The 2017 Global Teacher Prize has been awarded to a Canadian woman who has transformed a troubled Arctic Inuit community.
Maggie MacDonnell, who grew up in Nova Scotia and spent five years working on HIV/AIDS prevention in sub-Saharan Africa’s indigenous communities, was given the award in Dubai on March 19th.
She was among ten finalists chosen from 20,000 nominations and applications from 179 countries.
Her biography from the Global Teacher Prize website records that following her Masters degree, Maggie turned her attention to indigenous communities in Canada and for the past six years has been in the second most northerly Inuit community in Quebec, a remote village called Salluit within the Arctic circle.
With no roads giving access to the village, winter temperatures that can plummet to -25C and a population of just 1,300, there is a high rate of teacher turnover in the remote community. Currently, Maggie’s school has no principal as he left after six weeks on stress leave.
There were six suicides among young men aged 18-25 in 2015 and teenage pregnancies are common. There is also sexual abuse and strict gender roles mean that girls are groomed for domestic work.
Maggie’s response to these problems was to set up a life skills programme specifically for girls and since doing so, there has been a 500 per cent improvement in registration into programmes previously dominated by boys.
She has secured funding for hot meals, in-school nutrition programmes and a fitness centre, all of which have helped to counter the village’s endemic problems.
She regards community as all-important and encourages acts of kindness such as running a community kitchen, attending suicide prevention training and hiking through national parks to understand environmental stewardship.
Despite their own challenges, her students have raised more than $37,000 for Diabetes Prevention. Maggie has also been a temporary foster parent in the community, including to some of her own students.
The idea that a teacher’s day ends when the school closes is unrealistic in a community like Salluit, 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 key to her success is the way she looks at the challenges in front of her – in a community where many view teenagers negatively, she believes in turning students from problems into solutions.
With her life skills programme, she has motivated her students to want to come to school where they can learn skills to help them later in life, skills such as mechanics, construction and cookery. These talents and interests can be used to address issues within the community and this in turn can lead to praise and acknowledgement that will bolster previously low self-esteem and confidence.
“Giving them a new positive platform to stand upon while contributing to the community is transformative for both my students and the community.”
Salluit offers a harsh environment for young people but Maggie’s work is reaping rewards for many. By learning cookery in a community kitchen where local people can come to eat and taking meals out on the roads to vulnerable people, the girls-only programme has provided big health benefits.
The fitness centre which Maggie and her students helped to build is a real bonus for the village where diabetes and obesity-linked disease is on the rise.
Then there’s the second-hand shop. Almost all goods have to be flown in, making the cost of living very high so, with donated items and the shop opening at weekends, the students have learned to understand the rudiments of running a business, dealing with money and customer service while at the same time, offering cheaper goods to the local population.
“On three separate occasions I have had students come 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. Each of them had reached out to me in some way when they were battling their own thoughts of suicide,” says Maggie.
The Nobel-style Global Teacher Prize was set up three years ago by the Dubai-based Varkey Foundation under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Emir of Dubai.
The $1 million prize is paid in installments and requires the winner to remain a teacher for at least five years.
Last year a Palestinian teacher, Hanan al-Hroub, won the prestigious prize for her innovative approach of using play to counter violent behaviour among her students in the West Bank.
The Times Education Supplement reports that the ceremony was shown a video of TV adventurer, Bear Grylls, jumping out of a helicopter in a tuxedo above Dubai to deliver the prize to Ms MacDonnell.