Long read: 'My year as a million-dollar teacher'

10th February 2018 at 09:03
Winning the $1 million Global Teacher Prize was a life-changing experience for Maggie MacDonnell, a teacher in a remote Inuit village, and her pupils

Maggie MacDonnell was halfway on her journey to the Global Teacher Prize final when it occurred to her that she had nothing suitable to wear.

“I remember them telling me to wear something formal for the evening part of the competition,” the Canadian teacher says. “I was in Montreal on the way over, and I had to go shopping for something to wear.

“There’s definitely nowhere in the Arctic where I could find a glamorous evening dress.”

This sense of an innocent abroad punctuates MacDonnell’s description of her year as winner of the $1 million Global Teacher Prize.

MacDonnell teaches at the Ikusik School in Salluit, a remote Inuit village in the Canadian Arctic. She won the Global Teacher Prize in recognition of her use of physical activity, such as kayaking, to counter chronic mental ill health among the pupils in the area.

“I don’t know if this is an example of my naivety, but I certainly didn’t know the kind of spotlight I was stepping into,” she says. “Maybe it was coming from a small village, with poor internet.

“I thought maybe I’d have a day or two of attention. I was thinking I’d been crowned, and that was it. But it’s been amazing how long-lasting that spotlight is.”

'Shining a light'

After the awards ceremony, she returned to the Arctic and a barrage of email and Facebook messages. “I’d often say: instead of the $1 million – or accompanying the $1 million – I wish I had a secretary to triage all the emails coming in.” She pauses. “Somewhat complicated by the fact that I live in an area with low-flow internet access. I’m the only millionaire who doesn’t have a cellphone – I share it with my husband.”

What is particularly gratifying about the spotlight that has been shone on MacDonnell’s corner of the Arctic, she says, is that it has highlighted the context in which she works: among Inuit pupils, whose endemic poverty, housing problems and high suicide rates have been typically ignored by the Canadian media.

The flight to Salluit from Southern Canada costs around Canadian $4,000 (£2,280). And a one-way trip from outside Canada can take four days.

“The village I teach in is only accessible by plane,” MacDonnell says. “Unless you’re an experienced hunter with a Ski-Doo and spare weeks.”

The aeroplane stops at every village along the coast. Often, it will encounter adverse weather, meaning an overnight stay in one of the villages, before finally continuing on to Montreal.

Since MacDonnell was named global teacher of the year, however, the media has found the time and the budget to make the journey. “We’ve had a lot of media come up and shine a light on how education can be transformative,” MacDonnell says.

“It’s been really validating for the students to see themselves on province-wide or national media, celebrating what they’re doing. That’s been a huge benefit.”

It is not only the media who have suddenly developed an interest in the frozen North. One of the biggest issues faced by schools like MacDonnell’s has been the difficulty recruiting teachers.

After MacDonnell spoke to teacher-training students, however, this changed. “Usually my school board has to fight against others, at the whim of students’ interests,” she says. “This time, students were salivating to connect with them.”

Support for indigenous people

MacDonnell’s own journey to the Arctic was somewhat circuitous: she initially volunteered as a teacher in Sub-Saharan Africa. “But I was also aware that, in Canada, we have our own history and – quote unquote – development issues,” she says.

“As a non-indigenous Canadian, I wanted to see day-to-day, eye-to-eye, what the reality is like. We need to learn who we share this country with.”

Since winning the prize, MacDonnell has been invited to a range of conferences and speaking engagements around the world. Each time she receives an invitation, she asks the event organisers to extend it to include her Inuit pupils or colleagues.

And so she, a colleague and a former pupil travelled to Chile, where the three of them met the Chilean president. The two Inuit spoke to the president about the way that the Canadian prime minister had apologised for historical treatment of the Inuit.

Shortly afterwards, MacDonnell’s group celebrated the summer solstice – the shortest day of the Chilean year – with the Mapuche tribal people.

Then someone took out a phone and pointed to the news: the Chilean president had issued an apology for the government’s treatment of its indigenous population.

'Trying out crazy ideas'

Despite moments like these, she insists that she does not feel like the best teacher in the world every day. “When I’m at the funeral of a student – you feel like you’re up against huge challenges,” she says.

But she is newly aware that she is not alone in this. She has heard other teachers in the group she refers to as “the Varkey circle” – after the Varkey Foundation, the not-for-profit organisation running the Global Teaching Prize – talking about the daily struggles of their jobs.

“People are telling you to keep it up,” she says. “That’s what teachers need the most: that validation that what you’re doing is worthwhile.”

Meanwhile, she is considering ways to spend her $1 million prize money. Having set up various kayaking projects for Inuit pupils – reintroducing them to their own cultural heritage – she is now looking at teaching her pupils traditional kayak-building skills. And she is hoping to set up an all-female group of kayakers, with the aim of eventually paddling between two major Canadian landmarks.

Thanks to the award – and subsequent attention – MacDonnell has also been able to expand a running club she had established, so that it now covers several villages. A group of runners travelled to Barbados recently to compete in a half-marathon, raising more than $60,000 to help other Inuit youth.

Having recently given birth to a daughter, Zelabella, MacDonnell was unable to join them. She, therefore, had to delegate travelling-to-Barbados duties to a colleague – an imposition that met with relatively little resistance.

At some point, she would also like to arrange for a group of Inuit pupils to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, as a way of highlighting the dangers of climate change. “When you have $1 million, you can try out these crazy ideas,” she says.

And, eventually, she hopes to formalise her work, registering as a not-for-profit organisation and soliciting donations from other Canadians.

'Worth more than $1 million'

The 2018 Global Teacher Prize shortlist will be announced later this month. This will mark the end of MacDonnell’s year-long moment of glory: something she does not feel too nostalgic about. In fact, she says, she looks forward to being able to collaborate with a new group of shortlisted teachers.

“It’s an incredible opportunity, and their lives can be transformed, and the lives of their students can be transformed,” she says.

“I’m not saying I don’t enjoy the spotlight. But there’s so much richness – the real prize is in the family of teachers you can join.”

The next winner, she hopes, will be someone “whose practice is transformative, and which challenges stereotypes and conventions”, though she acknowledges that this may reflect her own teaching biases.

“Someone who has amazing interpersonal skills, and makes meaningful relationships with kids,” she says. “Kids don’t go to talk to an iPad about their issues. You need teachers; you need hearts. That’s the type of teacher who’s going to be outstanding.”

She pauses. “I have several young people who came to me and said I had a role in saving their lives. I don’t think anyone expects that when they take up a job. That’s worth more than $1 million.”

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