The global prize-winning teacher who is a ray of light in the Arctic darkness

17th March 2017 at 00:00
Maggie MacDonnell teaches in an Inuit village which can only be reached by air
In an Inuit town beset with troubles, one outsider has managed to win the hearts of a Canadian community. And now Maggie MacDonnell has been announced as winner of the Global Teacher Prize 2017.

In an Inuit town beset with troubles, one outsider has managed to win the hearts of a Canadian community. Meet Maggie MacDonnell winner of the Global Teacher Prize 2017.

Maggie MacDonnell teaches in one of the most remote schools in the world, in a tiny outpost of barely 1,000 people in the Canadian Arctic. She lives and works in Salluit, an Inuit community in the far north of Quebec. There are no roads to the village, which is only reachable by air.

But today, Ms MacDonnell was in the mirrored-glass, skyscraping, desert metropolis of Dubai where the 36-year-old discovered she is to become a millionaire, as a reward for the six years that she has taught at the Ikusik primary and secondary school.

She has been judged the winner, from 10 finalists, of this year’s Global Teacher Prize. The prize, presented by the Varkey Foundation at the conclusion of the Global Education and Skills Forum, was chosen from more than 20,000 entries, and is worth $1 million (£804,000).

Ms MacDonnell is a Canadian from Nova Scotia and has a background in youth work overseas, including several years working in sub-Saharan Africa. But being a teacher is just one of her roles in the community.

She has helped support several suicidal pupils, set up a life-skills programme for girls, secured funding for hot meals in the community, established a fitness centre and even been a foster parent to some of her own pupils.

Earlier this week TES asked her about her life as a teacher.

Why and how did you get into teaching?

“I have always loved working with youth and children. I spent five years working and volunteering on youth development projects in East Africa. When I was planning to return to Canada, I was searching for a way to stay connected with young people, and also learn and contribute towards community development within my home country. Teaching in an indigenous [Inuit] community brought all of those things together.”

Has anything surprised you about teaching?

“I did come into the profession worried that working within an institution could come with certain challenges, and that it might be more difficult to build real human connections. The legacy of the residential school system in Canada in particular is very difficult – it was a colonial tool in a failed attempt to assimilate the Inuit.

“There are a lot of valid reasons for Inuit to distrust me as an outsider within their present-day education system. I am surprised in the ways that they continue to trust me and extend the arm of friendship, so we can build those connections that make the most enriching work possible.”

What’s the biggest myth about teaching?

“Hmm…maybe some people think that it is just about the ‘3Rs’ – reading, writing and arithmetic. But in my context, education is much deeper than that. It is about youth development, citizenship, cultural preservation and suicide prevention, just to name a few pressing areas.

“A second myth might be that the school days end at 3pm. I think, as a teacher in a small Arctic community, your day never ends. The school doors may close, but the relationship with your students is continuous, as you share the community with them.”

What’s the best thing about the profession??

“On a daily basis, to have the privilege of witnessing and supporting young people through their highs and lows is so meaningful. Being in touch and feeding off the energy and the spirit that is so strong in young people is energising for me.

To have the privilege of witnessing and supporting young people through their highs and lows is so meaningful

“There is also an unlimited amount of opportunity and creativity. With each new student that walks into your class, it is a whole new story to write, as you help them unlock their talents and explore their interests. As a teacher, you become this absorbent bystander to your students’ growth and development – and you get to acquire so much knowledge and skills along the way.”

What’s the worst thing about teaching?

“The hardest thing I have been through is losing students to suicide. We had a total of 10 youth suicides in two years in my village. A memory that still haunts me is watching classmates and peers literally dig the grave and bury their very own classmate. I can still see them lowering his body into his tundra resting place.

“As a non-indigenous Canadian, I never knew this existed to the level it does in my country – until I came to work in an indigenous community.

“Suicides are a tremendous issue facing Inuit communities in the Canadian Arctic. We have lost so many young people.

“To know that these suicides and the pain young people are facing are, in my opinion, directly related to colonisation and decades of public underfunding is shameful for Canada as a nation, and demands attention, action and resources. Walking into a class that has a desk that will remain empty because of suicide is the still-ignored story of the education system in Inuit communities in Canada.”

What’s been your best moment in teaching?

“I have had three very profound moments. As I mentioned, there is a suicide crisis in the region that I live in. On three separate occasions I have had students come to me to thank me for saving their life. All of them had gone through difficult times when losing friends and family to suicide, as well as experiencing other traumas in their life.

On three separate occasions I have had students come to me to thank me for saving their life

“Each of them had reached out to me in some way when they were battling their own thoughts of suicide. In those moments, it is really challenging, if not overwhelming. To counsel someone at that time – it is very emotional, painful, and the situation is fragile.

“In those moments, I thought I was just counselling them or helping de-escalate a crisis. It is only after, in each case several months or even years later, that the youths have come to me and specifically thanked me for what I did in those moments.

“They stated that they had a clear suicide plan; they may have even come to me to say their ‘goodbye’, but from their interaction with me, they were able to walk away from that plan that day. I cannot explain that feeling exactly. It is both an honour and humbling – and at the same time just further strengthens this connection I have with them.

“There are huge gaps between non-indigenous and indigenous people in Canada. Our history is mainly about oppression and dominance by the outsiders. So to be able to not just have a connection, but one that is so deep – there is just no greater gift one can receive. I certainly didn’t know that, as a teacher, I could have that type of outcome.”

How have you managed to juggle the roles of being a foster parent to some of your students and being their teacher?

“In many ways it is natural. Youth in crisis have chosen to stay with me when they have been in a difficult time…And then we just fall into routines. Living with them full-time, I can provide a lot more support and security. Even after a few weeks or months, when they are out of the crisis and back with their families, they still visit and feel at home.

“Some call me a mom. I am quite lucky, because in each situation I have still managed to have a positive relationship with the biological and extended family, which extends after the crisis. That is a blessing.”

How does it feel to have a one-in-10 chance of winning the Global Teacher Prize and becoming a millionaire?

“It feels surreal. I want to thank the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed, and [education philanthropist] Sunny Varkey for having this brilliant idea to celebrate teachers. This platform and attention has opened up all sorts of new conversations between me, my students, my colleagues and the community.

“Feeling their support and appreciation is very touching. It has certainly affected us positively here – even far off in the Canadian Arctic – and I can only imagine that similar moments are happening all over the globe.

“I bet there have been more than a million conversations, actions, Facebook likes and shares to show appreciation for teachers – reminding them and others that what they do does matter.”

If you win, what will you do with the money?

“I would create an NGO that can solidify and further support a lot of the work I have been doing so far. It would have a sharp focus on environmental stewardship and global citizenship. Arctic youth are experiencing climate change more rapidly here than anywhere else in the world. Their lives and culture are intimately connected with the land – and the warming climate and melting ice has already disrupted them. We need an urgent platform for their voices and actions.”

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