It’s incredible how low the value of teaching has dropped these days. Maggie Macdonnell, the winner of The Global Teacher Prize, is helping the youth of a remote indigenous community in Canada. She is proving the absolute importance of education. 

The world’s best teacher

Teaching has become an under appreciated profession nearly everywhere in the world, which is often reflected in the pay level. A paradox, given the importance of this job. The Global Teacher Prize is there to change those unfair attitudes. This year, the winner of the prize is Maggie MacDonnell. She single-handedly is a proof of how crucial teaching is.

Maggie MacDonnell grew up in rural Nova Scotia and after completing her Bachelors degree, spent five years volunteering and working in Sub Saharan Africa, largely in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention. After completing her Masters 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 get as low as – 25C. There were six suicides in 2015, all affecting young males between the ages of 18 and 25.

Growing up in rural Nova Scotia inspired Maggie’s interest in a relationship-building approach to community development, equity and social justice.

Harsh conditions of Salluit give rise to much of the issues indigenous people face. From the lack of running water and land transportation to a big turnover of teachers, many of whom take a stress leave. There are also severe gender issues, with teenage pregnancies being very common and many young people turning to substance abuse and self-harm, as forms of escaping a crisis that resulted in six suicides among youth aged 18-25 years in 2015 alone.

Connecting with Salluit youth 

Since winning the prize, Maggie McDonnell has done countless interviews. In one of them, she explains:

“Since I arrived in Salluit, I’ve been able to get involved in two main areas. I helped create a life skills programme just for girls, which I’m really excited about. We’ve had that programme now for the last five years, and it reaches out to girls who are at risk of dropping out or who have already dropped out, and we bring them into a more project-based classroom, where they’re able to shine and grow and develop as who they are. And some of them actually graduate and continue to contribute to the community. So I’m very proud of them”

The path to connecting with kids of Salluit was, however, not easy: “It’s not a glamorous story. I had one pencil for each kid. There was a heavy amount of distrust. I saw it wasn’t going to work and I said, let’s go walk around—and so we went out, visiting the community. We sat out by the water. I bought them cheeseburgers.”

To the youth of Salluit, Maggie is many things:

I’m a coach, I’m also a mentor, I’m a bit of a motivator. For some children … I’m also somewhat of a parental figure, and older sibling, and aunt and extra mother.

The importance of exercise 

Maggie completed her Masters at the University of Toronto, where she focused on the role of sport-based interventions in international development. She is actively using the skills she learnt at UofT when working with indigenous communities:

My second passion is physical activity. I’m very passionate about using physical activity as a tool to build resilience.

“I helped open a fitness centre in my community, I created a fitness and wellness course for students, I launched basketball clubs, sports tournaments, and one of my favourite projects is our Salluit run club. And through all of that work, so many young people have adapted and cultivated healthy lifestyles, embracing physical activity.”

With all that in mind Maggie also provides classes on things like brushing their teeth, being active, how to make a healthy breakfast – things they can learn right away so they will be good parents.

Putting the prize to good use

As for the $1million prize, Maggie already has a plan in mind about dedicating the money to “reawakening a love for the land”:

“My dream would be to start an NGO with my students that could focus on bringing back the culture of kayaking to the community, but throuxgh a means of environmental stewardship and youth engagement. That’s where we’re going to start. But what I love about projects is that things really unfold in beautiful ways once you get momentum.”

“The Inuit actually invented the kayak, but that tradition is not quite so alive in the villages of the north, so I want to help reawaken that. I learned in Salluit that physical activity is an amazing tool for building resilience, and connecting young people to their culture and to their heritage is crucial for their pride and the health of the community. Thirdly, it connects them to the environment.”

So many indigenous youths have been disenfranchised from what I think is their greatest cultural heritage, which is that connection to the land.

The difficulties of pinning down the greatest achievement

When asked about her biggest achievement in working with the people of Salluit, Maggie is hesitant:

“That’s a good question. I don’t know if I can distil it down to one thing, but definitely through this process I was really touched because a lot of kids, I knew I was close to, but I didn’t know I had such an impact on her life. One student said if it wasn’t for me she wouldn’t have gone to college. She is already accepted into a program where I believe she will be the first certified Inuk dental assistant. Others have become role models or gone on to promote healthy lifestyles at the regional level after working on the fitness centre.”

You’re planting little seeds each time, and they’ll blossom at some point.

A message to teachers around the world

“I’d like to say thank you to every teacher out there. Teachers owe responsibilities to many people – to students, to parents, to the community, the school board. But in the end, as all great teachers know – they are ultimately responsible to something far greater.”

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