'World's best teacher' from Canada using $1 million prize to promote kayaking
Published Wednesday, September 6, 2017 3:05PM EDT
On a grey, overcast morning down at the London Docks on the River Thames, a group of students huddle around Maggie MacDonnell as she demonstrates the correct way to hold a paddle.
Clad in a black T-shirt with the text “qajaq” above the word “kayak” and a blue lifejacket, the spirited Canadian educator is teaching 10 British students from the Greenwich Free School in London, England about the history of the kayak.
The children, aged 12 to 15, avidly listen as MacDonnell tells them how the Inuit in the Arctic invented the kayak thousands of years ago as a means of transportation between Greenland and Canada.
“Even though we find the kayak all over the world now, we made one mistake,” she explains. “It’s actually not pronounced kayak. In their language, they say ‘qajaq.’”
Originally from Nova Scotia, MacDonnell has spent the past seven-and-a-half years living in a remote Inuit village called Salluit, located in the Canadian Arctic. There, in the fly-in only community in northern Quebec with a population of just over 1,300, MacDonnell works as a teacher to indigenous youths.
Because of the isolated location and harsh winter conditions, with temperatures frequently reaching minus 25 degrees Celsius, there is a usually a high turnover rate among educators in Salluit.
But not MacDonnell.
The devoted teacher has created numerous programs aimed at helping young people in the community cope with mental health issues while encouraging physical activity.
It’s that dedication to her work that led her to win the prestigious Global Teacher Prize, presented by the Varkey Foundation, in March. Along with international recognition and an impressive trophy, MacDonnell was awarded US$1 million in prize money.
It’s that large sum that has brought her to the docks of London. MacDonnell is using her winnings to develop an NGO, with the help of her students back in Canada, to revitalize the ancient Inuit culture of kayaking and promote physical exercise among youth around the world.
MacDonnell, who is currently seven months pregnant, told CTV News’ Daniele Hamamdjian that the award has given her an international platform to highlight the causes she cares about.
“It’s allowed me to shine a spotlight on indigenous issues in Canada and also how we can use physical activity to build resilience in young people,” she said.
Lack of resources, a housing shortage and a suicide crisis that saw six teenagers take their own lives in 2015 are among the issues affecting the Inuit community in Salluit, MacDonnell said.
In order to bring awareness to the problems at home, the motivated educator is travelling around the world to teach others about Inuit culture and kayaking.
After a morning filled with tippy boats, playful splashes and many laughs, the inner-city students dock their kayaks after the lesson.
“I found the kayaking very exhilarating and exciting today. It was relieving my stress,” Joshua On, a student about to enter Grade 8, said.
Another student, Tabitha Poatukyte-Fletcher, agreed the kayaking was enjoyable, even if it was a little wetter than she expected. She said she also appreciated MacDonnell’s style of teaching.
“The way she talks, it’s not focusing on herself. It’s focusing on other people,” she said. “She’s pregnant and she’s coming out to do stuff with us. She’s not focusing on herself at all.”
Despite the glowing reviews from her British kayaking students and the international accolades, MacDonnell remains humble.
“Right now, I’m just the world’s luckiest teacher,” she said. “I don’t even think I’m the world’s best teacher.”
For MacDonnell, it’s her Inuit students in the Canadian Arctic who inspire her and teach her new things on a daily basis.
“When you teach in the North, there’s an amazing opportunity to build really genuine connections with your students and they let you know how much you matter in their lives. That’s pretty meaningful,” she said.
With files from CTV News’ Daniele Hamamdjian