Written by Janet English

1. The Frigid North

Chapter 1

The Frigid North

My double prop plane touches down in eastern Finland forty-five miles from Russia, it is the dead of winter, the sky is overcast, and the trees and ground are covered with snow. It’s a little past noon and the sun is already low on the horizon. Yesterday I was living in sunny and temperate California. Today I’m 295 miles south of the Arctic Circle where the average winter temperature is 14 degrees F.

In my “normal” life I am a high school science and broadcast journalism teacher in southern California, but I’ve moved to Finland for six months to learn the “secrets” of the Finnish education system: What makes Finnish students proficient problem solvers? Are Finnish teachers better than American teachers? What is the Finnish system doing successfully that the American system is not?

The plane bounces down the snow-covered runway and comes to a stop in front of a small, one-story airport terminal. Under my seat is a rolling camera bag with a video and still camera, two lenses, three lights, four tripods, an external audio recorder, two microphones, and a computer. I’ve also brought along three empty Moleskin journals, my favorite pen and pencil, and a highlighter – the last item a present from a student. I’m here for six months conducting research for a Fulbright Award, but I’m also here for a great adventure.

Before leaving home, some people told me they doubted I’d learn anything new to apply to American classrooms – that Finnish success can largely be attributed to small class sizes and a largely homogenous population. Others said the cultural differences between our two countries are too vast to be able to apply Finnish methods to American schools. Another told me Finnish success might simply be due to the long winters and student boredom – that children have nothing to do but to go home and study.

I hope none of these are true.

The captain turns off the engines, the propellers slow, and the mesmerizing drone comes to an end. The flight attendant speaks to us in Finnish, which I don’t understand, and I follow other passengers as they stand, shuffle into their coats and gear, and prepare to disembark. An attendant opens the door and cold Arctic air flows into the cabin.

The passengers move toward the door and I zip up my oversized Arctic parka, placing the furry hood on top of my head.  With my rolling camera bag trailing behind me and a film studio strapped to my back, I walk off the plane and into the unknown.

This is a story of my journey.