Teacher brings Finnish focus to Prospect Elementary

Ringvall brings experience to globalized third-grade curriculum

by Saja Hindi

There were several reasons Leena Ringvall came back to the United States for a second teaching term. She hoped to obtain more data for her doctorate, immersing herself back into a culture she was familiar with, combined with her desire to find out if cultural differences are superficial or have a deeper meaning.

But she was blown away by one thing both times she was here: the Southern hospitality.

GSN at Prospect Elementary

The Finnish native, one of 28 international teachers in the Union County Public school system, currently teaches a class of 18 third grade students at Prospect Elementary.

“[Coming back to the U.S.] has been very, very positive,” Ringvall said. “I feel like I am very lucky to be at the school where I am. Teaching at my school is out of this world. I’ve never experienced such welcoming people.”

Janine Bankston, principal of Prospect Elementary, said the school has hosted international teachers during her 9-year tenure. But this is the first time the school is incorporating the Global Schools Network program into their curriculum, instead of just teaching about other countries in
isolation.

“The teachers attend staff development, and actually, as principals, we attend staff development,” Bankston said. “The teachers are working together in third grade to integrate Finland and that particular diversity in our curricula.”

Ringvall leads the other teachers in learning about Finland, Bankston said, and those lessons help in  working with students, such as the upcoming Winter Wonderland in Finland
project.

“Our hopes are that we can add another teacher next year in another grade level, so we can add that cultural identity of different cultures in every grade level,” Bankston said.

Ringvall’s experience

Born and raised in Finland, Ringvall has a master’s degree in education and has been teaching since 2001. She taught in Ireland before her first stint in America, working in Georgia and Virginia. After the economy began to fall and funding for international teachers grew short, she accepted a job in Malaysia and taught there for two years before returning to the United States and began teaching at Prospect Elementary.

Now Ringvall is working on her Ph.D. online in Finland, comparing the educational systems of Finland and the United States at the University of Turku. Finland’s educational system is free and ranks among the highest in the world, falling only slightly in some areas last year to China.

Her plan is then to teach at a university, though she said she is not partial to location.

“It’s a lot of work, but after Malaysia, I made myself a promise that I won’t get stressed out this year, which has worked excellent so far,” she said.

But Ringvall hasn’t always known she wanted to go into education.

“After high school, I worked a lot in different places. I actually took a year off and went for some traveling and spent six months in Ireland,” she said. “The educational system is wonderful in letting you figure out what you want to do.”

After leaving high school, Ringvall had the mentality of many graduates, wanting to change the world and make it a better place. And though she said “the reality kicks in after the years go by,” she knows she’s now doing what she was meant to do.

Cultural Differences

Cultural differences between Finland and the U.S. exist, according to Ringvall, but what hit her the hardest was the cultural differences between those two countries and Malaysia.

When she was in Malaysia, she taught at a start-up school, founded by a Chinese businessman who Ringvall said had no educational experience whatsoever.

“Having to go through so much trouble and hardships over there, especially with the extreme cultural differences, I’m really glad to be at the school where I am now, with wonderful children with great senses of humor, and everybody’s just appreciative of what you do,” she said.

The differences Ringvall talks about were apparent to her daily, especially, she said, because of her very Scandinavian appearance of long, blonde hair and blue eyes.

“Asian countries are just different. There is no such thing as personal space or asking a personal question,” Ringvall said. “Traffic was a daily chaos [in Malaysia], so I would take a cab to work. So, the regular conversation would be like, ‘hi. Where are you from? Do you work or student? How much money do you make?’ And [I’d think], ‘it’s none of your business,’” she said.

She said it was very different living in a developing country, working in an educational system that is so far behind.

“I’d have people pulling my hair on the street to see if it’s actually my real hair or a wig or people taking pictures of me just because I had blonde hair and blue eyes,” she said.

The main difference between Finland and the U.S. for Ringvall though is the small talk.

“We don’t do small talk in Finland,” Ringvall said. “And if anyone talks loudly, it’s like ‘Ooh, why is that person making a big deal of themselves?’ But here, it’s very normal.”

Ringvall hopes to keep expanding her experiences in America and other places and hopes to stay with Prospect Elementary after this year.

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