“Write in capital letters that the decision to complete my studies was the wisest one of my life!” As a class teacher student lacking only his master’s thesis, Antti Niskanen was recruited to the Teacher Training School for a six-month dream job as a substitute teacher. In autumn, when the last painting was finally hanging on the wall of his new home at Vellamonkatu, Antti received a phone call from Jarno Hiilloskorpi from the Seinäjoki City Theatre, who offered him an actor apprenticeship. “Monday had been my first workday at the Teacher Training School, and I was really enthusiastic,” Niskanen explains. “On Tuesday, I knocked on Principal Kari Katainen’s door and resigned. On Friday, I moved to Seinäjoki.” The year was 1993, and Niskanen had just changed the course of his life.

At the time of the upper secondary school, Niskanen had two dream occupations in mind: actor and teacher. “After upper secondary school, I worked as a school assistant at Minna Canth School in Kuopio. I was interested in languages, but one teacher pointed me towards the Department of Teacher Education. I applied and was admitted there, and so my teacher studies began in Jyväskylä.”

Acting remained part of Niskanen’s activities throughout his study years, as he worked as an extra in the local city theatre, taking part in, for example, the legendary musical Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven.”

“I had a really nice time in class teacher education and in Jyväskylä. There wasn’t much academic freedom in the department, but my social life was rich and intensive. It was no longer about pouring knowledge into children’s or students’ heads. Learning took place in interaction, by discussing and pondering things together.”

Niskanen draws on this way of thinking still today: It has been a good guide for all activities both at work and in his private life.

Niskanen moved back to Jyväskylä when he got a job in Jyväskylä City Theatre in 1997. The lack of a master’s thesis, however, kept bothering this conscientious man. Finally, he completed the thesis and the master’s degree alongside his full-time job as an actor in 2005. When the double-shift workday at the theatre started to take its toll, Niskanen applied to the city’s job rotation system and went to Huhtasuo School to work there as a class teacher for a couple of years.

“Fortunately, I had the required qualification and studies completed. The job rotation would not have been possible otherwise.”

“In my current job as an audience relations coordinator at the City Theatre, the university studies and pedagogical thinking have been of great use,” Niskanen says. “For example, we have an immersive theatre adventure involving children, which has been performed more than 300 times for almost a decade now. Currently, all primary school year-two pupils participate in the programme, which means almost 70 pupil groups annually.

“Audience relations work enhances the theatre’s societal role, and it is already an established activity. It includes introductions given by an expert, projects, and events. Along with these, the theatre wants to enhance collaboration with the University as well. For a long time now, we have had annual collaboration with students studying to be class teachers, special education teachers, and music teachers: A theatre performance serves as an experiential platform for dealing with various phenomena in workshops led by teacher students. Working supports multiliteracy and participatory learning, and the activities have been developed in close cooperation with people from the university. This year we have extended the cooperation to Student Life as well. Peer supervisors and students watch a theatre performance, after which they deal with the thoughts and feelings in various workshops.”

At present, Niskanen divides his working time between two positions. Half of his working time is spent at the theatre, while for the other half he works as a commissioner of the Finnish Cultural Foundation for the regions of Central Finland and North Savo.

“The foundation gives grants for arts and science,” Niskanen explains. “I keep an eye on the academic world through my wife’s work at the university and, above all, through the foundation’s grant activities. The foundation can also carry out projects of its own: In Central Finland we just recently had a project called Tartu tarinaan (Grab Hold of a Story), the main goal of which was to help children and their families in Central Finland discover the joy of reading. The project was targeted particularly at children under school age. The project was carried out by the Niilo Mäki Institute, the Summer University of Jyväskylä, and the local district of the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare.”

Working in arts, following academia, and the activities for the Cultural Foundation support each other. “Creative thinking is vital,” Niskanen says. “It is particularly interesting when science and art are working in creative mutual interaction – like in the scientific-artistic work Vähin äänin (Silently), which was funded partly by the foundation for Central Finland and dealt with the biodiversity crisis. I am happy that I have also been a member of the university’s advisory board for societal interaction. It has given me an excellent vantage point on the University of Jyväskylä and on lifelong learning, for instance.”

“The world is changing and we have big challenges to overcome, but by learning new things, examining our attitudes, and adopting new ways and habits we can make progress with the issues we face.”

For Niskanen, creativity means freedom of thinking. It refers to the possibility to influence things by solving problems in unusual and insightful ways. Sometimes creativity is about improvisation and border crossing. It is also about stopping oneself and having the patience to give time for things, “creative idleness”. Big changes are not always needed, as sometimes the good in the things we observe can be surprisingly powerful. Small fixes can refresh and improve what we do.

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