Finland's Teacher Trap

Low Pay, Low Prestige

A student bicycles to school in Helsinki, Finland, Nov. 22, 2001 (Photo: AFP).

Kati Tuurala, 33, liked the work of a teacher. However, when she had to choose between being a part-time teacher in a school in the eastern part of Helsinki, or a product manager of a publishing company, Tuurala felt that the choice was actually “too easy.”

“When one thinks about raising a family in Helsinki, a teacher’s pay is inconceivably small,” Tuurala says.

Today she is a designer of electronic teaching services. At times she has feelings of guilt about her career change. However, if she were to go back to teaching, her family would have to move to a smaller home.

Besides, an individual cannot be personally responsible for who stays in school when young teachers flee to take better-paid jobs. “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys,” Tuurala says, quoting an English saying.

Kati Tuurala is no exception among teachers. A rebellion is brewing in the teaching profession. According to a study conducted last year, about 200 young teachers—about one in 10 who graduate into the profession—go on to other jobs. The exodus is greatest in the Helsinki region, where 12.5 percent of all teachers give up teaching within one to four years of starting.

“Probably the most common reasons are low pay and hard work,” says Heikki Sahlman of the Finnish teachers’ union, OAJ. “The most eager to leave seem to be young, successful people who are in demand elsewhere.”

The departure of young teachers is a loss for Finnish schools. “Pupils...feel insecure if they constantly have to start from scratch with someone new,” says OAJ development head Anders Rusk.

Teachers leave their professions to go into business, politics, universities, or the media, or they take on jobs as consultants or trainers.

In Vantaa, primary-school teacher Olli Ahola, 34, recalls how one of his former colleagues would visit him at school. He is now a pilot with Finnair.

Another one of Ahola’s colleagues has a second job in business, another works in IT, and a third is in network marketing. Even Ahola could not get by without a second job. He drives a taxi five or six days a month and for a whole month in the summer, giving him about 20 percent more income each year.

Ahola enjoys teaching so much that he does not want to change jobs. If he wants to own a home or have children someday, he will have to make some calculations to see if he can really afford to live in the Helsinki region.

In order to drive a taxi Ahola took a four-week drivers’ training course. Soon he noticed that as a full-time taxi driver he could earn as much as a primary-school teacher, even though teaching required four years at university.

“A feeling of bitterness did cross my mind,” he says. “A public-service profession should not be based on a calling alone, but this field does require heavy commitment.”

Money is not everything: Regular pay is also important. When Finland goes on vacation at midsummer, thousands of young teachers have to tighten their belts. About 4,000 substitute teachers resort to unemployment compensation in the summer, unlike full-time teachers, who get paid 12 months a year. Those who work as substitutes for a full school year are entitled to only three weeks of holiday pay. The teachers’ own unemployment fund does not help much: A substitute teacher does not get the summer’s unemployment money until August.

Päivi, 25, who does not want her real name in print, is the teacher in Espoo who attracted some publicity in Finland when the parents of children at her school paid her salary for the summer out of their own pockets. She taught as a “substitute” for the whole school year; the regular teacher, who was on extended leave that year, returned to “work” for the summer, entitling her to full pay for two and a half months while Päivi is unemployed.

Many young teachers say they are frustrated with the caste system that prevails in the schools; there is a split in the staff room between those who have a permanent position and those who work as substitutes or part time. The former are able to have an influence on events at work, while the latter are afraid to complain about anything—at least in print using their own name. And when a teacher finally does get a permanent position, there is often a temptation to “do unto them as they did unto me.”

As the economy grows apace, so jobs in public administration undergo a kind of inflation. Teachers say that the image of their profession deteriorated in the 1990s when it seemed like anyone with just a primary-school education could become an information technology tycoon.

“Whenever people write about teachers, the news seems to be about discipline problems in schools, funding cutbacks, or a teacher who forced pupils to drink Tabasco sauce,” Kati Tuurala says. “After I changed professions many old teacher friends of mine came to congratulate me, saying that I was probably relieved to get out of that treadmill.”

Men especially seem to want to leave teaching in favor of other jobs, which could be a factor that further erodes appreciation of the profession—after all, fields dominated by women are the worst paid. When Tuurala’s publishing company advertised for teachers for corporate training duties, plenty of men applied.

Tuurala says that a bigger paycheck was not the only incentive. Many said that they wanted to be something more than “just” teachers. “One solution to the problem could be to provide [housing],” Tuurala says. “If Finland is to be kept a country of equality, a teacher with an academic degree should be able to live in the center of Helsinki even if he or she has not inherited money.”