March 20, 2017

$1m Global Teacher Prize 2017 goes to Canadian who works with Inuit students in the Arctic

Global Teacher Prize 2017 winner Maggie MacDonnell with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and student Larry Tomasei

Photo credit: Global Teacher Prize

Ewan Watt

Online Editor, Theirworld

Maggie MacDonnell won the $1 million prize for her inspirational work with students and the wider community amid harsh conditions and serious social problems.

Maggie MacDonnell works in a village so deep into the Canadian Arctic that you can't reach it by road. The only way in and out of Salluit is by plane.

Life there is beyond tough. Apart from the remoteness and the biting cold, it's a community with high levels of gender inequality, abuse and suicides among young men.

In the midst of this, Maggie teaches. Not just academic subjects but life skills that build hope and self-belief in her students.

Her remarkable talents were recognised yesterday when Maggie was chosen from 10 finalists as the winner of the Global Teacher Prize 2017 by the Varkey Foundation. See her at work in the video below.

The award - given annually to an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to their profession - comes with $1 million which she'll use to set up an NGO.

"I would like to invite my students to share this award, as I have won this not for them but with them," she said. "The Inuit matter - thank you for bringing global attention to them."

The announcement of Maggie's win came from space - via a video link to the International Space Station. 

In another video message, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau - a former teacher himself - told Maggie: "You have done extraordinary things in exceptional circumstances and have showed enormous heart, will and imagination."

Maggie designs programmes to help youth reach their goals

Photo credit: Global Teacher Prize

The glittering award ceremony in Dubai was a far cry from the teacher's daily life in Salluit - the second most northerly Inuit community in Quebec with a population of just over 1300.

Maggie - who spent five years volunteering and working in sub-Saharan Africa - has been a teacher in Salluit for the past six years.

“I think, as a teacher in a small Arctic community, your day never ends," she said. "The school doors may close but the relationship with your students is continuous as you share the community with them.”

In the Inuit region of Nunavik, teenage pregnancies are common, high levels of sexual abuse exist and gender roles often burden young girls with large domestic duties. 

There were six suicides in the community in 2015 - all of them men aged 18 to 25.

Teenagers, in the face of deprivation and isolation, frequently turn to drink, drugs and self-harm.

“On three separate occasions I have had students come to thank me for saving their life," she said. 

"All of them had gone through difficult times when losing friends and family to suicide as well as experiencing other traumas in their life."

Due to the harsh conditions, there are very high rates of teacher turnover, with many leaving their post midway through the year. Her school has no principal - he left on stress leave after six weeks.

Maggie created a life skills programme specifically for girls which has seen a 500% improvement in girls’ registration. 

She started a partnership with the daycare centre where her students work in the classrooms with experienced workers. 

There they gain valuable mentorship and improve their understanding of early childhood education. 

Her whole approach has been about turning students from “problems” to “solutions”

Photo credit: Global Teacher Prize

Maggie also secured over $20,000 for an in-school nutrition programme where students prepare healthy snacks for their fellow students.

She said: "Whenever I’m working with young people my goal is to give them the tools that they need to be master of their own destiny."

Former student Larry Tomasai was with her on stage when she collected the prize. 

He said: “She’s been my teacher, my coach, my trainer. 

"Through the years she has become like family to me. I am just thankful for everything she has done for me and my family and for the town."

Village elder Annie Alaku said: “We are so happy that Maggie came to our village. She is a role model for the whole community."

Last year's Global Teacher Prize winner was Hanan Al Hroub, who grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp and works at a secondary school in the West Bank town of Al-Bireh. 

Meet the 2017 finalists

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