The Varkey Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Dubai-based GEMS Education, has awarded its third annual Global Teacher Prize to Maggie MacDonnell, a teacher in Salluit, an Inuit village deep in the Canadian Arctic.
Created to recognize an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession, the prize includes a $1 million cash award to be paid over ten years. The annual prize is awarded by the Varkey Foundation under the patronage of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and emir of Dubai.
Selected from a pool of ten finalists, MacDonnell lives and works in one of the world's most remote communities, where temperatures can reach -25°C in winter and whose thirteen hundred indigenous inhabitants have been battered by decades of abuse. Driven by a desire to tackle the environmental destruction and massive and social inequality in her community, MacDonnell employs a "solutions, not problems" approach to her work. In a community where suicide, substance abuse, and sexual abuse rates are sadly elevated, she established a Life Skills program based on motivating young people to return to school, engaging them in projects — from cookery to mechanics — that interest them and praising them for their achievements.
Among other things, the program has seen a 500 percent improvement in the registration of girls for programs previously dominated by boys, and MacDonnell's students have managed to raise nearly $40,000 for diabetes prevention. MacDonnell also has stepped in as a temporary foster parent, in some cases for her own students. She plans to use her prize money to establish a nongovernmental organization to serve the community and surrounding Nunavik region.
"I think as a teacher in a small Arctic community, your day never ends," said MacDonnell. "The school doors may close, but the relationship with your students is continuous as you share the community with them."