Global Teacher Prize awarded to Canadian educator who works with Inuit

Maggie MacDonnell's teaching philosophy underscores hope and acts of kindness, which she puts to practice in an isolated corner of Quebec.

Martin Dokoupil/AP
Canadian school teacher Maggie MacDonnell receives the Global Teacher Prize from Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Sunday.

In the Inuit village of Salluit, far north in the Canadian Arctic, winters are so harsh and life so remote that most teachers leave midway through the school year or apply for stress leave.

Not Maggie MacDonnell.

She has been a middle and high school teacher there for six years, encouraging “acts of kindness” among her students to address gender issues, suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse among the indigenous community, the second-northernmost in the Canadian province of Quebec.

Ms. MacDonnell’s perseverance helped her stand out among the ten finalists for the Global Teacher Prize, which the Canadian teacher received, along with the $1 million award that comes with it, at a ceremony in Dubai on Sunday, beating out thousands of applicants from around the world.

MacDonnell’s story illustrates her commitment, both in time and effort, to tackling even the most pervasive issues among students from underprivileged backgrounds.

“I think as a teacher in a small Arctic community, your day never ends,” said MacDonnell in a press release on the Global Teacher Prize website. “The school doors may close – but the relationship with your students is continuous as you share the community with them.”

The Global Teacher Prize was established three years ago to recognize one exceptional teacher per year: someone who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession, employs innovative classroom practices, and encourages others to joint the teaching profession. It is presented by the Varkey Foundation, whose founder Sunny Varkey, established the for-profit GEMS Education company, which has more than 250 schools around the world.

Throughout her time in the fly-in village with a population of 1,300, MacDonnell has taught her students to focus on solutions, not problems.

Teenage pregnancies, for example, are common, as are high levels of sexual abuse, and traditional gender roles often leave young girls responsible for many domestic duties, according to a press release. But MacDonnell created a life skills program for girls, which boosted girls' registration in programs formerly dominated by boys by 500 percent.

In the village, where the temperatures dip to 13 degrees F. below zero, a lack of exercise can present a problem. So MacDonnell and her students built a fitness center.

She has also tried to help prevent suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and self-harm, according to a press release from the Global Teacher Prize. MacDonnell talked to the Associated Press on Sunday about the 10 suicides that took place during her time in the village, including six young men between the ages of 18 and 25 in 2015 alone.

"The memory that continues to haunt me is when I see these Canadian teenagers, their very own classmates of the deceased, literally digging the grave," she said. "I didn't know until I came to Salluit that that was a Canadian reality."

With the more than $1 million prize, MacDonnell plans to use the money to continue helping the community in Salluit by establishing an environmental stewardship program to reconnect youth with many of their cultural traditions.

But she also hopes to raise further attention to the indigenous communities of Canada and “ideally that they be treated with the dignity that they deserve.”

The prize has given past recipients a platform to inspire teachers in their local community and their broader regions. Last year’s winner, Hanan al-Hroub, showed other Palestinian teachers and the rest of the Arab world how they can empower students, even if their lives outside the classroom are filled with conflict.

“The most important thing is that once we close that door, we forget everything that goes on outside the door,” she told Christa Case Bryant for The Christian Science Monitor. “Any hostile behavior is rejected in the classroom. Any attitude of violence or hostility is also rejected.”

Ms. Hroub’s achievements and recognition have inspired others in the region:

A school, encouraged by Ms. Hroub, won $1 million in a reading contest. And teachers have gained a much greater say in curriculum: The Palestinian Authority’s curriculum development team, which once relied heavily on other professionals, now has four teachers for every non-educator, says Refat Sabbah, head of the Teacher Creativity Center and a member of the Palestinian committee that evaluates prize applicants. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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