Education expert puts people first

Päivi Koivisto, Ph.D. (Educ.), is an excellent example of combining high-level education and a practical career. She currently works for the City of Jyväskylä as the head of services in the unit for steering and development of education and learning services. In her field, Koivisto most values the focus on people and the possibility to draw on the latest research.

Koivisto graduated as an early childhood education teacher in 1983 and worked in that role for about ten years. She felt that the field was right for her, but she was also tempted to further study educational theory. An opportunity presented itself in 1995 when master’s degree studies in early childhood education were established in Koivisto’s hometown of Jyväskylä.

“I was lucky enough to get accepted on the first try,” Koivisto remembers, “and I finished my master’s degree in a couple of years. In addition to the hands-on working life, I found the immersion in theory to be very rewarding, which later lead to my doctoral thesis.”

While studying early childhood education, her degree also included studies in developmental psychology, special education, and pre-primary education as well as the pedagogical studies for teachers. 

From part-time work to management

During her master’s studies, Koivisto worked part-time for the University, and after graduation she continued for a few years as a teacher and a researcher on a grant. When the position as the head of a day care centre opened up in Jyväskylä, Koivisto felt like she had to seize the opportunity. The years went by quickly as she worked full-time and completed her doctoral thesis. Koivisto received her doctorate in education in 2007.

“The most challenging times in my career and during my studies,” Koivisto says, “were when I was finishing my doctoral thesis because for several years I was working and doing research at the same time. Gathering the data and getting familiar with the theory was very interesting, but in the end you have to know how to finish the work.”

At the moment, Koivisto manages 25 experts in the city’s unit for steering and development of education and learning services. In addition to extensive professional knowledge of the field, the position requires above all else leadership skills and the ability to listen to and trust other experts.

She explains her position further: “It’s true that I’m a manager, but I see myself more as a supporter and as someone who walks by your side. If the need arises, I can also be someone pushing you forward or a person with a vision. We make the most of strong teamwork because by combining different types of know-how we can find completely new ideas compared to if we remained in our own comfort zones and focused only on our areas of expertise.” 

Academic background provides continuous support

Her relationship with the University of Jyväskylä has remained close. Because Koivisto works in the city administration, she sees the benefits for both Jyväskylä and the University. Without such cooperation, the coordination and development of the comprehensive school teaching and early childhood education would surely be more difficult.

“We receive continuous support and the latest research results from the University, which helps us see the crucial issues more clearly and to make well-informed choices,” Koivisto explains. “In return we offer insight into what type of research is needed in the field and ideas for fruitful research topics.”

Though a doctorate usually leads to an academic career, Koivisto followed a different path. Yet she still feels that a good education is just as important in the working life outside of universities.

“My postgraduate studies and doctoral thesis enhanced my ability to see things from multiple points of view and my ability to think analytically,” Koivisto explains. “This has been useful especially when coordinating and developing something as important as early childhood education and the education in comprehensive schools.”

Koivisto encourages students in education to combine theory and practice as much as possible during their studies. Even part-time positions provide more concrete observations of the connections between theory and practical work. In addition they strengthen the skills needed in your career.

“Education and teaching will always be relevant,” Koivisto says. “Currently, there is plenty of debate on what, for example, early childhood education means. Another current topic is finding the happy medium between learning and digitalization.”

She continues: “When it comes to how learning is best facilitated, I doubt there will ever be a clear answer. However, it interests me to see how the debate, research, and practical educational work and teaching will develop.” 

Text and photograph: Birgitta Kemppainen