Center on International Education Benchmarking

Finland: Teacher and Principal Quality

OverviewLearning Systems | Teacher and Principal Quality
Supporting Equity | Career and Technical Education | Governance and Accountability

High quality teachers are the hallmark of Finland’s education system. Annual national opinion polls have repeatedly shown that teaching is Finland’s most admired profession, and primary school teaching is the most sought-after career. The attractiveness of teaching likely has much more to do with the selection process, the work itself, and the working conditions than teacher pay (which is similar to that in many other European countries) or simply respect for teachers. Because Finland has very high standards that must be met to enter teacher preparation programs, just getting in is a prestigious accomplishment. The fact that Finland has moved teacher education into research universities also confers prestige on young people who go into teaching. Finland is also at the frontier of curriculum design to support creativity and innovation, which means teachers have an attractive job resembling other high-status professions, involving autonomy, collaboration, research, development, and design. Finland is also willing to trust teachers and their professional judgments to a degree that is rare among the nations of the world. It should be no surprise that Finland has a very high retention rate for teachers, with a 2013 survey showing that about 90 percent of trained teachers remain in the profession for the duration of their careers.

Teacher 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 college-bound cohort. Applicants are assessed based on their upper secondary school record, their extra-curricular activities, and their score on the Matriculation Exam, which is taken at the end of upper secondary school. Applicants must also take the Vakava entrance exam, a take-home, multiple-choice exam that assesses their ability to think critically and evaluate arguments in the education sciences. 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.

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 $35,676 in their first year; at the top of the pay scale, they can expect $46,400 a year. The OECD average for a beginning lower secondary teacher is $32,202; at the top of the scale, the average is $55,122. Teacher salaries are somewhat lower than other professional salaries in Finland, but the profession itself is highly regarded and granted a level of respect well above that of teaching in the U.S.

Teacher Initial Education and Training

In the 1970s, teacher education was moved from seminarium, or teachers’ colleges, into universities and teachers were required to hold a master’s degree. Only eight universities have teacher education programs (five vocational colleges offer teacher certification for aspiring teachers of vocational subjects who already have the appropriate qualifications from their respective industry), 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 ensure that they have mastered their craft, either alongside their major fieldwork or after they have completed four years of subject coursework. This five-year program results in 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 teacher training school associated with their universities before graduation. These schools are public schools that are subject to national curriculum and teaching requirements just like any other municipal school. However, they have been particularly designed pedagogically to support both pupils and teacher-students in their learning. They are university-affiliated 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.

Teacher Career Ladders

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. Successful teachers may become principals, who are appointed by the local municipal authority. Principals do have decision-making 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.

Teacher Professional Development

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. However, teachers’ schedules in Finland enable a great deal of teacher collaboration to support their professional growth. The school day allows time for planning, collaborating, and meeting with other teachers to discuss challenges or successes, and other professional work, such as reading and doing research and most schools do this.

School Leader Development

Principals in Finland are required to have teaching qualifications to teach at the level of school they will lead. In addition, principals must meet one of three qualification requirements: a Certificate of Educational Administration issued by the Finnish National Board of Education (this primarily certifies knowledge of Finnish educational law and policies), completion of a program in Educational Leadership at a university, or proven experience in educational administration. In practice, almost no principals are hired without a Certificate of Educational Administration or a qualification in Education Leadership from a university, and the university qualification is much more highly valued. Vice principals are required to have the same qualifications. Municipalities, which conduct principal hiring, can specify additional requirements for candidates depending on their own needs.

The most valued path to principalship is through completion of a program in Educational Leadership at a university. These programs are typically 18-month programs that candidates enroll in part-time while they are teaching. The curriculum at the University of Jyvaskyla, for example, focuses on management and leadership issues, and requires principals to participate in weekend seminars and do a field practicum with a cooperating school. The practicum consists of five field visits to a cooperating principal, each focused on a different aspect of the job. Student discussions are guided by “tutors” who are senior principals in Finland, many of whom are working towards a doctorate degree in education. In addition to a final exam, candidates must develop and present a personal leadership philosophy, based on their own research and experience in the program.

Principals in Finland are expected to manage professionals by protecting time for teachers to participate in collaborative learning, observing teachers’ classrooms and collaboratively setting goals for improvement with them and identifying teacher leaders and giving them additional roles and responsibilities. Principals facilitate professional learning communities of teachers who use these opportunities to evaluate their teaching and make improvements regularly. There is an assumption that Finland’s aspiring principals have already learned many of these skills in their work as teachers, and will refine their skills in this area through pre-service and on-going training.

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