This year’s Global Teacher Prize for teaching excellence was given to an extraordinary teacher who has been doing exceptional work in one of the most inhospitable regions of the world. The award a US $1 million given by Varkey Foundation in recognition of teachers for outstanding contribution to the profession was given to Maggie MacDonnell in a befitting manner.
Although soaking in the glitz and glory of the moment, Maggie’s goal was never lost on her as she remembered the young people who committed suicide and how she has been fighting her way to make Salluit a better place. Her encouragement, hope and acts of kindness in an isolated corner of Quebec has won her a prize beating thousands of applications from around the world.
In an exclusive interview to Brainfeed, Maggie MacDonnell shares her thoughts and plans. Excerpts
Q: What were your feelings when your name was announced as the winner? Did you expect it?
I was in disbelief. To be in a room with people of such outstanding calibre and to somehow emerge as the winner was humbling. I am still in awe of the outstanding educators who I met during my time in Dubai. I was very happy to have my students in the audience. Knowing they were there to witness it and be part of it – made me very proud.
Q: From where did you graduate?
I was born in Afton, a rural community in Nova Scotia. I completed my Bachelors at St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia and hold a Masters from the Faculty of Physical Education and Health at the University of Toronto.
Q: Why did you select the Inuit region to teach?
I wanted to find a way to work in indigenous parts of Canada. My sister at the time was working in Salluit, a fly-in Inuit village. It was she who first connected me to the job opening.
Q: How do you deal with the harsh climate?
Some people ask me “why” I work where I do because of all the challenges. I say “Why not?”. I think challenging places need committed people and I don’t want to “run away” from something because it is difficult. The results of your work become so much more meaningful as well, when you know the challenges the students and yourself
overcame. As a Canadian who had spent a few years
working in community development overseas, I felt some sense of responsibility to at least learn and engage with similar issues within my own borders.
When students show troubling behaviour, I understand it as an historical context. It is a natural response that would come from so much intergenerational trauma. The behaviour is not connected to the person, it is connected to the context.
It is very helpful to know yourself and to know how you deal with stress before working in a place that is more demanding. I often rely on physical activity – running, sports, hiking – to get rid of stress. I purposefully cultivate those opportunities where ever I am. For example, I helped create a Fitness Centre and a running club – that was for the community. Yet, those two things also served me just as much. The longer you stay in the community, the more you are accepted. You gain a lot of support from this acceptance. In the historical context, I consider it a privilege to get accepted as much as I have, as a non-Inuit person. I feel that connection.
I always push forward to have very creative projects that consume a lot of my time and energy but are so fulfilling to me on a personal level. When I see my students try and succeed at new things – it means so much. As a teacher we really are privileged to be able to witness youth going through so much growth and development. It is profound to be a part of their growth.
Q: How did you get the idea of relieving stress in the younger generation to make them stronger through your life skills programme?
Our school board has taken on a Compassionate Schools approach to how we manage our classrooms. We have had trainings and workshop on how trauma affects the brain, which is very relevant as our students are living in a high needs/low resources environment as a result of intergenerational trauma directly related to the colonisation of the Inuit.
I learned that when students come into the class with a high level of stress, their brain is in a state of fight-or-flight. Tasks related to executive functioning cannot occur at this point. They are in “survival” mode. In order for learning to take place, you must relax them from that state so that then learning can take place.
Creating a safe and secure environment, which is usually built on a relationship of trust and non-judgement is one of the first steps. Secondly, I notice that having therapeutic activities– for example art-based, breathing activities or to things like crochet or cooking – can really help in doing so. My students find a way to process their stress in a healthy manner.
Q: Who supports and motivates you?
I receive a tremendous amount of support from other teachers, the staff, the students and the broader community. As we say in my school “teamwork makes the dreams work”. I could not have achieved all that I have without a lot of collaboration. Some teachers help me in the brainstorming / idea conception part. Others, who are stronger organisers than me, help me add structure to my projects. The community helps me when I need to seek out additional funding or resources. The students do fundraising and give their time and enthusiasm. Lastly, my husband is always there for me. My work consumes a lot of my day, and he is patient with that. He gives so much of his personal time to my students as well – knows them all by name and has spent countless hours with me delivering projects.
The Kativik School Board is proud of my achievements and feel privileged that I chose to work in Nunavik. The Global Teacher Prize stands not only as a recognition of my work at Ikusik School, Salluit, but also as an acknowledgement of the essential work performed by all teachers. In Nunavik, as in many other regions of the world, the teaching profession is demanding and challenging. Today, the Inuit society continues to face the repercussions of a history of colonisation, governmental neglect and underfunding; an experience the Inuit of Nunavik share with other Indigenous populations in Canada and internationally. In this context, teachers play a key role in bringing about positive change for our youth, enabling them to stand strong and contribute their worldview to society, within and beyond our communities. In this sense, the Kativik School board wishes to stress that the Global Teacher Prize is really about celebrating our teachers’ invaluable contribution.
Q: What are your future plans?
I have strong personal and professional ties to the community of Salluit, where I spent six years teaching. My plans for the future revolve around education and I want to make sure that the prize I won will benefit the youth of Nunavik.
Q: What are your plans for the prize amount?
What is clear to me at the moment is that I want to use this money through initiatives where my former students would play an active role. There are many technical and legal aspects that must be taken into consideration. Therefore, over the upcoming months I am planning to explore options and seek the advice of experts. My goal is to develop projects that would have a meaningful impact on Nunavik and its youth.