My enriching experience in a Finnish Residential School

My name is Daniela Vázquez Sánchez, I am volunteering in the Sippolankoulukoti in Finland. This Residential School comprises about 50 staff taking care of 20 to 25 youngsters between 12 and 19 years old. The reasons why these youngsters live and/or study here range from mental, psychological to family problems related to sex abuse, drugs, alcoholism.

Sippola is a very little town/village located in the region of Kymenlaakso; buses are the only public transport and they are far from good because there are only two from Sippola to the nearest cities, one from the nearest cities to Sippola. This is useful for the school in order to avoid having the youngsters escape; though of course some of them still find ways of doing it.

My time at school is divided into 4 classes: 2 in the Main Building, 1 in a separate building, and 1 in the Special Care Unit, where I have spent most of my time and found to be really interesting. I have been supporting teaching English and Spanish lessons. I also led some art lessons by teaching Mexican art and cooking lessons by cooking Mexican food. I participate in the music and sports lessons, and help staff to maintain the rules of the unit, e.g. cleaning the kitchen, giving the children tools to clean the house, talking to them about all kinds of stuff… so I follow the rules and give them an example to follow.

We went swimming in the lake many times, playing badminton and exercising at the gym. There, I could experience the informal and non-formal education, while spending time with them, building a family atmosphere for and with them, talking about their problems and evaluating their tasks in order to solve them.

During summer, I still worked in that unit, doing all the home activities already mentioned, as well as cooking and of course eating with them. We went swimming in the lake many times, playing badminton and exercising at the gym. There, I could experience the informal and non-formal education, while spending time with them, building a family atmosphere for and with them, talking about their problems and evaluating their tasks in order to solve them. They have a system with written daily and weekly tasks to be discussed later during a group discussion (twice a week with lots of candies and chocolates). The aim is to treat them well, to respect their thoughts and feelings and of course to guide them according to their beliefs or wishes.

Nowadays I support 4 different classes, as I have organized my own schedule. I organized, for instance, some Spanish lessons for the only boy who wants to learn it; my mentor provided me 4 old books for Finnish people who want to learn Spanish, so I adapted the best pages I found from them and combined them with my own material. This way, I got to make a tiny syllabus to follow, and each day I wrote down the most notable progress. I have the same system for the English lessons. But for this, I use more conversation tasks. I try to make both lessons lively; I always start by saying something about me and then asking about them. I show them pictures of my hometown in Mexico, I tell them funny stories about the cultural differences I have found between Finland, Mexico and other countries I have lived in, and suddenly, they don’t notice how interested they can be in knowing about the countries’ location, or how the food looks like, and then we start some questions on cards I have already prepared.

For Arts and Home Economics lessons, I have had the chance to first show them how Art and Cuisine is in Mexico, and then we start creating our own things inspired by this Aztec, Mayan or Nahuatl influences I have. They do follow my plan, yes, because they know I support the teacher, but I also let them tell me anything they would like to have for the class. We discuss the activities they like and I give them a little feedback to improve. Teachers here do the same, and I feel proud about the fact that it is something I’ve been doing for many years already with my students in Mexico. I like how the Finnish system for Residential school works, and I like how non-formal education works no matter whether it is in Mexico or Finland; my Mexican students liked that I try to give real attention to their learning, not only to follow the syllabus. I try to make them more confident with their learning, and to cooperate with each other, which makes things easier in a large group. For that, I make smaller groups and instruct them to support each other over one month. The next month they have to work with and support another set of people I choose. It is a structure that helps them learn from different personalities.

And opposite to what some people may think, I never get bored during my free time in Finland! Staff is super kind and nice to me! They always help me when I need them, and some of them have become my friends. It has been great to have a support person in Helsinki, a support family in one of the nearest bigger towns, and one in Sippola. They are always for me to cook together, have dinner, go swimming to the lake, take me with them to their celebrations or events with family and friends, and even to pick me up somewhere and give me a lift to my home.

I dare to say my volunteering in Finland has been very enriching in many ways. It has been a very personal process that I needed before coming here.

I dare to say my volunteering in Finland has been very enriching in many ways. It has been a very personal process that I needed before coming here. I had worked as a teacher for 5 years in Mexico, and I felt kind of exhausted with all the hard work with little children and adults. This was my chance to prove to myself I can actually work well with what I consider the most difficult age group of students: teenagers. It is not the first time I am working with non-formal and informal methods, but it is something not well embraced in Mexico yet. Now I am sad to be leaving Finland soon, but happy and excited at the same time, of coming back to continue bridging this gap between formal and non-formal education.

The article has been published in the 41th issue of the World Experience (2016).