroom back in Brooklyn (also adorable). The Finnish children were all in a row clutching each other’s hands wearing bright green vests for safety purposes.
Our guide mentioned that children start school as young as three, all free public education. The point of early education, according to our guide is to socialize the children into getting along. There is no homework but cooperation is emphasized. He went on to add that in a country such as Finland with a harsh environment that cooperation has been a central part of the values system of the country for centuries. Survival depended upon it. It is a well-entrenched value and not easily jettisoned in a modern age. The school system reflects these values.
He said in the upper grades there is close cooperation (once again) between the educational system and industry. Students are trained to accommodate some of the needs of industry. Our guide went on to say that in a land with few natural resources that the knowledge of their citizens is an important resource; therefore, a great deal of investment is made in this resource. Public education is free through the university, but there are strict requirements to get in and to continue. It is hardly a “free ride.”
Teaching is perhaps the most important job in Finland. All teachers must have a masters degree and the education program has the highest standards for acceptance of any college program. There is no ranking of teachers, schools, or students according to testing standards, so this eliminates the stress of your school being at the bottom of the pile. Students start the day around 9:00-9:45 and end around 2:30. They also take lots of breaks and have time to de-stress. Although it seems counterintuitive to Americans, this system actually works for them.
I would argue that the reasons for their success is their social equality, work ethic, and personal initiative. I think it would be hard to replicate in many countries.
Our guide unconsciously expressed Finland’s egalitarian ideals when he motioned for all of us to get on the bus together or let’s all walk together to see this site. Together was in practically every sentence he uttered. It is not a word that Americans use very often, unless in a political campaign slogan.
We made one more stop before the end of our tour, Sibelius Park. This lovely urban park is home to an unusual stainless-steel monument dedicated to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. It was lovely to see such pride commemorating one of their hometown heroes. The park was filled with activity and fun as the Finns were out to enjoy the remaining days of summer before another harsh winter set in.
I said goodbye to our guide as the bus pulled onto the dock near our cruise ship. I then took a stroll through a market set up nearby and enjoyed the colorful displays of food, clothing, and trinkets. Then I meandered my way to the ship, reluctant to leave Finland. I took a big inhale of the salty, sea air and smiled as I turned my back on this fascinating country that was making its mark on the world in the educational arena.
As I made my way up the gang plank I thought about my lost luggage. I wondered if it would finally surface. I quickened my step, I opened the door to my room, and there it was. My long-lost luggage. My travel companion, Susan, also had her bag. I saw the monstrous bag but I didn’t know what to do. The trip was 2/3 over and I didn’t need all the extra things I brought. Actually, I was a little disappointed. It was so easy to just rotate my clothes and not worry about what to wear next. My make-up bag was packed away so I had no need to “look presentable.” It was with trepidation that I unpacked about 1/3 of my suitcase. The rest of my clothes would be unable to experience the Baltic Sea cruise.
As we set sail for our next destination, Latvia, I went up to the top deck to see the expanse of islands dotting the Finnish coast. I was thankful though for my warm jacket that I just unpacked, as a cool breeze reminded me that a harsh environment shaped the lives of the lovely Finnish people that I had the pleasure of spending a day with.
About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames
Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.
Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.
Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books