Bethel Ed.D. Student Brings Finnish Practices to Minnesota Classrooms

Principal Jeannie Mayer is always looking to improve her students' education. She’s eliminated homework across the elementary school. Her implementation of ENVoY classroom management techniques has reduced office referrals by 80%. And now she’s bringing principles of a Finnish education to her school, all in the name of serving students well.

By Cherie Suonvieri ’15, content specialist

February 05, 2020 | 1:30 p.m.

Jeannie Mayer in Finland

Jeannie Mayer (center) with Peter Johnson, the director of education in Kokkola, and Pertti Kuosmanen, the principal at the Hollihaka School in Kokkola, Finland.

Jeannie Mayer GS’20 is an elementary school principal, an adjunct professor, a student of the Ed.D. in K-12 Leadership program at Bethel, and a mother of seven children—and she’s known by her communities to serve in these roles with excellence. A self-described lifelong learner, she was the first in her family to attend college and always knew she wanted to take her education as far as possible. But it’s not just a love for learning that keeps her going. It’s her desire to provide the best possible environment for children to learn, too. 

Since 2003, Mayer has lived and worked in Menahga, a community in central Minnesota with a prominent Finnish presence. When she became principal of the elementary school in 2015, she received phone calls from community members who offered suggestions based on what they knew of the Finnish education system. Not long after, she learned of an opportunity to study in Finland through her doctorate program at Bethel.

“I knew that I had to go on this trip. I’m invested in and love the community that I work in, and I wanted to learn more,” she says. “I wanted to be able to answer three questions. What can we do in Menahga that Finland does? What can’t we do and why? And what are we already doing that people just don’t know about?”

Finland is consistently one of the highest performing countries when it comes to education, according to the Program for International Student Assessment, for which it has garnered attention from across the globe. The Bethel course Experiencing Global Education allows Ed.D. students to see the Finnish education system up close, in a variety of settings, through observation, interaction with students, and interviews with teachers and principals.

“In Finland, our students experience a consistent and constant opportunity to collaborate,” says Katie Bonawitz, assistant dean of the Center for Access and Integration and director of the M.A. in Special Education program. Bonawitz was a faculty leader on Mayer’s visit to Finland in 2018, and she’ll lead the upcoming 2020 trip as well. “When the kids go out to play, the teachers have a cup of coffee—coffee is very important in Finland—and they connect with their colleagues. That collaborative nature is evident in every Finnish school you walk into.”

Jeannie Mayer in Kokkola

Jeannie Mayer, Katie Bonawitz, and Kari Shultz, M.A. in Special Education student, in Kokkola, Finland.

Throughout Mayer’s time in Finland, there were many instances that reminded her of home. She remembers walking the halls of a school in Kokkola, Finland, and recognizing the names on the lockers as the same as some of her Menahga students with Finnish heritage. Upon her return, she brought back these smaller points of connection to share, along with some of the bigger concepts which she presented to the community. “I wanted my community to know that I was invested, so bringing back what I learned was important,” Mayer says. She had three key takeaways: the value of “looping,” the importance of breaks, and the effect of personalized learning. 

Looping means that students move from year to year with the same teacher. “Over in Finland, kids have the same teacher for grades 1-3 or 1-6, and I could see the benefits immediately,” Mayer says. Back in Menahga, Mayer had two teachers agree to move forward with their classes, and they’re presently in their second year. “The first day of school was like a family reunion. They were able to really just take off right away.”

Mayer has also implemented the practice of frequent breaks at Menahga. In Finland, some of the schools she visited had 15 minutes of break time after every 45 minutes of teaching. So Mayer asked her teachers to plan a 15 minute morning break for their classes which could be spent however the teachers choose. “Kids have the attention span of their age plus or minus two minutes,” she says. “So without those breaks, you’re going to lose engagement. During their morning break, they go outside or go for a walk and then come back and get right to work.”

Her last big takeaway was the vocational paths built in for students that might not necessarily be interested in attending a university. “I’ve spent most of my career in elementary, but the vocational and technical schools in Finland stuck out to me in a significant way,” she says “When kids turn 16 in Finland, they get to choose to either prepare for university by continuing with secondary school or to go to a vocational school for something else they're interested in. It was so motivating for those kids to be able to choose, and that’s what we need. We need for kids to have personalized learning in the area they want a career in.” 

"I believe God put me on this earth to make a difference in the lives of as many children as possible. My husband, my children, and my staff, and my students keep me going every day—but it’s really my faith that drives it.”

— Jeannie Mayer

In addition to presenting her findings to her community, Mayer has shared her experience in educational circles as well, and will present at a highly anticipated Finnish Education Forum hosted by Bethel on May 2, 2020. The forum will also welcome four presenters from the Kokkola area of Finland, including two teachers, a principal, and the regional director of education, who together with Minnesota education professionals will discuss what makes Finnish schools successful and how those practices can be implemented into Minnesota classrooms.  

To Mayer, the forum represents another opportunity to continue learning for the sake of her students. “She is an incredibly passionate educator,” Bonawitz says of Mayer. “Her desire to serve her students well came out in every single conversation she had in Finland.”

Jeannie Mayer

Jeannie Mayer teaching kindergarteners at Menahga Elementary.

As a principal, Mayer wasn’t able to put her job on hold, so even as she studied in the Finnish schools, she had daily responsibilities back home to tend to. She also kept a blog, which enabled her to share her stories with her community as they were happening. “The definition of dedication is Jeannie Mayer,” Bonawitz says. 

In addition to being a principal, a professor, a student, and a mother, Mayer serves as the legislative chair for the Minnesota Elementary School Principals’ Association (MESPA), and she’s been nominated to serve as the Minnesota National Distinguished Principal. Last fall, she was also featured on the October 30, 2019 episode of the MESPA PrincipalCast podcast where she shared more about her experience in Finland and the other practices she’s found successful at Menahga, including ENVoY.

Looking forward, Mayer feels like there may be some legislative work in her future, and she also hopes to author a book about allowing one’s faith to guide their leadership. For now though, she’s just certain that she wants to work with kids for as long as she can.

“I love education, and I love this field. When something new comes along that I need to do, I’m going to do it,” she says. “I always say, that I’m on a great big bus, and God’s driving. When God opens those doors and says, ‘Mayer, it’s time to get off,’ I’ll get off at that stop.”

Join the conversation on Finnish education.

Finland is internationally known for their leading innovations in classroom education and teaching principles. That's why we're hosting a Finnish Education Form, where education professionals from Finland and Minnesota will gather to discuss what makes Finnish schools successful and how key practices can be implemented in Minnesota classrooms.

Learn more