In one of the world’s most remote regions, surrounded by snow and ice, Maggie McDonnell is changing the lives of her students and transforming her community.
The winner of the Global Teacher Prize Winner 2017 lives and works in Salluit, an Inuit village deep in the Canadian Arctic. The village is so remote that it’s accessible only by air.
Just 1,300 people live in the community – the second northernmost Inuit settlement in Canada – but every resident is benefiting from Maggie’s work, determination and talent.
One of the biggest myths about teaching is that the school day ends at 3pm, says Maggie:
“I think as a teacher in a small Arctic community, your day never ends. The school doors may close – but the relationship with your students is continuous as you share the community with them.”
Against the odds
Life is not easy in Salluit. Beyond the freezing temperatures (the mercury can reach minus 25 degrees Celsius in winter) and the inaccessibility, indigenous people in Canada face ongoing struggles after decades of abuse.
A desire to tackle the environmental destruction and massive economic and social inequality in indigenous communities is a big part of what inspired Maggie to teach here. Staff turnover is high, with many leaving throughout the school year, or applying for stress leave.
The community and region also face enormous challenges. In Salluit alone there were six suicides in 2015, all among men aged 18 to 25.
Teenagers, in the face of deprivation and isolation, frequently turn to drink, drugs and self-harm.
The Inuit region of Nunavik has widespread and deeply entrenched gender issues. Teenage pregnancy is common, levels of sexual abuse are high, and gender expectations see young girls burdened with domestic duties.
Solutions, not problems
It takes a remarkable teacher just to work in such an environment. But, to do what Maggie has done requires something quite extraordinary, something very special.
The key? Turning students from problems in solutions.
The success of her Life Skills program has been three-pronged:
1) It’s motivated young people to return to school, by engaging them in projects that interest them – from cookery to mechanics.
2) These talents and interests are used to tackle and address issues in the community.
3) Her students then receive praise and acknowledgment. They have low confidence, and are viewed negatively by the community. But “giving them a new positive platform to stand upon while contributing to the community is transformative for both my students and the community,” writes Maggie.
To tackle the gender issues common in the region, Maggie also created a life skills program specifically for girls. This resulted in a 500% improvement in registration into programs previously dominated by boys.
The programs range from bike repair to construction. Here’s a snapshot of just some of them:
Creating a fitness center
In a community where healthy recreational options are limited, Maggie and her students built a fitness centre. With $100,000 worth of initial funding, her students helped in everything from painting to equipment assembly. Diabetes and disease linked to obesity is on the rise among the Inuit population, so the project has provided enormous health benefits to the entire community – not just Maggie’s students.
A community kitchen
As part of the girls’ only program, Maggie helped secured finding for a community kitchen. Typically, 75 local people gather to eat a meal that students have helped prepare. They also take the meals on the road, delivering to vulnerable groups. The project has not only developed cookery skills among the students, but also helped in an area where food insecurity and the cost of healthy food are high.
Managing a second-hand store
As nearly all goods have to be flown in, the cost of living is exceptionally high in the community. So, Maggie’s students wanted to open a shop. And that’s exactly what they did. They gathered donated items, and opened the store every weekend. The students learned a variety of skills associated with running a shop – entrepreneurship, dealing with cash and money, customer service – while the community benefitted from affordable second hand goods.
Global Teacher Prize Winner 2017
In between all this, her students have also found time to raise nearly $40,000 for diabetes prevention. Maggie has also been a temporary foster parent – including to some of her own students – and a life-saver:
“On three separate occasions I have had students come to thank me for saving their life. All of them had gone through difficult times when losing friends and family to suicide as well as experiencing other traumas in their life. Each of them had reached out to me in some way when they were battling their own thoughts of suicide.”
Maggie McDonnell has made an outstanding contribution to the lives of her students and everyone in Salluit. She is a deserving winner of the $1 million Global Teacher Prize for 2017 – money she’ll use to set up an NGO.
The Global Teacher Prize is awarded by the Varkey Foundation under the patronage of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister, and Emir of Dubai.