Good teachers know how to be present and compassionate

Anu Lahtinen is the first woman to serve in a professorship in Finnish and Nordic history at the University of Helsinki.

Anu Lahtinen is Associate Professor of Finnish and Nordic History, a non-fiction author, and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Historiallinen Aikakauskirja (‘Historical Journal’) established in 1903. At the University, she is responsible for the management of research and teaching in the history of Finland and the Nordic countries. Her particular focus is on the period when Finland was under Sweden’s rule, that is, until 1808. 

Above all, Lahtinen has conducted qualitative research in social history – the history of women, families, everyday life and education.

“I think it’s always important to reinterpret history and introduce new perspectives and agents,” Lahtinen says. “You must turn your gaze to what is forgotten, reinterpret things, describe different paths of life that were possible in the past.” 

Had Lahtinen not written biographies of historical women, such as Ebba Stenbock, we would know less about women’s lives in centuries past. 

As the editor-in-chief of Historiallinen Aikakauskirja, Lahtinen nurtures and renews the legacy of Finnish-language scholarly writing and publishing. 

Encounters, presence and discussion are important in teaching

As a junior teacher, Lahtinen found familiarising herself sufficiently with the subject matter enough of a struggle, while ambitiously trying to develop small-group teaching and alternative completion methods. 

“I’ve gradually concluded that you only have time for a limited number of things in one course and one academic year. Only a handful of matters can be reformed in individual courses at a time, or a single course at a time in study modules.” 

Teaching has also changed: as a researcher, Lahtinen held thematic courses, whereas currently she is primarily a supervisor in a master’s thesis and research seminar. In contrast, she has been giving and developing an introductory course for years to get a sense of students’ skills at different levels.

“I think that accumulating life experience has increased my capacity for compassion and being there. You start to see, increasingly clearly, that the most important thing is to support students on their path to their futures,” Lahtinen says.

According to Lahtinen, experience engenders more patience to wait, listen and ask, ‘Well, what do you think?’ 

“These days, the goal is to try to listen and ask questions so that students can contemplate matters and speak for themselves about their situation. That way, it is often the students who identify the solutions as well.”

While Lahtinen has also completed all available studies in higher education, she believes that the most important aspect of developing as a teacher is interaction with students and other teachers exchanging  ideas on teaching.

The link between research and teaching is evident in all work

Research and teaching go hand in hand, which is evident in everything: topics, guidance, supervision, and teaching. 

“I think that university teachers are scholars who serve as examples of how to be an expert. It takes place in the lecture room, where data and methods are discussed, and in small groups, as well as in guidance discussions, hallway conversations and emails.”

Teachers communicate in real time what science and research are. Studies, supervision and guidance are always based on the discipline, which can be oriented towards a specific profession, or have as its basis a generalist approach reaching into many fields, as history often does. 

“As members of the University community, we are all colleagues, and I address students too as junior colleagues, whenever the opportunity arises. More senior colleagues have more knowledge and responsibility, but we are in the same continuum of accumulating skills and knowledge.” 

The University community is obliged to support its members

According to Lahtinen, everything is founded on the notion that the University community strives to support its members, both students and staff. 

“That’s why I strive to create an atmosphere that is as positive as possible, where everyone has the courage to voice their experiences and questions, and where people receive positive attention. That always requires effort.” 

Anu Lahtinen tries to share her personal challenges or mistakes for her audience to understand that there is no need for perfection, and that you can learn from mistakes. 

“I often quote author Kersti Bergroth: ‘All people fail nine times out of ten, they just don’t tell anyone’.”

During the pandemic, Lahtinen regularly carried out small-scale Zoom surveys to ask students how they were doing, trying to establish discussion and pay attention to different individuals over the silence online. She received praise for considering wellbeing alongside knowledge, and for scaling courses appropriately. 

“In fact, I think it’s important to make the workloads of both teachers and students sensible and to make room for unhurried encounters and unexpected situations.” 

Presence and encounters are the key to future university education 

In the future, as in the present, encountering, seeing and hearing people are the most important things. In the pandemic period, all kinds of digital crutches for communication were invented, but it nevertheless was difficult to transfer tacit knowledge and exemplify being an expert. 

“Of course, I utilise all kinds of technical solutions and flexibility in teaching and research, but the means, such as technology, must not become the end. Examining things from the perspective of hundreds of years as a historian, it seems essential to remember that human needs ultimately do not change.”

Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University, has shared 20 lessons on fighting tyranny. One of them is “Make eye contact and small talk.”

“As a supervisor and teacher, it would be important to convey that I see you and I hear you. I hope that, in the future, teaching will constitute diverse discussion. Technical solutions come and go, and hopefully also function as intended from time to time.”

Ultimately, encounters between people, and being there in person, are the most important thing we have.

Anu Lahtinen was appointed as a member of the Teachers’ Academy in late 2022. 

Students have recognised Lahtinen’s teaching and supervision skills: in 2021 she received both the University of Helsinki Student Union’s Supervisor of the Year award and the Kronos association’s Teacher of the Year award. She uses innovative teaching methods, including a wide variety of teaching solutions, based on searching for and actively constructing knowledge. She takes into account students’ individual needs. Her diverse learning material is used both in Finland and abroad. 


The Teachers’ Academy

The Teachers' Academy is a network of teachers who have invested their time in the development of teaching, teaching skills and students' learning processes. 

The establishment of the Academy is an indication of the value the university community places on the quality of teaching.  By investing in teachers, the University also invests in students and the quality of learning.  An appointment as a fellow to the Teachers’ Academy is a sign of recognition for teaching merits and expertise in the field of teaching.

The members of the Teachers' Academy form a multidisciplinary network that shares its expertise and is active in the development of learning and teaching at the university. 

The members of the Teachers' Academy meet regularly during the academic year to share their pedagogical innovations, learn about ideas for improving teaching and learning in different departments, and work together to promote issues they consider important.