Promoting quality education for all.

Two Education Realities – One World

by Jill Christianson, 

by Jill Christianson, NEA

The contrast was exposed in all its nakedness.

School life at Mattliden School in Espoo, Finland and at Kayole North Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya could not be more different. Each setting includes dedicated teachers, education union members, who support students each day - yet they have very different preparation, education tools, and environments.

In the span of two weeks, on two separate assignments, I visited schools in Finland and Kenya with elected leaders of the National Education Association. Our mission with each was simple – to see the conditions of teaching and learning that impact the success of students. It was never set up as juxtaposition – yet in our quest for education quality in the United States and beyond our borders – it appeared.

Students at Mattliden School in FinlandAt the Mattliden School complex in Finland, children begin early childhood education as early as one; well over 90% of children in Finland participate in early childhood education (ECE). These five year olds (above) are bundled for ice skating as a part of their ECE day; each child is equipped with a shiny helmet to protect her/his magnificent brains and potential. Creative play is an integral part of learning. Finland has been globally recognized for its highly successful education system in which students begin formal schooling at the age of seven. As NEA President Lily Eskelsen García wrote of the visit, she had been to school heaven in Finland.

A teacher in a classroom at Kayole Primary SchoolAt Kayole Primary School, the 4th grade class has 97 students in it. A young teacher embarks on Kiswahili reading in a packed classroom with just one dog-eared book for each 4 students. The classroom is quiet out of respect and hunger. At Kayole, there is no free lunch. The head teacher has shared with NEA’s Executive Committee Member George Sheridan and I that there are many days that students skip school to forage for scrap metal to pay for food. Others children – who should be in school – sweat at a nearby quarry. Orphan children are the quickest to leave school. Many girls drop out due to pregnancies, sometimes with marriage as early as 12 years old. At Kayole Primary School, the electricity doesn’t function, though some school rooms are wired. There are latrines and a water tank provided by an NGO.

Older students at KayoleThe older girls of Kayole Primary School greet us with a song about their hope for the future, even in the face of wounds from civil conflict and militant attacks on schools, with the ever present threat of poverty, AIDS and Ebola. These girls have beaten the odds of staying in school and have seen their friends leave school for child labor, early marriage and motherhood.

Flex program imageAt Mattliden, the Flex Program entices students who, in their final years of basic education (at ages 16-18), are not thriving in the school environment. It offers couches and coffee, extra support with small group learning, excursions and opportunities to intern in various careers. Teachers, study counselors, and an adolescent psychologist all are a part of the team that nurtures these underperforming students.

In both Finland and Kenya, I met dedicated educators who all seek the very best futures for their students. The national education unions – Finland’s Oppetusalan Ammattijärestö and the Kenya National Union of Teachers - have an eye on quality. Like the National Education Association, these unions are part of Education International, the global union federation.

Together, our Unite for Quality Education efforts address quality teacher preparation, quality learning tools and quality learning environments. We care about the same issues and though we are very differently equipped, we understand the interdependent web of existence.

One world – two realities.

What is ahead? What will our governments decide about Education For All and the Sustainable Development Goals? The basic human right that undergirds all others is education. We have such a long ways to go and, yet, we are in this together.


Jill Christianson is a Senior Professional for International Relations with the National Education Association, where she works to advance quality public education. She coordinates a spectrum of NEA international activities related to policy, education union exchanges, human rights, and development. Jill’s passion for social justice and the transformative power of public education drive her work. Educators from around the world inspire her.

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