High quality teachers are the hallmark of Finland’s education system. Teaching is Finland’s “most respected” profession, and primary school teaching is the most sought-after career. As is the case with other top-performing countries, observers often dismiss the Finnish example because they see the status of teachers as a cultural characteristic that cannot be altered by policy and therefore as not replicable. But, as in other cases among the top performers, the status of teachers on closer examination appears to be in large measure the result of the implementation of specific policies and practices, detailed elsewhere on this web site, that are quite replicable. While this can also be said of other countries, including a number of East and Southeast Asian countries, there is a Finnish model that is quite different from the various Asian models.
Why is a teaching career the number one choice of Finland’s best and brightest students?
Pay is not the answer. Teacher pay in Finland is reasonably competitive but no more attractive than in many other European countries. In fact, the range of salaries among professionals in Finland is very small, compared to most other advanced industrial countries, which means that differences in compensation in Finland generally have less of an influence on career choice than in other countries.
The answer certainly has something to do with the age-old respect for teachers in Finland, but much more to do with the selection process, the work itself and the working conditions. Because Finland has very high standards that must be met to enter teacher preparation programs, getting in confers prestige on the successful applicant. The fact that Finland has moved teacher education into the universities also confers prestige on young people who go into teaching, because they are getting professional training in the same institutions providing training to the highest prestige professions. Because Finland has developed a deeply thoughtful curriculum and then provided teachers ever more autonomy with respect to how they approach that curriculum, they have both a curriculum worth teaching to and the kind of autonomy in how they approach it that is characteristic only of the high status professions. Because Finland is at the frontiers of curriculum design to support creativity and innovation, teachers have a job that has many of the attractions of the professions that involve research, development and design. They are pushing their intellectual and creative boundaries. Because Finland is understandably satisfied with the job its teachers are doing, it is willing to trust them and their professional judgments to a degree that is rare among the nations of the world (a sign of which is the fact that there are no tests given to all Finnish students at any level of the system that would allow supervisors to make judgments about the comparative worth of individual teachers or school faculties.) This high level of trust, the intellectual challenges of a curriculum that aims high and involves a regimen of constant invention, the satisfaction of knowing that you have been admitted to a profession that is very hard to get into, the knowledge that you will be working with others who have the same attainments and the professional autonomy usually associated only with the highest status professions — all this makes for a very attractive job. It should be no surprise that Finland has a very high retention rate for teachers, with about 90% of trained teachers remaining in the profession for the duration of their careers.
Recruitment and Compensation
Finnish teacher education programs are extremely selective, admitting only one out of every ten students who apply. The result is that Finland recruits from the top quartile of the cohort. Applicants are assessed based on their upper secondary school record, their extra-curricular activities, and their score on the Matriculation Exam (taken at the end of upper secondary school). Once an applicant makes it beyond this first screening round, they are then observed in a teaching-like activity and interviewed; only candidates with a clear aptitude for teaching in addition to strong academic performance are admitted. Teachers’ compensation in Finland is a little higher than the European averages but unremarkable.
Teacher salaries are competitive compared to other professions in Finland, but are fairly average compared to other European countries. Lower secondary school teachers with the minimum amount of required education are paid $34,720 in their first year; at the top of the pay scale, they can expect $45,157 a year. The OECD average for a beginning lower secondary teacher is $30,735; at the top of the scale, the average is $48,938. These salaries are somewhat lower than other professional salaries in Finland.
Initial Education and Training
In the 1970s, teacher education was moved from seminarium, or teachers’ colleges, into universities. Since then, further reforms have required all teachers to hold a master’s degree. Only 11 universities have teacher education programs (there are also five vocational teacher training colleges), so quality control and consistent standards are easy to achieve.
Primary school teachers are required to major in education, with a minor in two primary school curriculum subject areas. Secondary school teachers are required to major in the subject they will teach, and to complete a fifth year of education designed to assure that they have mastered their craft, either alongside their major fieldwork or after they have completed four years of subject coursework. At the end of the five-year program, they earn a master’s degree. Teacher education is heavily research-based, with a strong emphasis on pedagogical content knowledge. Students must also spend a full year teaching in a school associated with their universities before graduation. These university-affiliated schools are model schools, where prospective teachers and researchers develop and model new practices and complete research on teaching and learning. Teacher education programs in Finland are monitored by the Higher Education Evaluation Council.
Because the Finnish system places so much emphasis on school and teacher autonomy, there are not clearly defined career ladders. Teachers have control over their classrooms, lesson plans, and hours outside of teaching, so moving up the ladder does not necessarily affect their job autonomy or allow them to make broad changes within the school. Successful teachers may become principals, who are appointed by the local municipal authority. Principals do have financial responsibilities for the school budget, but they do not have a great deal of authority over the teachers – there is no tradition of principals observing teachers in order to evaluate them. In smaller schools, often principals have their own teaching load in addition to their other duties.
Finnish schools are funded at the municipal level, so professional development requirements differ by municipality. The national government requires each municipality to fund at least three days of mandatory professional development each year, but beyond that, time spent on professional development varies widely. Similarly, the government does not regulate what types of professional development teachers engage in. Research indicates that the average Finnish teacher spends seven days a year on professional development, with some municipalities arranging large, multi-school training events and others leaving it up to schools to develop in-service programs. This system seems likely to change, however; in 2010, the Ministry of Education allocated $27 million to support the development of a national program to provide more uniform access to professional development opportunities and hopes to double the funding by 2016.
Ratio of Lower Secondary Education Teachers’ Salary to GDP per Capita (2015)
Source: OECD Education at a Glance 2017 (Teacher Salary) and OECD (GDP per capita)
Auguste, Byron, Paul Kihn and Matt Miller. (2010). Closing the talent gap: Attracting and retaining top-third graduates to careers in teaching: An international and market-based perspective. McKinsey & Company. (PDF)
International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. (2009). Teacher Education and Development Study in Mathematics (TEDS M): Do Countries Paying Teachers Higher Relative Salaries Have Higher Student Mathematics Achievement? – An analysis of math teacher training and salaries in twenty countries as it relates to educational outcomes. Finland is included; see page 79. (PDF)