I first wrote about Maggie MacDonnell in August 2017, long before many of you had ever heard of Filosofa’s Word, but she was one of my readers’ favourite good people that year and her story still resonates, is well worth highlighting a second time!
Today’s good person is a teacher … the winner of this year’s Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize of $1 million. I did not know there was such a prize, did you? Well, allow me to introduce this year’s most-deserving winner, Ms. Maggie MacDonnell!
Imagine, if you will, that you have just earned your college degree and are now a certified teacher. The world is your oyster; you can teach anywhere in the world. Where would you go? I am betting not too many would choose a town of only 1,347 people, accessible only by air, in the Canadian Arctic, but that is exactly where Maggie MacDonnell has been making a difference in young people’s lives for the past six years.
Maggie MacDonnell grew up in rural Nova Scotia and after completing her Bachelor’s degree, spent five years volunteering and teaching in Sub-Saharan Africa, largely in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention. After completing her Master’s degree, she found her country was beginning to wake up to the decades of abuse that Canadian Indigenous people have lived through, including assaults on the environment and enormous economic and social inequality. As such, she sought out opportunities to teach indigenous communities in Canada and for the last six years has been a teacher in a fly-in Inuit village called Salluit, nestled in the Canadian Arctic. This is home to the second northernmost Inuit community in Quebec, with a population of just over 1,300 – it cannot be reached by road, only by air. In winter, temperatures are minus 25° C (-13° F).
Most teachers who go to teach in the Arctic don’t stay long … many do not even make it halfway through their first year. Conditions are harsh, added to by the sense of isolation and limited resources. But Maggie has stayed for six years now, determined to make a difference in the lives of the young people in the village. There are many challenges for Maggie to confront. Teenagers, in the face of deprivation and isolation, frequently turn to drink, drugs and self-harm. In Salluit alone there were six suicides in 2015, all among men aged 18 to 25. Teenage pregnancy is common, levels of sexual abuse are high, and gender expectations see young girls burdened with domestic duties.
It takes a remarkable teacher just to work in such an environment. But, to do what Maggie has done requires something quite extraordinary, something very special. She has worked assiduously to raise funds for the community, particularly her students, focusing on nutrition and fitness, and created a life-skills program specifically for young women that has seen a 500 percent growth in girls’ enrollment because previous programs were designed to help mainly boys. With the help of her students, the community and contributions from individuals, companies and government agencies, Salluit now has a thriving fitness centre and the villagers have helped other communities create their own.
Outside the classroom, she spent time as a coach for the Salluit Running Club. Seven Inuit youth travelled with her to Hawaii in 2016 to run a half marathon. Her projects include taking students hiking in national parks, having them run a community kitchen, a second-hand store, and fundraising for diabetes prevention programs. She has also temporarily fostered some Salluit youth. Maggie does not simply see herself as the teacher and the kids as students, but sees their lives as being intertwined with hers. One of the biggest myths about teaching is that the school day ends at 3pm, says Maggie: “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.”
The Life Skills program Maggie implemented is three-pronged:
- It has motivated young people to return to school, by engaging them in projects that interest them – from cookery to mechanics.
- These talents and interests are used to tackle and address issues in the community.
- Her students then receive praise and acknowledgment. They have low confidence, and are viewed negatively by the community. But “giving them a new positive platform to stand upon while contributing to the community is transformative for both my students and the community,” writes Maggie.
A bit about the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize …
The Varkey Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for underprivileged children around the world. The Global Teacher Prize is a $1 million award presented annually to an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to their profession. The prize serves to underline the importance of educators and the fact that, throughout the world, their efforts deserve to be recognised and celebrated. It seeks to acknowledge the impacts of the very best teachers – not only on their students but on the communities around them. Why teachers? Lack of education is a major factor behind many of the social, political, economic and health issues faced by the world today. We believe education has the power to reduce poverty, prejudice and conflict. The status of teachers in cultures across the world is critically important to our global future.
MacDonnell was selected from among 20,000 nominees representing 179 countries. The Nobel-style award was set up three years ago by the Dubai-based Varkey Foundation. The prize is paid in instalments and requires the winner to remain a teacher for at least five years.
The award ceremony, held in Dubai, is a glitzy affair. The winner was announced by astronaut Thomas Pesquet, speaking from the International Space Station, who said: “I’d like to be the first person in history to thank all the world’s teachers from space.” The award was handed out by adventurer Bear Grylls, who jumped from a helicopter to deliver it to the ceremony. Italian singer Andrea Bocelli took part in the prize giving. A video message from Prince Harry was screened and the ceremony was attended by the vice president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Maggie was even congratulated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau:
“You chose to teach at the Ikusik school in Salluit, a remote village in the Canadian Arctic. There are no roads to Salluit – it is only accessible by air and it gets cold, really cold, -20c this time of year. I’d like to say thank you to every teacher out there.”
My hat is off to this amazing young woman who is helping to make a big difference in the lives of the youth in Salluit. Her approach, rooted in respect for her students, their culture and the particular challenges of their community, is a model for teachers everywhere. Her conviction that kindness breeds hope holds a lesson for us all. This, my friends, is how we make the world a better place … one person at a time.
Note to Readers: If any of you know of a person or organization that you believe qualifies for a “good people” post, please feel free to send me a suggestion!