What to Know About Finnish Schools During Your High School Exchange Program
One of the most famous parts of Finland is its school system, and that was one of the largest differences between life here and life in America as a high school exchange student. Unlike in my high school, Finnish students can choose to graduate in 3 or 4 years, and the requirements to graduate are just a certain number of courses in each subject. That way, students are able to arrange their subjects for their time in school almost any way that they want.
Because I don’t speak very much Finnish yet, my classes for this marking period were English, math, French, music, and two sections of sports. Each class meets three times a week for 75 minutes, and each marking period is about a month and a half long.
Usually, school starts at 8:15 a.m. and ends at 2:45 p.m., with an hour for lunch and 15 minutes between each class, so students have plenty of time to relax between classes! At the end of each marking period though, there is an exam week where each class has a 6 hour test with an hour for lunch, and that can make or break your grade in a class for the whole marking period. My first big exam week starts in two days, so I hope it goes well!
Commuting to School
Each day, I ride my bike about a mile and a half each way to school. Most other students also walk or ride mopeds or drive mautos (moped autos), which are small cars that can only go the speed of a moped but can hold 2 or 3 people.
Also, some students come from up to 30 kilometers away, and so they take local buses to and from the school. Once it gets colder, more and more people will start to take the bus, but everyone rides bikes for as long as possible!
Connecting with Your Classmates and Teachers
Unlike in the U.S., all teachers and administrators are called by their first names! This was a bit strange at first, as it felt kind of disrespectful, but I think it really just makes for a more relaxed atmosphere in classes. Also, class sizes are much smaller than at my high school.
Here, my smallest class (French) is only 4 kids and my biggest is 22 (English)! Back at my high school in the U.S, only having 22 students in a class would be considered pretty small. Having so few students has been great though! Each student gets much more individual attention from the teacher if they need it, and all the students become very close very quickly.
This is also partly because the school is so small, with less than 400 students! The picture above is all the students and staff for the whole school.
Less Homework Means More Time to Build Relationships
Another nice thing about the Finnish school system is the limited amount of homework given each night. At most, I have about 45 minutes of outside work to do, which leaves me lots of free time to spend with my friends and family, like in the picture above!
This is a little bit less than some of my Finnish classmates, since I don’t have to take history or Finnish or other more intense classes the way that they do, but even they don’t have more than an hour or an hour and a half each night. Compared to my normal workload, which would keep me up past midnight a few times a week, this is fantastic.
In addition, it makes the whole student body so much less stressed and so much happier than students in the U.S. Most of our time spent in the classroom is spent very efficiently, so there’s almost no need to give homework at all!
Expect Traditional Finnish Food for School Lunch
Each day, the school provides a free hot meal for every student. Usually, it is traditional Finnish food with potatoes and some sort of meat and sauce, or soup. There is also always salad and ruisleipä, or dark rye bread, available.
Probably the craziest lunch we’ve had so far was mustamakkara, or blood sausage. It’s a specialty that you can’t get outside of the Tampere area, and though it sounds and looks pretty gross, it wasn’t too bad!
Traditionally, on Thursdays, Finns eat pea soup and pancake roll like the one in the picture above. Although I didn’t get a picture of the school one, this is a traditional pancake roll that I made at home with my host family! Also, because our school doesn’t have a lunchroom, all the students walk to the local middle school, or Pikkolan Koulu, to eat. However, if people don’t want to eat the school food, they will often either go home for the lunch hour or walk to the S-market grocery store nearby and buy something there.
Get Involved in Activities to Make Friends
One of the greatest things about my school so far has been the musalinja. This is a group of students from all grades of high school who have a slightly different schedule, with the main focus on music, and have slightly different graduation requirements.
Although I technically am not allowed to be a part of it because I’m an exchange student, I was put into a musalinja class and have now been adopted as one of them! Even though I have almost 12 years of experience with classical piano and have sung in choir since 3rd grade, the first few classes were a total shock! They teach almost only pop and rock music, and the main focus of the class was on composing our own songs.
I’ve learned so much about different styles of music and I’ve even learned how to play basic drum set, bass, guitar, and ukulele! Also, all of the musalinja students spend lots of time with each other outside of class, and one of my first few weeks we all went to an old house just outside of downtown Kangasala and got to know each other through games and food and music with our two teachers for about 5 hours at night. It was one of the best ways to get to know people with similar interests to me, and I made so many great friends!
It was hilarious to see that the music kids in Finland are exactly the same as the music kids in New Jersey, just speaking a different language! We also often go to local concerts together and it’s just been a fantastic way to get involved with lots of people. Recently, we got to perform different songs for our school’s open stage week, which was so exciting! Everyone, whether they participated in music or not, was super excited to watch all the performances.
In my lukio (school), there are five other exchange students! There is one girl from Switzerland, one boy from Hungary, one girl from Belgium, one boy from Turkey, and one girl from Taiwan, plus me. We often go exploring Tampere together, and find little hole-in-the-wall waffle shops like the one in the picture!
We’ve all become really great friends in basically no time at all, so it’s going to be very sad when I have to be the first one to leave, as everyone else is staying either until January or July, while I’m leaving at the end of October.
Carry a Dictionary or Language App
A main struggle of being an exchange student is definitely that all classes are taught in Finnish, and even if you don’t take very intense classes, you will still definitely feel lost for the first few weeks at least. One of the best ways that I found to follow along is to have my dictionary app out all the time, and if I see a word repeated several times, I look it up and write it in the top corner of my page of notes for the day.
Then, when I get home, I copy down those words into a separate notebook organized by subject, so when I have to study for a test I can memorize all of those words, because the test questions are all in Finnish too! This has been super helpful in math, since even though I have already learned the material, being able to understand what I’m expected to do has been very rough, especially since my math teacher speaks very little English.
Be Prepared for Free Time and Independence
A major difference between the American and Finnish systems is how students spend their free time. Because sports are not offered through school in Finland, and in most of Europe, many people join club sports teams, like hockey or volleyball or basketball. When not busy with sports, students will often go into downtown Tampere or visit each other’s houses or just go for a walk or a run outside.
It was a major adjustment for me to know that people just make plans to go into the city less than an hour beforehand most days, and that friends will get together most days of the week because of the limited homework. It’s been really great to be able to hop onto a bus and explore downtown with friends or get munkkis (traditional Finnish doughnuts with cardamom) or waffles!
I’ve also gotten the chance to go see a concert of traditional Finnish folk music with some of my friends from musalinja, and to go make mochapala (coffee and fudge brownies) at a friend’s house. Compared to in America, kids and teens have so much freedom.
From the age of about 7 years old, kids start riding and walking to school alone and are trusted to get on the bus alone by about 9 years old. People my age have very few restrictions on what they can and cannot do, but for the most part understand the responsibility that gives them and rarely abuse that independence.
I’ve done some crazy things that I wouldn’t have even imagined doing a month and a half ago! I’ve been to Helsinki on the bus with a classmate I had barely met and spent the day walking around and going to art museums with her, and last weekend I even took the bus to Turku completely by myself (I even bought the tickets myself using only Finnish!!!) to spend a few days with my host cousins.