Maggie MacDonnell has got used to living in minus 25 degrees C temperatures. She has also got used to the fact that Salluit, the village she is working in as a teacher, is deep in Canada’s northern Quebec Inuit territory of Nunavik, ‘so remote I often describe it as being on top of the world’, she says. To give me a better idea of how far flung it is, she says that a ‘plane ticket from Montreal, Canada, to Salluit costs around $4,000’.
Temperature and geography she can cope with. But what the 2017 Global Teacher Prize winner is yet to come to terms with is the pain and anguish she experiences when she has to face an empty desk and chair in her classroom. Over the seven years she has been teaching in Salluit, Maggie has witnessed more than 10 student suicides. ‘Attending funerals of my students is the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through; I’d never want to be in that position again,’ she says.
It was two years ago at a glittering ceremony in Dubai that Maggie, by way of a video message from the International Space Station, was named winner of the $1 million Prize. Handing the glittering trophy to the beaming Canadian, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, said she deserved the award ‘for her excellence serving the noblest profession’.
Set up by the Varkey Foundation, founded by philanthropist and educationist Sunny Varkey, chairman of Gems Education, the award honours a teacher annually chosen from thousands of nominations submitted from around the globe. Ten teachers have been shortlisted for this year’s award and the mega gala ceremony will be on March 24 in Dubai.
Maggie still remembers the 2017 award ceremony. Addressing the august audience, Maggie, terming her students ‘my kids’, said she was elated to accept the award and hoped it would ‘help shine a spotlight on Innuit students and the issues the community faces’.
Focussing the spotlight on challenges the Innuit community — particularly students — face has been on top of her mind ever since she opted to become a teacher in Salluit. Having cut her teeth volunteering as a teacher in the Democratic Republic of Congo, working for five years in sub-Saharan Africa raising awareness about HIV/Aids, she believes teachers have a huge role to play in changing lives for the better. ‘I find being a teacher is infectious, engaging and energising; the more you get into teaching the more you don’t want to leave.’
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Explaining why she chose to teach in Salluit, Maggie, in an exclusive telephone interview with Friday from Montreal, Canada, where she was on a break, says, ‘I’ve always been fascinated by the resilience of people who have been colonised and how they struggle to hold on to their culture and customs. Some of the most meaningful opportunities [to work] come from places that have been colonised.’
Born and raised in Canada’s Nova Scotia, she was keen to learn more about her country, and teaching the next generation, she felt, is the best way to do so. ‘Sometimes indigenous and non-indigenous people don’t actually live very close to each other and that affects our ability to learn about the other and develop connections. To me, it was a privilege to live and work with indigenous communities.’
The mother of a year-old daughter, she was aware of the enormous social inequalities, and psychological and social problems that the local population, particularly girls, faced. Assaults were common not just on the Innuit environment and ecosystem but also on women. Sexual abuse, gender inequalities, teenage pregnancies and suicides were rife. As an educator, Maggie’s aim is to build programmes that cultivate resilience, hope and self-belief in students — ‘tools that can combat suicidal thoughts’.
Education for indigenous people has a traumatic history, she says. ‘It was used as a way to attempt to assimilate indigenous people, [but] it was also a tool of a cultural genocide and it happened for decades.’
One of the biggest challenges she faced when she joined as a teacher was ‘building genuine bridges and relationships with these kids because, for many valid reasons, they can be sceptical about the education system, sceptical of outsiders like us and what we represent’.
A basic life skills programme was in place in the school to serve students who were at risk of dropping out. ‘When I arrived, the school was co-educational but I found that girls were not attending,’ she says. Connecting with them outside the school, she learnt that they were shunning classes because they were not comfortable in the classroom. ‘Some male classmates had certain reputations; there has been a long history of ongoing sexual assault and harassment in the communities. So girls did not feel very safe coming to classes,’ says Maggie.
As a first step, she suggested creating an all-girl programme and ‘from the day we started, our classroom was full of girls. That was fantastic,’ says Maggie, her excitement still palpable when recalling the change. ‘Taking the community development approach where you see students as solutions not problems was the way forward.’
Samantha Leclair, a student, is one of the beneficiaries. ‘If it wasn’t for Maggie, I’d never have been able to experience college life,’ says the young woman, in a video posted online. She is not alone. Several girls are all praise for the award-winning teacher for giving them an opportunity to return to classrooms.
Maggie also initiated plans to tackle food security issues that the community was facing. ‘Most students were not getting enough food because it is expensive. I work with them to fund-raise writing letters to donors, creating programmes… We created a student-feeding-student programme where my students make fresh meals every day for the entire student body.’
Over the two years since she won the Global Teacher award, another issue she successfully helped tackle was the paucity of healthy spaces for children in the community. ‘We created a fitness centre that has become a hub for young members to adopt and try out a healthier lifestyle. It also acts as a tool for coping with troubling issues they face,’ she says.
To help children cope with the problem of sexual assault and harassment — ‘a big issue in my community’ — she also got her students to work with a local activist who develops workshops on the issue.
Has winning the Global Teacher Prize brought about a huge change in the community?
Maggie is silent for a moment. ‘I wish I could say “yes”, but to be honest I don’t think there has been a huge change as yet. Suicides are still an issue and I still don’t think we have fully responded to the situation.’
However, she is extremely pleased that the award has helped ‘shine a spotlight on educators. It’s a struggle in Canada to recruit teachers to work in remote communities because it is challenging work. The award has shone a very positive spotlight on the opportunities to teach in those communities and how impactful your work can be.’ Since winning the award, she has found a renewed interest among Canadians to work with indigenous peoples.
The teacher admits she and her students are still overwhelmed by the opportunities winning the award has presented to them. ‘My students have travelled across Canada, to Chile, Argentina, the US... They have spoken at the UN, met former US president Bill Clinton, had scholarship opportunities offered to them. All that has boosted their confidence enormously.
‘I’ve become a kind of gateway for people who are interested in the story on how to connect and learn… there’ve been all sorts of learning on both ends. That’s very interesting and exciting.’
Winning the $1 million prize has also meant that she is able to extend all the initiatives she started. ‘Two months ago, I started a running club and have now expanded it to four villages,’ she says. Indigenous youth runners from four villages have had the opportunity to travel across the world and participate in marathons and half marathons in Cayman Islands, among other places.
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Larry Tomasai, a runner and a student of hers, admits he is indebted to her. ‘[Maggie] has turned around my life. She’s been my teacher, coach and trainer, but over the years has become like family to me,’ he says, in an online video. ‘I’m truly thankful for everything she has done for me.’
Maggie, on her part, says that her goal when working with youth is to give them tools they need to be masters of their own destiny. The running programme she initiated has had some curious spinoffs — several of her athletes have quit smoking and stopped using banned substances. ‘Some have even returned to school,’ she says. ‘I often tell my runners something I firmly believe in: “When you run alone, you can go really fast. But when you run with others you can go really far”.’
The passionate teacher has been able to make a positive difference in the lives of the community in other areas too. ‘Did you know that it was Innuits who invented kayaks and had been using these boats for thousands of years?’ asks Maggie.
Kayaks, historically part of their culture, and kayaking as a sport was something Innuits used to excel at. ‘However, colonisation took away this culture from them,’ she says.
Keen to get the Innuits to reconnect with their culture and revitalise the sport, Maggie, using part of the prize money, started a kayak programme a few months ago. ‘Now we have Innuits who are trained as Level One paddlers; two women have trained as instructors,’ she says, proudly.
But her most fulfilling moment, she says, was when an Innuit girl who had spent a week on water learning kayak strokes, came over to thank her for ‘helping me reconnect with my ancestors’.
‘These are people who had been disconnected from their culture purposefully; their language, spirituality, everything was taken away from them as a way to oppress them. The student said that when she was on water, she felt she was with her ancestors again,’ says Maggie. ‘Isn’t that so great?’
Quick to share the credit for her success to ‘the power of educators and to education’, she says, ‘I had professional support and the resources so I could guide education towards what I felt was very important.’
While insisting she is not trying to diminish math or academics, ‘but what was really important for that student was to reconnect to her culture and roots; that will make her culture and every other academic pursuit she does truly worthwhile for her.’
Since winning the award, Maggie’s students have received invitations to youth leadership conferences, been featured in the media… ‘Typically, few mediapersons used to visit [Salluit], but after the award there has been some interest and a few have started to visit to highlight not just my [achievement] but the fantastic work so many teachers are doing. The media spotlight that was created for me has grown to encompass more educators and students and their amazing stories of what is happening.’
Thanking the Varkey Foundation for bringing into focus the work teachers are doing across the world even in remote locations, she says: ‘The foundation has been incredibly helpful supporting me in just about every way.’ Maggie recalls sharing the stage with former US president Barack Obama a few months ago. ‘There I was in a stadium filled with people who paid maybe a few thousand dollars for a seat to listen to president Obama and me talk about leadership and communication! That’s the kind of platform the Varkey Foundation has created for teachers like myself — to be seen as a leader, an expert on communication, on building resilience, the future… just like Obama who is a global figure. The Foundation was with me all along helping me to learn how to amplify the story that I have and the stories so many teachers have.’
What’s been the highlight of your career so far, I ask Maggie.
‘There have been several,’ she says, cheerfully. ‘But last January, I saw a student had tagged me on one of her posts on Facebook where she thanked me for saving her life. She’d been struggling with suicidal thoughts and said that because of her connection with me and my interactions with her, she was able to overcome those thoughts and have a fulfilling life.
‘To be thanked by students in a way that one did not even know was truly overwhelming. I want teachers to know that sometimes they are not aware of what impact they can have on their students. I was too naïve to know what kind of impact I was having on students or how I had changed her life.
‘Teachers,’ she adds, ‘quite literally have the lives of students in their hands. They may sometimes support a child in ways they are not even aware of. That FB post my student shared was, for me, beyond a career highlight; it was a personal highlight.’
Maggie, who will return to Salluit after her short break, says: ‘A lot of people come to the Arctic and are overwhelmed and mesmerised by the geography of the land. But I’ve always been moved by the youth I work with. They, I think, are the true Northern Lights.’
Maggie’s 3 tips for students
1. If you’re a student who comes from a vulnerable background or has had struggles with adults in your life, I ask you to take a risk and trust your teachers. Try to open yourself up to them, share what’s on your mind with them.
2. Let them know what you care about, your fears, because they can help you navigate them.
3. Consider becoming a teacher yourself; it is one of the most transformative professions in the world.
Maggie’s 3 tips for teachers
1. Build relationships. Make time for that.
2. As teachers you take care of others all day professionally and of the family once back home. But as much as you take care of others, take care of yourself. It’s very important.
3. It is not about making every moment perfect; it is about perseverance.
Maggie’s 3 tips for schools
1. Give teachers more autonomy in their profession.
2. Trust and believe in them.
3. Invest in teachers’ development; give them more opportunities and resources for professional development. We are in such a dynamic profession anything that’s happening in society is coming right into our classrooms. A teacher who graduated 20 years ago might need opportunities for refreshing their learning to respond to issues that are happening in the field of mental health issues, for instance, or climate change or effects of social media.
Andria Zafirakou is still overwhelmed by the reactions she has been receiving since she won the Global Teacher Prize last year in Dubai. From speaking assignments to felicitation ceremonies, including those ‘pinch me am I dreaming moments’, the celebrations after winning the $1-million prize instituted by the Varkey Foundation have simply not stopped. ‘It’s been a year [since winning the award] but the effects are still on. I’m travelling almost every two weeks,’ she says, in a telephone interview from London where she is associate deputy head teacher at Alperton Community School.
‘I’m a connoisseur of airports now and can recommend the best airports in the world, but I’m also perennially jet-lagged,’ she says with a laugh, still relishing the limelight that the prize has shone on not just her but the entire teaching community.
‘The award has kind of made the candle shine brighter,’ she says. ‘It’s helped add a spark of pride and recognition, an element of happiness to what has been an area where nothing really happens. Earlier there was not much recognition and life was quite mundane. Now everyone knows us, international teachers and delegates come visiting to see how we are doing things at school, we’ve had the royal family come visiting our school, celebrities…
‘Often you don’t really know what you are doing when you are working in a school. You just carry on doing what you are doing but when it is recognised on a global scale, that’s really important and amazing.’
Has the award changed her professional life?
‘I’ve been reflecting on this,’ she says, after thinking about the question for a moment. ‘I used to say that the award has changed my life completely, but actually it has not. What it has done for me is change the direction of my life. I’ve been able to cope with the demands of the prize in terms of travelling, the expectations of meeting people but also kept to teaching and, of course, it has helped have a happier family.
‘I think for me the realisation of my message — how I’m not the only one who feels this but there are others too who believe in what I have been saying about the importance of including art in the school curriculum.’
In an interview with Friday immediately after winning the award last year, Andria had said she wanted to do more in the realm of art. Sticking to her word, she set up a charity using part of the prize money to get artists into schools to do projects for students ‘so that students can hopefully feel that they can become artists or designers themselves’. The project also helps children get an introduction into the world of art and what it would be like to work in that area.
The going, though, has not been easy. ‘We can all have dreams but the amount of effort and hard work that is needed to realise those dreams is just mindboggling. I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard in my life. I wish days are longer,’ she says.
Reminding the society that ‘without schools or teachers there is no hope for our children’, she says schools should offer all support to teachers, providing them with facilities and resources to help them ‘discharge their duties well’.
Andria 3 tips to teachers
1. Be mindful and remember not to judge students. They may be coming from extraordinary, very different backgrounds, do not underestimate how much a child can really perform and have high expectations of them.
2. Build relationships, know who the children are, where they are coming from, what inspires them. You could be the only positive and joyful moment, the connection, that a child has in his life.
3. Very rarely do we get someone who’ll say ‘well done’ or ‘here’s a pay raise’. It doesn’t often work in our world unfortunately. You don’t get a lot of positive feedback for things you have done well. But remember, you are changing lives and that’s a huge responsibility. Teachers often don’t realise how powerful they are.