Before moving to Finland, I used to grind my teeth at night. I’d visit American dentists and they’d always point out my nocturnal habit. I felt embarrassed, but what could I do beyond buying expensive night guards? I was stressed out and, subconsciously, I reacted to the overload.
Maybe I just needed a change of pace?
When my wife and I lived in the Boston area, I stayed busy. Our first child arrived in 2012, but our newborn didn’t slow me down. In fact, I felt a renewed sense of urgency about working around the clock. Especially when we switched to a new health insurance plan.
Our family health insurance amounted to approximately $10,000 per year, the equivalent of one-third of my teaching income. Ouch. That really hurt, but what choice did we have? Massachusetts required health insurance and, unbelievably, this plan was the cheapest available to us.
I kept grinding my teeth at night.
To make ends meet, I juggled several part-time jobs, including private tutoring, snow shoveling, and childcare while teaching first-graders full-time. Life was overwhelming. In hindsight, too overwhelming.
On top of everything, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in elementary education. I saw it as my investment in our future, but it also felt foolish. With full-time teaching, side hustles, and evening classes, I experienced days where I wouldn’t spend a single waking moment with our newborn.
I would leave for school before breakfast and I’d return from grad school long after his bedtime. On those days, I ate dinner alone in our basement apartment, sometime after 9 pm. I hated this arrangement, but I didn’t know how to escape it. My wife Johanna saw the writing on the wall.
Off to Nordic Paradise
Johanna recommended that we move to Finland for a season of our lives. She highlighted paid parental leaves, affordable daycare, and universal health care as reasons. In 2010, Newsweek ranked Finland as the best country to live in. More recently, Finland’s been recognized as the world’s happiest country four years in a row (2018-2021).
Initially, I dreaded the idea of moving to Finland. I wanted to remain in the Boston area, despite the challenges. I loved my teaching job, and I hoped that Johanna’s suggestion would simply disappear over time. It didn’t, though.
In the end, I caved in. We started job searching, emailing several schools in Helsinki (Finland’s capital) about teaching opportunities. For months, we heard nothing from them.
Hungry for better work-life balance, we purchased one-way tickets to Helsinki, Finland’s capital before I had a new teaching job.
However, just one month before moving in July, I finally received an email from a Helsinki principal at a bilingual school. She mentioned an opening in the English stream, a 5th grade classroom teacher’s position.
The principal and I chatted over the phone and, at the end of the call, she offered me the job! I couldn’t believe it, and I gladly accepted the offer.
But within a few days, my initial excitement morphed into a lingering sense of dread: Could I actually survive as a teacher in Finland?
I felt competent as an educator in the Boston area, but would that even matter in Helsinki? Finland held a towering reputation in the world of education.
In 2000, Finnish teenagers aced an international standardized exam called the PISA. The set of tests measure critical-thinking skills in reading, math, and science. Experts have suggested that PISA scores point to the countries that excel at preparing young people for 21st century working life.
Finland’s high scores on the PISA impressed me, but what inspired me the most was the country’s child-centered approach to education, featuring:
- play-based kindergarten
- a whole child approach to school curriculum
- short school days for students and teachers
- lots of recess throughout each school day
- very little homework for kids
- well-educated and highly trusted teachers
In July 2013, I started the Taught by Finland blog to document my takeaways as a foreign teacher inside the Finnish school system. I never dreamed that eventually those insights would lead to my book Teach Like Finland, which was translated into 16 languages.
Many of you have followed this blog since the beginning, and I’m very grateful for you. You’ve waited for new posts to arrive, and I’ve kept you waiting. I am truly sorry about that.
We have three children (a 4-year-old girl, a 7-year-old girl, and a 9-year-old boy) and, over the last few years, I’ve needed the extra time to invest in family. Trust me, I’ve wanted to blog, but I’ve felt that I couldn’t afford it.
In Finland, we call the season of parenting young children ruuhkavuodet. Ruuhkavuodet literally means “the traffic years.” In practice, it means less sleep, less free time, less money, and less space—all while trying to build your career. The underlying idea of ruuhkavuodet is that you are called to slow down. Life becomes a traffic jam, and you cannot fly over it.
Thankfully, seasons do change. Kids grow up, and life becomes a lot less hectic. We’re beginning to see signs that the traffic’s lifting. Gradually.
The season of grinding my teeth has passed too. According to Johanna, my habit ceased immediately when I moved to Finland. Life in the “happiest country” has been calmer and slower than our lives in the Boston area. We’re very grateful for the years we’ve spent here.
I’m stepping into a new season now. For years, I stopped blogging, but I’m happy to tell you that I’m back. My new blog is Teachlands, the evolution of Taught by Finland.
Teachlands is now my online home for sharing insights about Finnish education and other child-centered pedagogies around the world, including Reggio Emilia and Montessori. I’m passionate about helping other educators and parents learn inspiring practices to use in the classroom and at home. [You can sign up for the blog here!]
Later this month, we’re moving to Reggio-Emilia, Italy. In the next post on Teachlands, I’ll tell you about our big move and our decision to homeschool our children throughout the 2021-2022 school year.
Tim Walker is an American teacher, writer, and speaker living in Espoo, Finland. He is the best-selling author of Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms. Timothy has written extensively about his experiences for Educational Leadership, Education Week Teacher, and The Atlantic. Inspired by his work in Finnish schools, he speaks internationally about play, trust, and joy in education. Timothy blogs about global educational practices at teachlands.com.
Watch Tim’s free 40-minute webinar (“The Finnish Way to Joyful Education”) by signing up here!