Resilience in Education: Reflections from Studying Abroad in New Zealand

by Ashley Lawrence, College of Education  /   Feb 12, 2020

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Asmaa Elsayed, PhD student in Global Studies in Education, led the College's first New Zealand study abroad experience.

Each College of Education at Illinois undergraduate student is eligible for a $500 study abroad scholarship the moment they arrive on campus. Education at Illinois prepares globally conscious citizens, teachers, administrators, researchers, and policymakers to confront global challenges and embrace the worldwide opportunities of our time.

Christchurch, New Zealand, has been the location of two catastrophic earthquakes during the 21st century: one in September 2010, and another in February 2011. Hundreds of people were killed, and thousands injured in the second earthquake. The city was more recently the scene of the deadly, hate-fueled mosque shooting in March 2019. Amid these tragedies, the world watched as students in New Zealand became a community force of resilience, taking leading roles in recovery efforts. Since the island country was thrust into the spotlight, many researchers and practitioners have traveled to New Zealand to study, adopt, and adapt the country’s successful methods of resilience for individuals and communities looking to rebuild and recover after wide-ranging disasters and challenges.

In summer 2019, Education at Illinois’ Office of International Programs partnered with the University of Canterbury to launch its first study abroad program in New Zealand. Under the guidance of Allison Witt, Director of International Programs at the College of Education and Billy O'Steen, Associate Professor at the College of Education, Health, and Human Development at University of Canterbury, Asmaa Elsayed, PhD student in Global Studies in Education, led the first New Zealand study abroad experience for Illinois students.

Following the earthquakes, New Zealand’s Education Review Office (ERO) identified four key themes for guiding schools in meeting the needs of students after trauma: keeping them safe, supporting their learning, supporting staff and families, and managing long-term anxiety. Schools throughout New Zealand embrace a comprehensive understanding of resilience—not limited to physical and mental health, but expanded to include spiritual and social wellbeing, too.

“During our trip, we observed how cultivating resilience for all students is an ongoing process that mandates the investment, support, and collaboration of all key players in students’ lives,” says Elsayed. “It was evident the New Zealand educational system had the explicit goal to prepare students with the knowledge, tools, strategies, and selfcare practices and habits needed to scaffold holistic wellbeing throughout the lifespan.”

“My PhD research is focused researching the agency and resiliency of people on the margins of society (those with one or multiple minoritized identities), all under the umbrella of human rights education,” says Elsayed. “The struggles and challenging the Kiwis faced to be able to gain and exercise their basic human rights required them to develop strong resiliency in the face all of that. This program aligned so well, because I saw on the ground the manifestations of this resiliency--not only in classrooms, but also through our conversations with local artists, NGOs, community organizations, even local organic farmers we visited. It expanded my definition of resiliency,” she says.

A Collective Approach for a Culture of Resilience

As Illinois students visited schools throughout New Zealand, Elsayed says the group noticed how school leadership’s efforts to cultivate resilience was not limited to students but was extended to teachers as well. Some schools utilized outside social services agencies to provide counseling for teachers to proactively address any mental health concerns. Other schools offered yoga and meditation sessions for teachers and relied on parent volunteers to ease the burden on teachers when needed. A principal of a school the group visited shared that he has an open-door policy so that teachers can have access to him to discuss concerns or issues they may be struggling with and encouraged them to utilize mental health days.

“During teachers’ tea and coffee break, we were invited to chat with them. They expressed how grateful they felt for the support of the school leadership. This seemed to create a reinforcing culture of collaboration and support,” says Elsayed.

David Leonard, graduate student in International Education and Leadership, was part of the Education at Illinois group that traveled to New Zealand. “Some studies have shown that up to 50 percent of students avoided symptoms of post-traumatic stress as a result of the calming actions of their teachers. An emotionally and mentally balanced teacher is vital to providing that same sense of wellbeing to students,” he says.

Practices to Promote Resilient Students

“The Maori people think of an individual’s overall health as a house. In this metaphor, the four walls are the four components of wellbeing: mental/emotional, spiritual, social, and physical,” says Micaela Malter, senior in Early Childhood Education. “A person needs all four aspects in order to have a strong, well-built house.”

Many of the schools the study abroad group visited use the Mana Aki (Maori language for ‘Stronger for Tomorrow’) approach to helping students cope with trauma, by collaborating with youth counselors and psychologists to teach the development of self through introspection, meditation, and yoga. During a classroom observation, a youth counselor joined the teacher at the beginning of class. Elsayed says students were guided, along with the Illinois group, in a mindful deep breathing exercise accompanied by few simple yoga positions to work on balance and awareness.

“It helped students rest, calm down, be more mindful of their bodies, and be able to regulate their emotions,” says Malter. “So when it was time to start class, students were more focused and engaged. And they could transfer these coping skills to other contexts outside the classroom.”

Throughout the schools the study abroad group visited, they saw posters from the ‘All Right?’ campaign, part of the Healthy Christchurch initiative. This campaign was launched in 2013 to help and support community recovery after the devastating earthquakes. As Malter noted, the campaign continues to “let students and teachers alike know they are not alone in what they are feeling and dealing with, and that it is all right not to feel all right.”

Physical wellbeing was one of the first and most apparent goals observed in the schools visited in New Zealand, says Elsayed. For example, schoolchildren were encouraged to ride bicycles and scooters to commute from home to school and back—one school bus was seen during the trip—incorporating exercise into students’ daily routine. Large, open green spaces for students to play sports and climb trees are part of the typical playground. Many of the schools visited allow their students, weather permitting, to eat outside sitting on the green playgrounds instead of inside cafeterias.

A Rich Learning Experience

The two weeks spent in New Zealand afforded the Illinois group countless opportunities for observation, and, perhaps more valuable, time to reflect upon and reimagine their own mission as professionals and educators.

“Seeing the many different out-of-the-box ways in which schools in New Zealand addressed and supported all students’ well-being was incredibly informative,” says Leonard, who is also a Student Success Instructor at Fayetteville Technical Community College. “Many of the lessons I learned, such as education that focuses on holistic well-being and integrating mindfulness and introspection into teaching, will be very useful in counseling new teachers who are having difficulty coping with change,” he says.

Elsayed agrees, saying the study abroad experience made an impression that won’t soon be forgotten.

“Just exploring the city of Christchurch, as well as traveling throughout New Zealand, we were amazed by the visible manifestations of resilience that we observed in schools, communities, local businesses, and non-profit organizations, and even in beautiful street art,” she says. “As a group of current and aspiring educators, this was a rich learning experience for all of us. The knowledge we gained and the skills we acquired will make us better educators of the next generation.”

Visit the College of Education’s Study Abroad website for details on all upcoming trips and opportunities.