The number of special needs children in the Finnish school system has doubled over the last 20 years. Combined with a drive to wind down separate special needs groups in favour of integrated classrooms, this means that teachers are often hard pressed to meet the needs of all their pupils.
In addition to general instruction, comprehensive education in Finland has two other categories of education – enhanced support and special needs education, both designed for pupils that might need more help. In a system that prides itself on its inclusivity, all schoolchildren are taught together in the same classroom, whenever possible.
Over 43,000 pupils in Finland's comprehensive school system were considered to have special needs in 2017, along with more 54,000 more needing the less-comprehensive version of assistance known as enhanced support. In primary schools, every fifth child was the recipient of special needs or enhanced support instruction.
Special needs kids can have learning disabilities, problems regulating their emotions or mental health problems. Others may struggle with ADHD, autism or a disability, for example.
Most of these children are integrated into regular classrooms in Finland these days, as the teachers say entry into special programmes has become more difficult and considerably more bureaucratic.
"I've got pupils that I know would be better off in a classroom devoted to special needs, but because I know that there is queue to get in and I am familiar with other children who have been turned away from the programme in the same age group, I know that they won't get in," one Helsinki teacher says.
Teachers find it impossible meet all of the pupils' needs
While the idea of a shared classroom that meets all of the kids' needs is a great in principle, it creates a highly stressful work environment for classroom teachers, most of whom work alone with a class size of up to 25 pupils for the majority of the school day.
Although Finnish schools have special teachers and assistants to help pupils who are in need of assistance, these members of the school's staff are usually spread thin, with only a few hours of time each week to help teachers in the classroom.
Jyväskylä classroom teacher Heikki Jyväsjärvi said he feels perpetually inadequate in his work.
"The children have so many enhanced support requirements or special needs that there is no way one person, or even two or three, could meet them. If I'm alone in the classroom, I really don't feel that I am doing enough to meet the support needs of all the kids," he said.
Teachers from three cities in Finland, Helsinki, Jyväskylä and Tampere, reported similar feelings. Most said they encountered challenging situations daily in their classroom setting.
"Some days, the lion's share of the day is devoted to just calming the classroom down," one Helsinki teacher stated. "I teach three pupils and the other 25 work independently."
"This profession is very demanding these days, and fleeting moments of success are hard to come by," Jyväsjärvi said.
Union concerned about teacher wellbeing
The chair of Finland's OAJ teachers' union, Olli Luukkainen, is concerned about how teachers are coping with the additional work and stress. He says the situation in this regard has never been this bad.
"They feel as if they are not enough, and even if they were enough, they can't provide the special needs support that is guaranteed by law in their classroom. Teachers also perceive a sense of injustice on behalf of the children when they don't get the help they need," he said.
The teachers interviewed are also worried about burnout.
"Well, I am a very tired teacher. I believe that the process of winding down special needs classrooms was a mistake. Small groups for some of the pupils to have access to separate instruction would be a sensible solution," said one teacher, who says that 10 of her 21 students need either enhanced support or special needs instruction.
Union leader Luukkainen says that small group teaching and special needs classrooms have been discontinued in many schools in Finland in the name of inclusivity, but in reality, they have been cut for cost-saving reasons.
"We've gone too far in our zeal to end small group instruction. We definitely need it back," he said.
Inclusivity is really just a reason to save
Decisions to end designated classrooms for children with special needs and integrate the kids into regular classrooms shouldn't mean that they lose extra support. In cases like this, special needs teachers should accompany the children during instruction for at least part of the time.
The cessation of special needs classrooms was intended to have been followed by an increase in special needs teacher resources in the Finnish school system, but both Luukkainen and the interviewed teachers say that this has not been the case.
"I've never seen teacher resources increased. On the contrary, we have to fight tooth and nail for everything. Our current special needs teacher resources do not meet the demands of today's student populations in any way," Jyväsjärvi said.