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Fulbright experiences help forge Finnish-American partnership

From Left, Marlene Dietz, COE Dean Perry Schoon, President Larry Dietz, Erin Mikulec, Juuli Hakkarainen (Granat's wife), and Petteri Granat

From Left, Marlene Dietz, College of Education Dean Perry Schoon, President Larry Dietz, Erin Mikulec, Juuli Hakkarainen (Granat's wife), and Petteri Granat.

“Teachers are highly respected in Finland. There is no stigma surrounding the profession, and the pay is competitive.” —Petteri Granat, history, social studies, and philosophy teacher at Vaskivuori High School in Vantaa, Finland.

This past fall, visiting Fulbright grantee Pettri Granat shared his experiences as a Finnish educator with an attentive, standing-room-only audience of students, faculty and staff in Williams Hall.

The scene the Helsinki native painted was devoid of standardized testing. Instead, he described classroom learning focused on educational equality and empowering both educators and students. He observed that teachers in Finland are provided with more academic freedom than their U.S. counterparts, have a lesser workload, and are more trusted to develop their own curriculum.

Students are likewise given more freedom during the school day. For example, hall passes are unnecessary and students are allotted 15 minutes breaks between class periods. Collectively, Granat believes the school environment in Finland is less pressure-laden.

“I also believe the strengths of the Finnish education system all have to do with the idea of equality,” he said. “We do not encourage competition between our students or our schools. Also, we do not have honors classes, and we do not have advanced placement classes. From my perspective, the idea that the highest and lowest performing students shouldn’t work together doesn’t make sense. They often benefit from working together.”

Granat explains that the country’s international test scores are consistently average with little variance. Although the nation has dipped in the rankings since 2009, the Finnish education system is still regarded by many as one of the best in the world.

A Nordic-Midwest connection

While Granat had already been accepted to travel to the U.S. on a Fulbright grant before they met, his stopover in Normal was made possible by his crossing paths with Illinois State assistant professor Erin Mikulec. During spring 2014, Mikulec observed and taught English courses in more than a dozen P-12 schools through a professional development-focused Fulbright of her own. Almost immediately after she arrived at Vaskivuori High School, the two struck up a conversation.

“(Mikulec) has been an invaluable resource,” Granat said. “While she was in Finland, we met pretty much on a regular basis to chat and have a cup of coffee, or go for dinner. Our dialogue helped me to gain an insight into the U.S. education system and contemporary issues facing the U.S. before I came here.”

While Granat’s Fulbright placement did not take place at Illinois State, he was working at nearby Indiana University. That allowed Mikulec to plan a well-rounded visit for her colleague during Illinois State’s Homecoming celebration. In addition to visiting with education majors, University High School faculty associates, and touring the Lincoln Museum, Granat experienced his first tailgate, beer-battered bacon, and Redbird football game.

For Mikulec, coordinating Granat’s stay was one way she wanted to give back to those who provided her with such a meaningful experience.

“When I was in Finland, Petteri (Granat) and his school were so wonderful to me, I wanted to reciprocate their generosity,” Mikulec said. “I also wanted to do something for Fulbright, particularly the supportive Fulbright office in Helsinki.”

Granat’s own goals for his trip included bringing back new content, gaining a better understanding of the U.S. education system, and developing new strategies for improving teacher-student interactions.

He plans to infuse much of what he picked up into a relatively new American studies course he created called, “U.S.A., U.S.A.” The name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the chant Homer Simpson yells when he gets excited. Between the many meaningful interactions Granat had with Illinois State and U-High, in addition to experiencing some rib-sticking tailgate food, he is now confident he has what he needs to get his students energized for learning about the good ole’ U.S.A.

Both Granat and Mikulec would like to make a special thanks to Vaskivuori High School and the Illinois State College of Education, respectively, for the tremendous support they provided during the educators’ Fulbright pursuits.