Monday 21st of August 2017

Supporting success for Canada’s Indigenous Students

Many of Canada’s teachers are doing extraordinary things to support Indigenous Students. But too many are having to do it by themselves.

Teachers across Canada have helped drive success among Indigenous Students, but their hard work is often being done in isolation, according to a new OECD report.  

As a teacher who has spent the last seven years working with Indigenous Students in the Canadian Artic, and as the winner of this year’s Global Teacher Prize, I’m here to tell you: we need more support.


Teachers matter


First, the good news. OECD’s study found plenty of success stories: many of the Canadian schools surveyed across the country had improved outcomes for their Indigenous Students.

The magic formula? An inspirational leader who builds strong relationships with students, parents and local communities, working with capable and committed staff.

But here’s the flip side. Every one of these schools is going it alone. Remarkably, OECD’s researchers didn’t find a single case of a school which had partnered with another.

In other words, while teachers up and down our country are doing a lot of good work, no one in Canada’s decentralized education system has been joining the dots.

And that, surely, is a problem. It means hard-won lessons are being overlooked, opportunities to scale-up successes squandered.

As the old saying goes, this is something everybody in our system should be concerned about; somebody should do something about it – in fact anyone could do it – but in the end nobody does.

All this might come as news to pundits and policy-makers. But it won’t be a surprise to the teachers working with Indigenous Students. After all, we live this every day.



The magic formula? An inspirational leader who builds strong relationships with students, parents and local communities, working with capable and committed staff.

Maggie MacDonnell, Global Teacher Prize winner 2017.



Teaching well means taking responsibility for students’ well-being


The village where I teach, Salluit, is one of the northernmost Inuit communities in Canada’s Artic. Teachers here have it tough. Our school has become a revolving door for teaching staff driven away by stress, loneliness and lack of leadership.

But I’ve been here for seven years. I’ve stayed because I believe in my students. And because I know that teaching can literally save lives.

For many of our young people, poverty and isolation have bred depression and despair. Too many have taken their own lives. Too many more are at risk.

That means success here has to look different to other schools. It’s more than getting your students good grades. It means making your students’ well-being your top priority.

I’ve found that small acts of kindness can make big differences – running a community kitchen, attending suicide prevention training, taking my students hiking through our beautiful countryside. I’m a PE teacher by trade, but my most successful lessons have been teaching my students the life skills they need to help them uncover their sense of purpose and self-worth.

You don’t stop being a teacher when the bell rings. I’ve worked to provide my students with hot meals, work experience and a fitness centre. I’ve even been a temporary foster parent.

And that’s what it takes. Being a teacher here isn’t just about peddling knowledge. It’s about being prepared to take responsibility for your students’ lives.

There are many more teachers like me across Canada. I believe the most successful of us value our Indigenous Students’ culture, identify and language. We build relationships with their families and communities. We try to serve our students, not to steer them.

But if things are going to change, we need more support from the system, so our hard work – and that of our students – doesn’t go to waste.


Teaching can literally save lives.

 Maggie MacDonnell, Global Teacher Prize winner 2017.


Closing the education gap


Make no mistake. There’s no one solution to bridge the education gap between Indigenous Students  and their counterparts, nor can there be a one-size-fits-all plan for Canada’s diverse groups of Indigenous Peoples.

But if you’re looking for a good way to start, let’s talk about boosting Indigenous Students’ access to Early Childhood Education and Care – the OECD has called it “the single most powerful lever for achieving a step change within a generation.”

And there are other things that can and should be done. We need to focus on boosting our students’ well-being, participation and engagement.

We need to find ways to scale successes and learn from failures. We need to give our students a reason to walk through those school doors every day – and have them walk out again feeling a sense of well-being and purpose. That would be a job well done.

But most of all, we need to support the teachers doing the work. Because many of us are doing the very best we can. But, too often, we’re doing it alone.


By Maggie MacDonnell, Global Teacher Prize Winner 2017

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