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Focus on business English in Finland: the parky and peripatetic lives of two teachers

This month we´re bringing you a two-part feature on business English teaching in Finland, as seen through the eyes of two practitioners based in the Nordic country. Finland may not be renowned for its high concentration of business English training, but it is known as a country where education has a high priority and the teaching professional is highly respected.

In the first of this two-part feature, Claire Hart talks to Marise Lehto, who some of you may already have already come into contact with in the Twittersphere--she´s an active tweeter and PLN supporter--or on the conference circuit--she will be presenting two workshops at the IATEFL BESIG Annual Conference in Stuttgart this November. Marise is a New Zealander with her own company, Marise Lehto Associates, which provides English language teaching and business coaching. She is constantly seeking and developing ways to increase learner and teacher engagement and the efficacy of the corporate training and coaching she provides, and one of her special interests is action research and how it can be instrumental in that process. In this interview, Marise shares some insights into what inspires, guides and motivates her as a business English professional.

Marise Lehto

Marise Lehto founded ‘Marise Lehto Associates’ www.mla.fi in 2010 and is currently studying for an MSc Educational Management. Her research interests encompass:

  • developing sustainable learning models through a systemic thinking approach – models that are the foundation for a successful and adaptive learning culture
  • a social constructivist view of learning through an interactionist framework
  • post-method critical pedagogy and the implications for the second language classroom

She is driven by the desire to learn, question everything and challenge the status quo. Her learning philosophy is reflected – quite literally - in her company logo and she is a strong advocate for continuing professional development through the medium of action research.

CH: What is it like to be a business English teacher in Finland right now?

ML: It’s very exciting! Right now the profession is in a state of fast moving change and the demand for highly qualified TESOL teachers - not just to teach, but also to design highly specific courses - is growing. All our courses are designed around a 6-7 stage structured yet flexible learning cycle and we work closely with the key stakeholders to negotiate suitable learning outcomes for all. The learners themselves range from A1 right up to C1.

CH: And what about Finnish students´ motivation?

ML: Finns are highly agentive learners but sadly, I still see what Carl Rogers refers to as the ‘serious social consequences’ of transmission style teaching. This is where grammar acts as the focus of the course and rules are taught in a linear type syllabus.It’s been the predominant method here in Finland for many years –even today! However, over the last 6 years I’ve developed a methodology that has resulted in a much higher level of engagement in the learning process and the results are inspiring! There’s been a distinct improvement in their level of self-efficacy, motivation, self-confidence as well as social interaction. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that they have truly embraced a learner-centered approach - the foundation of my teaching and learning philosophy. A true partnership in all senses of the word. But it has taken time to establish trust and mutual respect and the learners must feel safe – it doesn’t happen overnight. Context and congruence are the all-important keys plus other factors e.g. my beliefs about learning and this is what drives me every day:

‘to be a true teacher, you must be a learner first. Indeed, a teacher’s own passion for learning inspires their students as much as their expertise does’

Peter Senge

Lead by nature not just by name! The payoff is huge and I’ve had the pleasure of watching my clients develop into confident and competent English speakers and communicators.

CH: What is it like to found and lead your own training and coaching company?

ML: This was, without a doubt, one of the best decisions I have ever made.It came about by a combination of events: the right time, right place and the right skills. I was also driven by a strong belief that the cutting edge knowledge I’ve gained through my MSc in Educational Management was very much needed in the corporate learning community. The fact that I’m a positive agent for delivering change is incredibly humbling and inspiring at the same time. To say this is ‘what I do’ just doesn’t seem to cover it – this is ‘who I am’ and I consider myself very lucky to share my beliefs about learning every day with incredible people who are really open to the process of learning!

All this gave me a solid base to build on with plenty of support from the local community, family and friends.Plus a healthy dose of kiwi style ‘can do’ attitude!

Our company strategy is very lean and there are several advantages to this. First, we can leverage what we own – in this case our expert knowledge and intellectual property. This results in real return on investment for the clients as there’s no middleman to deal with. Naturally there were challenges to face but never give up, never give up, never give up’! When you have a clear and realistic vision and you know you can make a difference in people’s lives, then it will all come together.

Also, the profession of ‘teacher’ is highly respected here in Finland. It means you’ve completed a 5 year Masters degree (mandatory to teach in public schools and universities). However, as we know, the so-called barriers to entry in the private language sector are virtually nonexistent - so having an MSc has really paid off. It’s no longer enough just to be a native speaker with a workshop certificate up your sleeve or a 4 week TEFL course. These are great starting points, of course, but clients want to see comparable and relevant qualifications for the teaching sector these days.I believe this is a good thing as it is moving us towards the ‘professionalisation’ of the TESOL sector that many envision and call for - and there are many amazing & inspiring leaders to learn from.

CH: What advice would you give to others who might be thinking about taking the same step?

ML: Interesting you should ask as I gave a presentation to a group of Finnish entrepreneurs recently and this is what I told them: do your homework, have a strong but flexible plan and make sure you have a good support network.

CH: How did you get into coaching and how does it differ from language training?


ML: I think we need to be very clear about where to draw the lines between these two. I make sure that I only offer coaching on what lies within my MSc Educational management, i.e. what I am qualified for, and I quite agree with those who state that you should only call yourself a coach if you are fully qualified. Otherwise it’s very disrespectful to those who are.

CH: I know that you also enjoy being part of a PLN or Personal Learning Network...

ML:: It all started with BESIG! I’ve met so many amazing people and have just started presenting and sharing the results of my action research projects: last year at the ESP conference in Ulm and this year I’ve got 2 talks at the BESIG Annual Conference in Stuttgart – I’m very excited! The benefits are many: an open all hours staffroom, insight, laughter and plenty of opportunities for learning!

CH: So, what tips would you give to other teachers who are interested in building up a PLN for themselves?

ML: One tip for face to face networking – have clear goals about who you want to meet and what you want to say. For example, last month I went to a conference where Leo van Lier gave a plenary. He has had a profound influence on my professional development and I wanted to thank him and talk about action research. I also attended a conference where I wanted to follow up on a presenter’s research so I made a point of introducing myself and initiating a discussion.