Nunavik teacher’s prize shines spotlight on northern education

By Sarah Rogers, Nunatsiaq News - March 27, 2017

Nunavik teacher Maggie MacDonnell hopes the global teaching prize she picked up March 19 will draw attention to education in Inuit communities and the important role that educators play in the lives of northern youth.

For now, MacDonnell is still swept up in a “tornado of events” and media interviews since she returned home from Dubai last week, where she was selected among 20,000 applicants and 10 finalists to win the $1 million Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize for 2017.

MacDonnell was nominated for the award by her students and colleagues at Ikusik school in Salluit, where she’s taught since 2012.

[Nunavik teacher wins $1 million Global Teacher prize]

“I was really reticent to take on this nomination,” MacDonnell said. “Going for something called the global teaching prize … I’m not that arrogant that I could call myself the world’s best teacher. That’s a huge title.

“Anyone who works in the North, in teaching, is constantly humbled by the challenges we face.”

But she decided the exposure could be positive for the region and community, where MacDonnell has launched a life skills program, a community kitchen, a second-hand store and a fitness center. She’s also helped train youth to run and compete in international marathons.

Maggie MacDonnell, a teacher at a school in Nunavik, as won the Varkey Foundation's Global Teacher Prize. (Courtesy Varkey Foundation)
Maggie MacDonnell, a teacher at a school in Nunavik, won the Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize. (Courtesy Varkey Foundation)

A filmmaker from the Varkey Foundation came up to Salluit to gather footage of MacDonnell’s work and interviews with her students and colleagues in the lead up to the March 19 gala.

It was only then MacDonnell said she felt the real impact of her work, when she heard some of her students being interviewed on camera.

“It was so emotional for me,” she said. “Here they were speaking about me and speaking about ways I had affected them, that I didn’t even know. That was really touching for me.”

One of her former students, recent Ikusik grad Samantha Leclerc, told the interviewer that if it hadn’t been for MacDonnell, she wouldn’t be heading to college. Leclerc is starting a dental assistant diploma program in Montreal this May.

“I know I was encouraging her to go to college, but I thought I was one of many,” MacDonnell said. “I didn’t know that I was the one that pushed her.”

Students play such an important role in MacDonnell’s work, she asked if she could bring a few of them with her to Dubai for the awards gala. The Kativik School Board and Air Inuit helped cover the travel costs for Leclerc and two other recent graduates of Ikusik, Larry Thomassie and Lucasie Amamatuak.

“I was so content to know that I brought them there,” she said. “In reality, the reason I’ve been recognized for those things is because I’ve been able to build strong relationships, and they go two ways.”

The students’ participation helped shine a spotlight on Nunavik at the event, MacDonnell said, by giving “non-stop” interviews with international press.

“It’s truly global,” she said. “I just hope this will just keep bring attention to education systems in Inuit communities in Canada. I want to shine more light on all the amazing things teachers are doing in northern communities.”

There are lots of Nunavimmiut friends and colleagues of MacDonnell anxious to see her again and pass along their congratulations in person, especially in Salluit where she’s advocated for so much change.

“She is our good friend,” said Salluit Mayor Paulusie Saviadjuk. “She’s helped so many youth.”

But Salluit residents will see a little less of MacDonnell for now: just before she was named a finalist to the Varkey award, MacDonnell relocated to Kuujjuaq, where she’s working as a consultant to the KSB’s healthy school programs.

With a million dollars now at her disposal, MacDonnell is hoping to launch an environmental stewardship program in Salluit focused on kayaking. The goal is to develop a nonprofit organization, led by youth, that would eventually expand to communities across the region.

“I love kayaking,” she said. “I think it’s a great engagement tool and it’s great physical activity.”