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Maggie MacDonnell is a high school physical education teacher and life skills coach in Salluit, Nunavik, a remote indigenous community in northern Quebec, Canada. Despite freezing temperatures, and a lack of running water and proper working sewage system, she has chosen to stay in this village just over 1,300 people.
MacDonnell grew up in rural Nova Scotia, got her master’s degree at the University of Toronto and spent five years volunteering and working with youth in Africa, before going to Salluit.
A big issue for rural schools everywhere is teacher retention. MacDonnell, unlike many, chose to stay in remote Salluit. Along with teaching for six years, she has become an integral part of the community, creating a fitness center for adults and youth, a running club and a community kitchen. For her efforts, she won the $1 million Varkey Foundation global teacher prize for 2017. She’s currently on leave from teaching to work for the local school board to promote healthy living in all 14 Nunavik communities.
The Hechinger Report spoke with MacDonnell about retaining teachers in remote places.
What attracted you to this job?
I just love working with young people. I’ve always been inspired by them. I was incredibly lucky as a young person to benefit a lot from my rural school system. With the impact it had on my life, it just seemed like a natural decision to continue working with young people.
Why did you stay?
I don’t think we should run away from hard issues. I felt as a non-indigenous Canadian I had a responsibility to learn more about my nation’s history, and felt a desire to especially learn from indigenous people. Also, though we often count the tragedies in the north of Canada, the suicides and all the different deaths, what we don’t count is how many lives are saved. There are many kids we help influence to not take a criminal path. When you are in those communities you realize you are having a human-to-human impact, and it’s hard to walk away from something like that.
Describe the community where you teach. What is it like?
It’s in the Canadian arctic above the tree line. It’s a fly-in community, which can only be accessed by plane most of the year. It’s in the region of Nunavik, in the upper portion of Quebec. There’s 14 villages in that region, almost all of the Inuit community. There’s no road network connecting them. Most of the villages are right on the water, the Hudson Strait. It’s breathtaking, the landscape – you can see for miles. No trees grow there, so your views are panoramic and endless. Snow covers it probably ten months out of the year. The water is frozen solid enough that you can land planes on it and skidoo or Honda across it.
What were your first days like as a teacher?
I came in mid-term. There had been no teacher there for that class full-time since the start of the year. It’s really hard to recruit teachers in Canada and get them to stay in those communities. A teacher shared the classroom with me for the first two days. We went through introducing myself to the students and finding ways to connect with them. Communities usually have a bit of distrust towards a new teacher because they don’t stay. I was working with a particular group of students who were at risk of dropping out of school. Some of them had negative experiences with school, so I had a big uphill battle. I had to build their trust, and it does take a lot of time, patience and compassion
What are the unique challenges you faced? Can you tell me any personal stories about your experience?
I had to live in a community where there was an outbreak of tuberculosis. We had over 30 active cases in our community at one point. I had to live with the lack of proper running water and sewage. In many ways that was an adaptation; it’s one thing when you’re going to work abroad, but it’s another thing when you’re going to work in Canada. The other challenges are trying to work, as an outside teacher, in a system that has a very complicated history with its indigenous history.
What do you think can be done to retain teachers in rural areas?
I think we need to look at how we train teachers, [and] the general public, about our history and what has happened with our indigenous community, because most people don’t really know the history. Secondly, we need to rebrand how we see the north, and inspire Canadians of all professions to get involved in these communities. Third, we need think about compensation. That might make it a lot easier for people to work in tough conditions. It’s a place where there are high needs and low resources. As a teacher, you take on a lot of those traumas, as well, which is emotionally challenging for many people. We have to work on compensating those people who are willing to take on those roles. I think it’s important to remind people of the value of teachers, and bring prestige back to that profession.
What do you think states should do to improve rural education or opportunities for rural students?
There needs to be a lot more investment. As educators, we need to find a way to connect, advocate and lobby, not just in education but also housing, healthcare and healing. When we don’t see more investment in those areas, that all comes into our classrooms and makes our jobs more difficult as teachers.
What are you most proud of?
There’s so many wonderful moments I have as a teacher connecting with kids. Recently, due to the global teacher prize, I was able to take students to Chile. I brought two students and they got to have a one-hour conversation with the first female president of Chile. They were able to share their culture, language and experiences. It was great.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.