Reflections of a mentor

IEU journalist Emily Campbell spoke to member Ken Murtagh OAM about the importance of school students having balanced lives and getting involved in extracurricular activities.

For almost 50 years, Murtagh has taught generations of youth at local high schools in Maryborough, part of Queensland’s Wide Bay region.

In June, Murtagh was named a recipient of the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours list for his tireless dedication to education and mentorship – one which has been focused on supporting students to take on extracurricular activities in order to facilitate their learning and development.

Importance of extracurricular involvement

Murtagh understands not all students thrive in an academic setting and that their involvement in sport, volunteering and other pursuits outside the classroom can lead to improved behaviour, self-esteem and learning outcomes.

To help facilitate this for his students, he has always been heavily involved in extracurricular activities and is a long-time organiser of the sports program at St Mary’s College.

“After working at St Mary’s for a couple of years, I ended up taking over these responsibilities from another teacher and running the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award program,” Murtagh explained.

The Duke of Edinburgh (DOE) scheme is an international youth development program open to those aged between 14 and 24.

“The Duke of Edinburgh founded the program in 1956, in response to a number of kids in the UK living in tenement blocks forming gangs and delinquency.

“Prince Philip wanted to get the children involved in something constructive, give them some direction, help increase their self-esteem and get them to achieve something positive,” Murtagh said.

Murtagh said as part of the program, participants must step outside their comfort zone and complete character-building challenges to achieve a DOE award.

“They have to complete activities such as an expedition, where they go hiking outdoors and community service, like volunteering at a charity,” he said.

“The students also get to learn a new skill over a period of time and show their commitment to it, and they’ve got to do some physical recreation, whether that be organised sport or something else.”

Participants first receive the bronze award and as they accumulate more hours, they progress to silver then eventually a gold award.

“Anyone who gets involved, especially those who end up achieving a gold award, if they hand that in along with a resume, people will recognise them as a self-motivated young person,” Murtagh said.

“It’s a way for students who aren’t necessarily motivated in school or doing well academically to excel and increase their self-esteem.

“Getting those students back in the classroom when you return from camps, they treat you totally differently, because they’ve now experienced you outside a classroom context and they’ve succeeded out there, so your relationship improves.

Volunteering builds character

According to Murtagh, the DOE program has a positive impact on students and especially benefits those with behavioural challenges and other difficulties.

“There are instances where I’ve been advised not to take particular students on the DOE camps due to behavioural issues, but I say ‘no, I’ve never banned a student in all the 34 years I’ve been involved’. Usually they’re having such a great time they don’t think to act inappropriately or misbehave.

Murtagh’s views are consistent with research into out-of-school activities and their effects on students, which finds such pursuits are highly beneficial.

Participation in extracurricular activities is shown to develop leadership skills and teamwork abilities, improve social skills and decrease the instances of substance abuse and behavioural problems in students (Metsäpelto & Pulkkinen, 2014).

Teacher’s encouragement essential

Murtagh says one of the best things beginning educators can do is to get involved and support students’ involvement in extracurricular activities.

“Once you get a rapport with the students, the teaching component of your work becomes so much easier,” he said.

“For many students, what they do outside the classroom is just as important, if not more so than how they go in class, because they learn resilience and practical life skills to set them up for the future.

Metsäpelto, Riitta-Leena & Pulkkinen, Lea. (2014). The benefits of extracurricular activities for socioemotional behaviour and school achievement in middle childhood: An overview of the research. Journal of Educational Research Online. 6. 10-33.
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[Accessed 2020 Jul. 2AD]