Michael Willems – Well-Being and Engagement in Distance Learning

Some footage used in this video was filmed prior to the pandemic and may not depict social distancing measures.

Transcription – Michael Willems- 2021 Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence

[Photo, with voice over. Photo: A teacher in a classroom putting a ballot into an Elections Canada voting box. Music playing.]

"I really love getting to just sit down and think how can I make this as exciting and engaging as possible?"

[Fade to white with a medium shot of man, smiling, on the right side of the screen, with the following words appearing, line by line, on the left: Michael Willems, Palliser Beyond Borders, Coaldale, Alberta. Cut to close-up of Michael in the interview setting. Music playing.]

"I would say that the number one factor contributing to a student's success is a teacher that looks at everything through a lens of compassion and empathy. If you look at it through that lens everything changes. Assessment through compassion and empathy views the whole child. And it asks exactly what a child needs and nothing more. And discipline from the lens of compassion and empathy asks questions first before making any quick judgments. And even engagement through compassion and empathy asks what would the student want to learn? And how they want to learn it. So everything is just more about understand the child, and it creates a better environment for everyone."

[Fade to black and then up to Michael in the interview setting.]

"The teaching practice that I'm most proud of is approaching everything through project-based learning. I only discovered this a few years ago, and yet it's completely changed my education practice."

[Cut to a photo with voice over. Photo: Michael in front of the classroom teaching.]

"If we allow students to take the lead, if we allow them to be their own researchers and move at their pace absolutely everything about education becomes more effective."

[Cut to Michael in the interview setting.]

"I definitely think technology is crucial. And I think it's crucial now more than ever that we empower students to utilize technology as a useful tool instead of something that just takes advantage of them. Not to mention technology from the perspective of the teacher opens up so many doors. It allows for collaboration with peers both local and international. And it opens up a whole host of amazing resources. It gives you better access to differentiated content. And it even allows you to bring in experts and guests that you would never previously had access to".

[Fade to black and then up to Michael in the interview setting.]

"A perfect space for students would be a very natural environment. Close to a strong community that also has access to the internet at their fingertips. So somewhere in the middle of a village, in the middle of a forest, but also with a high speed internet device. Because I think that we need that connection to the real world. I think we start to lose who we are as humans if we don't have that. And we also need connection to a real life community. If we want learning to happen past the hours of 8:00 to 3:00 students need to connect with their real world communities, and feel like they have people they can reach out to there. And then of course access to the internet for the infinite amount of resources that are there."

[Fade to black and then to a photo with voice over. Photos: Michael standing behind a desk looking at a diorama; Michael standing in front of a black background performing.]

"This career requires a great deal of your head, and your heart. So I would say set boundaries early and stick to them. You can't help anyone if you've pushed yourself past your own limit. And then the second piece of advice is connection over curriculum every day.

[Cut to Michael in the interview setting.]

"You're going to have a much better classroom environment. And you're going to have a more effective teaching if you focus on connection over curriculum."

[Fade to black and then up to Michael in the interview setting.]

"Please do it. Please nominate someone for the Prime Minister's Award. Teaching can be an often thankless job. Especially in the middle of a global pandemic. And it can also be a really isolating job. So it's a great way to be able to affirm your staff and really help people feel seen.

[Music ends. Fade to black, with the Government of Canada FIP and then the Canada Wordmark appearing in white.]

Year: 2021 — Province: Alberta
Certificate of Excellence Recipient

Palliser Beyond Borders
Grades 6 and 7 - generalist
Coaldale, Alberta


“Michael’s teaching practice is a collaborative relationship between curriculum, technology, students, teachers and colleagues, parents, programs designed to support life-long learning, and student success. He was an integral part of creating community and empowering students in his brick and mortar classroom, and he is now leading student success in the Live Online program at Palliser Beyond Borders. Michael’s resourcefulness and passion for new ideas is eclipsed only by his desire to see students grow in their confidence and competency.”


Teaching Approach

Hands-on learning is an essential focus of Michael’s pedagogical approach. The majority of his instruction happens in the framework of Project Based Learning, where students are introduced to an essential question, develop their independent research skills, and address and solve problems, ultimately applying curiosity and critical thinking to large collaborative projects. Michael finds creative ways to have students engage with the content virtually, as well as challenges them to discover connections in their own communities. He motivates students to become self-directed and confident learners, and helps them develop inventive thinking skills, communications and social skills, as well as digital capabilities.

In the Classroom

In the classroom, Michael’s teaching practice is based on collaboration as the key for student success. As part of his regular instruction, students engage in collaborative notetaking through Google Docs and interactive tools including Padlet – a digital canvas that allows students to share content and work together. They build off each other’s understanding of the material, adding comments to each other’s posts, including pictures and gifs as well as any other theme material they can find online. These collaborative notes serve as a powerful and lasting record of student engagement.

Once Michael made the switch to online teaching, he recognized the need for students to be able to carve out their own space and create a learning environment and identity that they felt safe in. Students were encouraged to create their own online portfolios where they not only introduced themselves to their peers, they highlighted their digital literacy and competency skills. These portfolios help foster effective relationships and teach critical technology skills from the perspective of the student, highlighting their individual strengths.

Michael continuously monitors his students’ progress with a range of assessment tools, from online quizzes to live interviews. He ensures that each project accurately reflects the learning outcomes, while providing a variety of methods through which students can  express their achievements. In the context of online learning, with Michael having regular access to his students’ work, feedback is constant, constructive, and timely. He surveys the students at the end of every project and incorporates their suggestions into the next project.

Outstanding Achievements

Michael works intentionally to introduce First Nations, Metis, and Inuit content into his practice. Indigenous history and ways of knowing are an integral part of Michael’s curriculum. For example, Confederacy Day is a school-wide event created by Michael to recognize the impact and traditions of the Iroquois Confederacy. On this day, the students gather to be assigned a First Nations group to study. Students with First Nations heritage who volunteer are encouraged to teach the group something about their own Nation. The outcome is a greater balance in the understanding and perspective of the history of Canada.

Get in touch!

Palliser Beyond Borders
1915 20th Ave
Coaldale, AB T1M 1N1
Facebook: @palliserbeyondborders
Twitter: @PalliserBB