Michelle Grace Hunder

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‘Ocean Therapy’: Why This High School Starts at Sunrise

The secret to better mental health for high schoolers? Salt water, sunlight and breathwork.

In Partnership with the Australian Government

In the golden morning light, on a grassy knoll beside the ocean, teacher Matt Barber begins his day alongside his students, not with textbooks and whiteboards, but with eyes closed and surfboards.

Here, school starts at sunrise. “Ocean therapy,” Matt calls it. “It’s about the salt water, it’s about the sunlight, it’s about them focusing on their breathing.”

Matt Barber is not your average teacher. His approach to education is rooted in the belief that learning isn’t confined to the four walls of a classroom. Instead, he advocates for a blend of academic learning with physical activities, especially surfing, to promote better mental health, physical wellbeing, and relationships among his students. 

It’s an unconventional setting, sure. But it encapsulates what Matt’s teaching philosophy is all about: using surfing and the ocean to build a sense of belonging, grounding and structure in young peoples’ lives. 

Rolling Stone recently caught up with the Gold Coast teacher to discover how to ‘Be That Teacher’ for the next generation. With a goal of helping his students become a better version of themselves, Matt shares three important lessons: the power of the ocean, the need for more male role models in education, and the one thing that reminds him why he does what he does. 

Win the Morning, Win the Day

The 6am start isn’t just because that’s when the waves are pumping. Matt believes the early morning routine is what creates such positive results for his students. “We often say to them: we win the morning, we win the day,” Matt explains. “There’s a lot of science or research that suggests that getting the sun on their face in the morning [can] help with their mood and their focus.” 

High school is a time of intense change – from bodies to relationships to life plans. The early start gives Matt’s students something reliable to look forward to every day, and sets them up for consistency later in life too. 

“If they can turn up every day at the beach at six o ‘clock in the morning, then they can turn up to a job site at six o ‘clock or they have to prepare the night before. There’s a lot of flow-on effects,” he says. 

Why Education Needs More Men

For Matt, being a teacher means more than academic education. It’s about being a guide, a mentor, and a role model. He views his job as creating an environment where students are encouraged to be curious, to explore, and to seek their own answers. 

Part of that is showing how men can occupy the education space. “Education needs more males,” he says. “I think we still have stereotypes around a female’s role and a male’s role in society in general. If we could celebrate men in the educational space, there can be positive role models [for] young people.”  

“I take it quite seriously in the sense that I need to model what I’ll expect and what I feel [is] important as a community member,” Matt continues. The most rewarding part? He’s encouraged more men to want to become teachers too. “I’ve got students at uni wanting to be teachers now because they want to be a part of the next lot of kids coming through.” 

Life Lessons From Surfing

In a world where change is the only constant, Matt is focused on teaching resilience and adaptability. The challenges faced while surfing – navigating the waves, maintaining balance, and sometimes, falling and getting back up – really do mirror the ups and downs of life. 

Ultimately, it teaches students to view challenges as opportunities for growth rather than threats, equipping them with the mindset to thrive in and out of school. That’s the power of the ocean – and the community that surrounds it. 

“Ocean therapy is a great opportunity for these young people to step away from their technology field lives, be weightless in the water, to be energised through nature and through each other,” Matt says. 

The results of Matt’s unique teaching approach speak for themselves – better academic performance, school attendance, and most importantly, students who are more confident, happy, and connected to their community. At the end of the day, after a 6am surf and hours of teaching, community is the thing he keeps coming back to. 

“My memento is that concept of community and how powerful it can be,” he says. “If I can give them a foundation and a platform to launch from then I’ve done my job.” So, see you for sunrise tomorrow? 

Watch our video with Matt Barber and learn about becoming a teacher in Australia at BeThatTeacher.gov.au. Already a teacher? Share your own story in the Online Teacher Gallery

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