Cultivating student resilience

Global Teacher Prize winner Maggie MacDonnell explains how she encourages her students to use physical exercise to build their self-esteem and resilience.

Growing up in the rural Canadian Province of Nova Scotia, Maggie MacDonnell used physical education to better engage with school and build resilience in herself. Now, as an educator, she encourages her students to use movement, exercise and recreation to improve their self-esteem and contribute to their community in a positive way.

MacDonnell won the 2017 Global Teacher Prize, receiving US $1 million in prize money for her outstanding contribution to the teaching profession. She has spent the last seven years working in a fly-in Inuit village in Salluit. The school, in a location in the Canadian arctic which cannot be reached by road and where winter temperatures are -25 degrees Celsius, experiences teacher shortages and the community faces many significant challenges.

‘The language that we use is intergenerational trauma and I work in a context where kids have been affected by decades of colonisation that have happened,’ MacDonnell explains. Community issues include alcohol abuse and addictions, underfunding, and food insecurity.

But through MacDonnell’s work at the school and the community development approach she takes, building relationships and interpersonal skills, her students are starting to see themselves as agents of change. ‘… I want them to see themselves as solutions and not problems … I want them to be masters or the authors of their own destinies.’

She has developed a Life Skills program specifically for girls, which encourages them to pursue projects of interest, like cookery and mechanics. They also use these skills to take part in the Students Feeding Students program where every day, students prepare a healthy meal for the entire school body. To allow her students to gain professional experiences, MacDonnell partnered with the local day care centre.

In the classroom, MacDonnell focuses on art-based projects as a form of therapy. She has also set up a fitness centre at the school which has become a hub for students looking for a positive outlet, as well as a running club. She has found that physical activity is a fantastic way for her students to cultivate resilience. ‘We live in a context where there’s a youth suicide crisis, that’s how dramatic the mental health issues are.’ And, while she would never say that physical activity is going to ‘cure’ these issues, MacDonnell says at the very least, it gives her students tools they can use and develop with their own hands.

She has been using her prize money to help her students to reconnect with their culture in a meaningful way, including conducting a two-week kayak training program. At one point, a young female student was paddling when she was asked, ‘what does it feel like to paddle?’ Her response was, ‘I feel like I’m with my ancestors’. ‘And I’m like, gosh that moment is worth $1 million right there,’ MacDonnell reflects.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Teacher magazine and has been reproduced with the permission of the Australian Council for Educational Research. To read the full article and to read more articles like this visit www.teachermagazine.com.au