US & Canada

Maggie MacDonnell feels 'disbelief' after Global Teacher Prize win

Canadian teacher Maggie MacDonnell delivers a speech after receiving the Global Teacher Prize during a ceremony in Dubai on March 19, 2017. MacDonnell, who works in a fly-in only village in the Arctic, was among 10 finalists chosen from 179 countries and won a $1 million prize. Image copyright AFP
Image caption Maggie MacDonnell says part of her teaching philosophy is to guide youth to being "masters of their own destiny".

The Canadian teacher named best in the world last weekend is still feeling "a bit of disbelief".

At an awards ceremony in Dubai, Maggie MacDonnell walked away with this year's Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize.

The Nova Scotia-born teacher has taught for the last six years in a remote fly-in Inuit village called Salluit.

Originally hesitant to take part in the competition, she saw an opportunity to draw attention to challenges facing northern indigenous communities.

Ms MacDonnell knew she wanted to come back to Canada after spending five years in countries like Botswana, Tanzania and Congo, where her work focused on sports and recreation as a community development tool.

Her love for sport followed her to Salluit in northern Quebec.

Outside the classroom, she spent time as a coach for the Salluit Running Club. Seven Inuit youth travelled with her to Hawaii in 2016 to run a half marathon.

She also helped open a fitness centre in the small community.

The educator said the importance of physical activity to mental health and resilience is often undervalued.

"We're on an eight month plan before we get to that race - of fundraising, of building team collaboration and team spirit. Of committing," she said of her running club.

There are challenges in Salluit, with a population of about 1,400 people.

Like other remote indigenous communities in Canada, there is a lack of housing. There are problems with sexual abuse and substance abuse. Teenage pregnancies are common. Six young men there committed suicides in 2015.

There are few healthy escapes for the village's youth, Ms MacDonnell said, and that is why she pushed for healthy outlets.

Her projects extended well beyond the classroom, from taking students hiking in national parks, to having them run a community kitchen and fundraising for diabetes prevention programs. She has also temporarily fostered some Salluit youth.

"The school is not isolated from the community. You can imagine it's a silo but that just your imagination," she said.

"In reality (the students are) bringing in backpacks of the issues they're dealing with. And they're also bringing their talents and gifts and resources."

Ms MacDonnell brought three of her former students with her to Dubai, where she beat nine other teachers for the US$1m (£810,000) prize, following a vote by the 153-member Global Teacher Prize Academy.

Ms MacDonnell is currently on leave from teaching and will be working with Kativik School Board on implementing her community development vision at a regional level.

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