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Antigonish County native wins $1-million global award for teaching excellence

Maggie MacDonnell, who grew up in Afton, Antigonish County, and whose teaching philosophy underscores hope and acts of kindness in an isolated corner of Quebec, won a $1 million prize Sunday in what has become one of the most-coveted and high-profile awards for teaching excellence.
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Teacher Maggie MacDonnell, second from left, and students Samantha Leclerc, Lucasie Amamatuak and Larry Thomassie pose for a photo in Montreal last Tuesday. (Kativik School Board via CP)

MONTREAL — An educator from a remote northern Quebec community who is vying for a prestigious US$1-million teaching award wanted to keep the spotlight on her students — so she brought three of them to attend the ceremony in the Middle East.

Maggie MacDonnell is one of 10 people up for the Global Teacher Prize, having beaten out 20,000 other applicants from 179 countries. She is the only North American to make the final cut.

The winner will be announced Sunday, but MacDonnell, somewhat reluctant about applying at first, said she's happy to share the experience with some of her students at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai.

"Any relationship is a two-way street — they also trusted me or invited me to come into their lives," MacDonnell told The Canadian Press. "They're a huge part of the story and the reason I chose to get involved (in the award) was to make sure it could in some way benefit their lives."

The students were able to get to the Middle East thanks to financial help from the Kativik School Board and Air Inuit.

MacDonnell, a native of Afton, Antigonish County, is being recognized for her work at Ikusik High School in Salluit, Quebec's second-most northern community.

She repeatedly balked at the idea of a nomination.

"He (a friend) finally convinced me by saying: 'You work with such a unique population, think about this as a way to raise their profile.'"

MacDonnell has championed physical activity and has seen tangible success, having started up a running club and helped set up a fitness centre. It's welcome in a region where youth battle substance abuse, isolation and suicide. Ten kids have taken their lives over a two-year period in just her community.

MacDonnell, who worked in Botswana, Tanzania and Congo before moving to northern Quebec, said that in a place where student needs outweigh available resources, teaching them to use physical activity to help with their mental health is key.

"I can't say it's going after the root issues — physical activity isn't the solution to the housing crisis, it isn't a solution to the food security those kids are facing in the north," said MacDonnell. "But it is a tool to building resilience and it's a really great coping strategy for them to have considering all that they're dealing with."

All of it makes teaching in the north a far different experience.

"When you're there as an adult in their life, you end up, for a variety of reasons ... (taking) on one of the more familial or parental roles with them," she said. "Because there are so many funding gaps in the north, you end up stretching yourself to cover those gaps, so you become an informal counsellor or social worker for some of the kids."

If she wins, MacDonnell wants to start an environmental stewardship program for northern youth, focused on kayaking.

"I want to see that sport, that physical activity and that part of their culture come back to life in their region," she said.

The award, administered by The Varkey Foundation, a non-profit group that focuses on education issues, is in its third year.

The other finalists are educators from China, Jamaica, Kenya, Brazil, Germany, England, Spain, Australia and Pakistan.

 

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press



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