Jennifer R. Mangrum, PhD. is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at UNCG.

On Easter Sunday, I arrived in Oulu, Finland.  Five of my student teachers from UNCG and I were going to work in Oulu International School for two weeks.   I knew we’d learn a lot but I didn’t realize how transformative it would be for all of us.  We left with a revived hope for education, new perspectives and ways of thinking and what it means to be an American citizen.

Finland’s education system has been ranked among the best of the world since 2001, ironically, the year we passed No Child Left Behind in the U.S.  This is not to say their education system is perfect nor do they claim it to be.  Their scores can be partially attributed to their homogeneity and their framework of “social democracy”,  a term they shared with me our first day.  Finns pay a hefty tax each year but all Finns receive free healthcare, education (including college) and a pension at retirement.

But I believe at least part of their success is their collective philosophy about children, family and life.  The Finns put a lot of emphasis on education and by that I mean “the learning process”.  They do not put a lot of energy into grades and ranking.  Report cards only go out twice a year, the end of each semester. Students do not take a standardized test until middle school and even then it is not compulsory. Oulu International School doesn’t use teacher made tests either. What type of work did we observe children doing?  The first grade was researching living things and creating water color presentations and reports. The second grade had been designing and building homes from around the world and we attended their exhibition.  In middle school, 8th graders were writing and delivering persuasive speeches and in ninth grade students had just written fabulous diaries about their lives.  All the projects were completed at school.  Rubrics were used to assess each product and when I asked students what score 0-8 they were anticipating, the majority of them said 5 or 6. 7s and 8s are given only when the work process has been exceptional. Notice I said process. They are not scored on their finished product but what skills they practiced along the way.

The Finns have short schools days, 9am-2pm with a break every 45 minutes. Oulu International calls itself a “Moving School” and students are expected to get up and play or move around as often as they need. Teachers intentionally see children in strength-based ways and build on those strengths. If a teacher notices a child off task they don’t scold the child or give them a consequence because they expect and understand that children will lose attention. Instead, they ask the child what they need to be successful. Sometimes it’s a new type of seat or a quick jog around the playground or maybe just choosing a better space to work in.  Rooms are noisier, busier and happier than many classes I’ve witnessed in the U.S. Finnish teachers also give very little homework and anticipate that children have other things to do once they leave the school building.

Another major difference is the autonomy that children are given at school. They come and go without walking in lines down the hall or hearing bells to dismiss at the end of the day.  They serve themselves their own hot lunch, carry breakable plates and glasses to their seats and when the occasional accident happens, they clean it up.  They find their way home by city bus, bike or walking and if they feel bad in the middle of the day, they just go home.  They learn to knit, sew, build, cook and create at school. I saw students sawing wood, drilling holes, and knitting scarves.  They are trusted to work diligently and carefully and no one imagines that they wouldn’t.

So what does this have to do with our political system or my hopeful run for the General Assembly? First, I recognize that we are not Finland. Nor do I strive to be Finland.  But I did learn several lessons from observing, discussing and reflecting on the trip.  Finland believes that every man, woman and child has a right to a decent living, to be happy and to have a good life as a citizen of their country. Because these are shared values, they make laws and decisions that reflect those values.  For instance, when children begin school at age 7, they begin learning how to be self-sufficient and learn skills that will help them later in life. Music, art and movement are integral to their school day because of the impact they have on one’s happiness and whole being.  Finally, children are treated as people who have a voice and are trusted so that they will grow up to be informed citizens who will provide for the future of their country and the lives of the citizens who will follow behind them.

It made it even more clear to me that we, the Democratic Party, as well as our dual party system, need to uncover what values we hold as non-negotiable and set policy and laws in place that support and foster those values. I thought our Declaration of Independence laid this out for us in 1776.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –

If these are our core values, why do we allow Phil Berger to remain in power? He does not work to insure that all men are created equal.  In fact, he does the opposite.  He creates laws that discriminate, he defunds schools so that children don’t have the same opportunities when they grow up and he rules the NC Senate as though he were King, grabbing power from our executive branch and ignoring the consent of the governed.

I am more resolved than ever that WE must rise up against this injustice, regardless of party.  We must be clear about what we value and be just in how we create laws that impact our children and families, both today and in the future.