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UofGH's Dr. Nikki Martyn receives John Bell Award from University of Guelph

Text that reads: For me, it's not just an educational program. We are in this amazing position to help future generations through our graduates."

The University of Guelph-Humber’s Program Head of Early Childhood Studies, Dr. Nikki Martyn, has been honoured with the John Bell Award, a top University of Guelph faculty award that recognizes outstanding contributions to university education.

Established in 1988 in honour of Professor John M. Bell, the award celebrates a faculty member who has shown educational leadership by demonstrating one or more of the following: evidence of outstanding contributions in course and curriculum design; evidence of outstanding contributions to pedagogical innovations including the development of high-impact practices; and substantial evidence of contributions to the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Dr. Martyn became the Program Head of the ECS program in 2015. Since then, the program has seen a 218 per cent increase in intake and ECS graduates have been accepted into competitive post-graduate programs at universities across the province, including the University of Toronto, Queen’s University, McMaster University and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Dr. Martyn also participates in a variety of committees at the University of Guelph, including the Teaching Fellows Council, the Experiential Learning Taskforce, the High-Impact Practices Committee and the Ontario Vice-Provosts Council High-Impact Practices workgroup. She also led a High-Impact Practices Tagging Project at UofGH, reviewing outlines from all programs to identify which courses were using high-impact practices and experiential learning.

“The extended UofGH community applauds Dr. Martyn on her significant achievement,” said Dr. John Walsh, vice-provost UofGH.

Finding strength in a setback

Overcoming adversity was a theme in Dr. Martyn’s life. When she was 35, she suffered a stroke while standing at the podium teaching at Ryerson University.

After rushing to St. Michael’s Hospital, she struggled to speak and she went numb on the right side of her body. She remembers a moment when the stroke took over and she knew she could die. Right then, an image of her son emerged in her mind – Dr. Martyn decided in that moment it was “not her day to die.”

“For me, being the best mom I could be was paramount – ensuring that my son felt loved, seen, and understood,” she said. “I realized in that moment: you can’t die. So I pulled it all together and thought: ‘OK, I’m fighting through this.’”

After spending weeks in the hospital, she began a rehabilitation process that required she relearn to write and read because the right side of her body was partially paralyzed by the stroke.

But the stroke also had an unexpected positive result. Dr. Martyn knew her life had changed, and she wanted to live and take more risks, to try new things, and to be vulnerable enough to be her authentic self. It’s that spirit that led her to the University of Guelph-Humber.

“When this opportunity came up at the University of Guelph-Humber, I thought it would be really cool, even though it was a risk for me and I was afraid of failing,” she recalled.

“So I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the stroke, because I would never have put myself in a position to have taken those risks.”

Inspiring the next generation of early childhood educators

Prior to her tenure at UofGH, Dr. Martyn created and developed an innovative inclusive therapeutic early learning centre and elementary school.

The school’s influential model saw every child receive a developmental, behavioural and educational assessment to understand their strengths and weaknesses before an individual plan was developed for each child. The school placed early childhood educators at the centre of the children’s care, and therapeutic activities were incorporated on a regular basis.

Dr. Martyn took a similarly creative and compassionate approach when she redeveloped the Early Childhood Studies program at the University of Guelph-Humber. With her experience in early intervention and prevention, working in children and infant mental health, and creating and running therapeutic learning environments, Dr. Martyn knows first-hand the profound importance of early-childhood professionals and therefore cared deeply that the program prepare students to thrive in a variety of roles in the field.

“For me, it’s not just an educational program,” she said. “We are in this amazing position to help future generations through our graduates.

“Early childhood professionals make a great impact on our children and families’ lives, positively or negatively. That fuels my passion for supporting my students, staff, and faculty. That led me to create a curriculum in which the students can be empowered to be the kind of leaders children and families need: authentic, thoughtful, determined, and caring.”

As she reimagined the Early Childhood Studies program, Dr. Martyn thought it was important to re-think what it means to be an early childhood professional, to model behavioural best practices for her students (while encouraging her faculty to do the same), and to urge her students to embrace their role as leaders in their profession.

“Nikki Martyn has helped to break down barriers for early childhood educators in the field and continues to lead as an influential professional, mentoring and guiding her students along the way,” said Melissa Dodaro, who recently graduated from UofGH and who will now pursue her Master’s Degree in McMaster’s Child Life & Pediatric Psychosocial Care program.

“Her leadership, authenticity, kindness and compassion are all qualities that are ever so important and ones that cannot go without being recognized. She makes people feel seen, heard and understood.”

For Dr. Martyn, testimonials such as that one from students or alumni have been the most rewarding part of receiving the John Bell Award.

“If I’ve made an impact on somebody’s life, I could die a happy woman,” she said.

“I’m honoured to receive this award and I hope my faculty, staff and students are able to feel part of it, as I have not achieved this on my own. I look forward to continuing to innovate and collaborate to see our next accomplishments.

“To learn I’ve impacted so many people and they are different for knowing me brings tears to my eyes. For me, there is no greater achievement than that.”

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