Cover interview: Maggie MacDonnellApril 6, 2017, 3:00 pm GMT
Maggie MacDonnell made headlines last month as the third winner of the US$1 million Global Teacher Prize. The annual award an initiative of the Varkey Foundation aims to shine a spotlight on the important role teachers play in society.
MacDonnell, a Canadian national, has spent the last six years as a teacher in a fly-in Inuit village called Salluit in the Canadian Arctic. Conditions are harsh temperatures can drop to -25°C in the winter, and there is poor access to running water or land transportation. This also results in very high rates of teacher turnover, which is a significant barrier to education in the Arctic. Several teachers leave their post midway through the year, and many apply for stress leave. Her current school, for instance, has no principal as he left on stress leave after six weeks.
When MacDonnell first arrived in the isolated village with limited resources, the odds seemed stacked against the remote indigenous community. There are tremendous gender issues in the Inuit region of Nunavik where teenage pregnancies are common, high levels of gender abuse exist, and gender roles often burden young girls with domestic duties. Additionally, teenagers often turn to smoking, substance abuse, and self-harm as forms of escape a crisis that resulted in six suicides among youth aged 18-25 years in 2015 alone.
To help the village combat these issues, MacDonnell created a life skills programme for girls, and also established a partnership with the local daycare centre where her students work in the classrooms. This helps them gain valuable on-the-job mentorship and improve their understanding of early childhood education. She also secured over $20,000 for an in-school nutrition programme where students prepare healthy snacks for their fellow students.
Speaking to Education Journal Middle East the morning after her win, MacDonnell 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.
"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."
MacDonnell is keen to highlight the mental health benefits associated with an active lifestyle, especially in a community where the youth are "disenfranchised". She notes: "I work with the Inuit, who are an aboriginal people in Canada, and unfortunately, due to the legacies of colonisation, and decades of underfunding, the social fabric has really been stretched and torn. And the youth I'm working with have inherited all of those legacies.
"What I love about where I teach is that youth come up to me almost daily and are so thankful for the fitness centre or the running club or the basketball team, because for them it's a really accessible way to release some of that tension that they feel in their lives. I have profound memories where, after a suicide, I've had youth who've just lost a friend, who are in a state of shock and trauma and when you've lost a friend to suicide you're very vulnerable to it yourself... and in that moment where they could choose a variety of unhealthy things to escape that pain, they choose to come and work out at the fitness centre. Within 24 hours of a loss like that, this is how they're choosing to deal with all those emotions.
"We're in a very 'low resource high needs' context. So we don't have a lot of social workers or counsellors, or even other healthy recreational opportunities for the kids to embrace. But it certainly also shows that when we invest in those activities and infrastructure for youth, they take advantage of it and that they create healthier lifestyles because of it."
Maggie MacDonnell never planned to enter her name for the Global Teacher Prize her friends encouraged her to enter in order to bring attention to the Inuit community and the challenges they face. It's obvious, however, that the global attention she has received almost overnight is a bit overwhelming for her.
"It's almost a mixed emotion when you win because it's so thrilling. But then you look at all those amazing candidates, and really, anybody deserves it. So I want to make sure I use the prize really well and also honour those other candidates because they were fantastic," she enthuses.
Bolstered by the newfound attention, MacDonnell is now determined to urge the Canadian government to do more for the remote community.
"I think long-term systemic change is going to come… it's been absolutely humbling to know that people as far away as Dubai, India, London, all these places the judges have come from, have decided to take it upon themselves to choose me coming from this story, from this village, and to honour that village with the prize. We're not a huge star in terms of our global power, and the fact that they would crown us like that is really special. And I hope that's going to be a strong and profound example also for our own governments, because I do come from a resource rich place.
"I don't think that the Inuit should have to be looking to international donors and international programmes to assist them with their work. It's amazing that people do, but we should be able to find those solutions within our own borders ideally. And I think we've got to work in Canada towards a much more dignified relationship between our indigenous and non-indigenous people. I know that is probably going to take time."
Winning the Global Teacher Prize will also bring more attention to the problems the Inuit face, and MacDonnell hopes this will start a conversation that can drive real change.
"I guess in some ways, I don't want it to be just a conversation. How do you turn conversations into actions? And I hope people are morally propelled now to turn it into actions. And even when we get into the actions, we've got to figure out are they being directed correctly? It is a complicated mess that's been left by all the colonial interventions that have gone on. It's not an easy problem to fix, but that does not mean you can walk away from it," she says.
The prize money will also enable MacDonnell to launch a non-profit environmental stewardship programme for her students a project that is close to her heart.
She explains: "I'll be talking a lot to my school board just to see what we can get organised on the ground in terms of the projects I'd like to start developing and to see how I can get their support. About half of the projects I've been doing so far fall under the school, so they're kind of institutionalised. And now I really want to talk to them and explain some of the dreams I have, specifically to see what resources they have, what vision they have as well, and how can we form it together. I'll be looking at how we can collaborate these incredible resources together to amplify the impact for our students. It's been a dream of mine to be able to create a non-profit with my students. When I started working with my first cohort of kids, six years ago, they were just 13 or 14 years old, and now they're 18 to 20 years old. They're young adults, they've graduated, and they've been to college. So I'm excited to see if, with them, I can create a non-profit."
As part of the programme, MacDonnell says she would like to tie in the cultural aspect of the community with the environmental focus.
"I think, strategically, we should focus ourselves around environmental stewardship, but also using fun, and cultural engagement tools. One of the dreams I have would be that under this NGO we would offer more access and training to kayaking. The kayak was invented by the Inuit. I've been lucky to work in all sorts of different countries and travel, and I've seen that almost everywhere I've been but currently in the community of Salluit is not very vibrant, but not due to lack of interest from kids.
"So I'd like to see if we can help revive that… do more 'on the land' experiences with the kids. I really want to see if we can create platforms where they can step up to not just being leaders in the community, but leaders regionally, nationally or even as the Varkey Foundation talks a lot about becoming global citizens themselves."
Ultimately, MacDonnell hopes to continue working with the youth.
"I always loved working with young people, and the teaching environment just seems fantastic. To know that I can get paid to literally just share a space and a programme with young people from 9am-3pm every day, and then have that connection so now I can go do even more fun activities after 3pm is just fantastic. It's such the appropriate platform for me, as someone who likes to work with young people. If I wasn't a teacher I'd probably be a youth host… something like that where I would be working with young people," she enthuses.
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