'East Coast charm': How Canada’s $1M teacher thrives in Arctic
Jeff Lagerquist, CTVNews.ca
Published Thursday, March 23, 2017 6:18PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, March 23, 2017 6:28PM EDT
The Canadian school teacher whose success with students in a remote northern Quebec Inuit community won her a US$1 million prize and a high-profile global award for excellence says she couldn’t have done it without inspiration from her pupils, the many teachers that shaped her career, and a healthy dose of East Coast charm.
Maggie MacDonnell was awarded the annual Global Teacher Prize at a ceremony in Dubai, beating out some 20,000 educators from around the world. The prize was established three years ago, to recognize the teachers making outstanding contributions to their profession.
MacDonnell has spent the last six years teaching in Salluit, an Inuit community in Quebec with a population of just over 1,300. The village is so remote that it’s accessible only by air.
Teaching in the Arctic, where inequality and limited resources foster high rates of suicide, physical abuse, and drug and alcohol use, poses unique challenges in the classroom, she said.
Many teachers leave the region mid-way through their tenure due to the harsh conditions and isolation.
“(It) really requires you to push yourself and be very creative within your teaching style,” MacDonnell told CTV News Channel on Thursday. “I had a lot of freedom into how I could develop content and a curriculum that was very local, and adapt that to the situations the kids were facing.”
According to her biography, MacDonnell created a highly successful life skills program for girls, in response to pervasive issues like teen pregnancy, sexual abuse, and gender roles that often burden young girls with domestic duties.
She also secured tens of thousands in funding for nutrition initiatives, and created a partnership with the daycare centre, where her students work in classrooms with experienced day care workers.
MacDonnell credits much of what she has been able to accomplish to the influential teachers she connected with over the years.
“My professors and teachers instilled within me a lot of really applicable and great frameworks,” she said. “Part of it is just coming from Nova Scotia. We have a great sense of charm within our culture out east. Knowing how to build relationships with kids is super key to being a great teacher in a classroom.”
Three of her students were able to join her on the trip to Dubai, where she received the top honour from United Arab Emirates Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
MacDonnell said the glitzy event featured celebrities, opera singers, and parachutists jumping out of helicopters to deliver the trophy.
“To be up there with 10 of the most outstanding teachers, educators from all over the world, was a privilege in and of itself. To have my name picked, it was just so surreal,” she said. “I was glad to have my students in the audience to witness that, because I really won what award not for them, but with them.”
As for the million-dollar prize, MacDonnell has that earmarked for a new non-profit organization to support youth in Canada’s north. She hopes some of her former students who have moved on to college will join.
“Some of my former students are now at Cégeps and colleges in Montreal. I think this could be a really great leadership opportunity for them,” she said. “I’m excited to get back up north and work with my students.”