DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A Canadian schoolteacher 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.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered his congratulations in a video message that was broadcast at the event.
“On behalf of all Canadians, from one teacher to another, congratulations on winning the Global Teacher Prize 2017,” the message began.
“You have done extraordinary things in exceptional circumstances and have shown enormous heart, will and imagination,” said Trudeau, a former teacher himself.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, Governor General David Johnston, and astronaut Chris Hadfield all took to social media to congratulate the Nova Scotia-born teacher, who has been teaching in northern Quebec since 2010.
The Kativik School Board also putting out a release praising MacDonnell’s work at Ikusik High School in Salluit, Quebec’s second-most northern community.
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.
Last week MacDonnell told the Canadian Press she was excited three of her students could make the trip to Dubai with her.
“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,” she said.
She said that if she won she wanted to start an environmental stewardship program for northern youth, focused on kayaking.
MacDonnell has been teaching in Salluit for six years. 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.