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Canadian wins $1M global award for teaching excellence

Canadian teacher Maggie MacDonnell is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS

A Canadian school teacher 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.

Maggie MacDonnell was awarded the annual Global Teacher Prize during a ceremony in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, beating out thousands of applicants from around the world.

The prize was established three years ago to recognize one exceptional teacher a year who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession, employs innovative classroom practices and encourages others to join the teaching profession.

Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum was on hand to present the prize to MacDonnell. Her name was announced by French astronaut Thomas Pasquet in a video message from the International Space Station.

MacDonnell was among 10 finalists flown to Dubai to attend the ceremony. The nine others hail from Pakistan, the UK, Jamaica, Spain, Germany, China, Kenya, Australia and Brazil.

MacDonnell has been teaching for six years in a remote Arctic village called Salluit. According to her biography, Salluit is home to the second northernmost Inuit indigenous community in Quebec, with a population of just over 1,300, and can only be reached by air.

Her perseverance to continue teaching in the remote area, where many teachers leave their post midway through the year, made her a standout for the award. MacDonnell created a number of programs for boys and girls, including job mentorship and funds to assist with healthy meals.

She also established a fitness centre for youth and adults in the local community, where drug use and alcoholism rates are high due to the region’s harsh winters and isolation. The tiny village witnessed six suicides in 2015, all affecting young males between the ages of 18 and 25.

Her approach focuses on emphasizing “acts of kindness” such as running a community kitchen and attending suicide prevention training.

“The memory that continues to haunt me is when I see these Canadian teenagers, their very own classmates of the deceased, literally digging the grave,” she said. “I didn’t know until I came to Salluit that that was a Canadian reality.”

Last year, Palestinian teacher Hanan al-Hroub won for her efforts in encouraging students to renounce violence and embrace dialogue. The inaugural prize went to Nancie Atwell, an English teacher from Maine.

The award is presented by the Varkey Foundation. Its founder, Sunny Varkey, established the for-profit GEMS Education company, which has more than 250 schools around the world.

The foundation’s CEO, Vikas Pota, said in a statement that the award aims to shine a spotlight on great teachers and share their stories with the world.

Also Sunday, 15 countries, including Chile, Iraq, Japan, Pakistan, Portugal, Somalia, Ukraine and Yemen, announced they would launch national teaching prizes with the support of the Varkey Foundation.