On Global Teacher Prize Winner Maggie MacDonnell and What Humility Looks Like

Jose Vilson Education, Featured, Jose

We met at a fancy hotel on Central Park South, a place that most native New Yorkers scurry past before they get priced out of the sidewalk. Whenever I meet teachers that gain acclaim on a macro-level, I always ask two questions: how are they affected by their newfound fame and do they still have the touch? The first is obvious. In American society, teachers who get large titles like “National Teacher of the Year,” “President of [insert large city here],” or, in this case, “Global Teacher Prize,” skyrocket to echelons where they meet heads of state, billionaire magnates, and hedge fund managers who can sneeze donations. They get peppered with gifts and four-to-five figure speaking gigs and, on occasion, get recognized for just being nice. It’s more than an honor; it’s the equivalent of getting a diamond-encrusted coat.

They might be the same “them,” but everyone else sees diamonds. They must be royalty. Everyone else says so now, but not before the coat. So it goes with the Global Teacher Prize winner Maggie MacDonnell, winner of the 2017 Global Teacher Prize.

I wouldn’t call this an interview, though. Interviews are often one-directional, so I insisted on talking through it. It’s also important to note that I met her the day after I finished classes. I still hadn’t unplugged from the person I was in the classroom. People might believe that one of the most notorious / renowned teachers in the largest city in America would shrug at the idea of meeting educators from smaller towns with fancy titles, but such derision would mean I have nothing to learn from a fellow educator. Teachers are always trying to pick up wisdom, no matter how long we’ve been in the game.

Unlike the publicists and handlers around her, the teachers (yes, that being me and her) dressed super-casual for this conversation. She started by talking about the very different life she leads now as an ambassador for the Varkey Foundation, the sponsor for the Global Teacher Prize. Her trip to Dubai obviously left an impression on her, so much so that she didn’t see herself winning this prize. Her district sponsored two of her students to accompany her on the trip, and she let out a smirk when she told the story of her Inuit students basking in the media glow. “I didn’t even think I was going to win, but to see my kids get all these cameras in front of them was great for me!”

She also recognized the privilege she walks in, a white English-speaking woman coming from the outside of her district to teach students of color. She was quick to decenter herself from that element, too: “My story is way more boring than the kids’ stories. They’ve survived more than I could imagine.”

She is a disciple of an ABCD-type pedagogy: asset-based community development. Usually, outsiders to a given situation come in believing that the natives have little to offer in the way of education. She prefers to ask questions and create solutions from the resources (and brainpower) that’s already there. Unlike many of my colleagues in the United States, she has the autonomy to experiment and take her time with students’ learning processes. She figures the best solutions for the community come from the community itself. “My students wanted to build a gym, and that’s exactly what we did. We got some funding, we set up the space, and some of the kids who were into drugs and harming themselves stopped all that because they had somewhere to go.”

As I’m watching her tell stories of what it’s like to teach in subzero weather, I’m watching her hands and her eyes, both engaging and inviting. After 12 years, I have a BS test that’s pretty spot on as far as “good” teachers go, and she passed it in the way she presented her pedagogy and her shock at this ambassador position. I ask her if she thinks her stories will help shift education reformers in this country to reconsider their restrictive and unimaginative approaches to educating our children. She didn’t know for sure, but she hoped that this was Varkey Foundation’s aim. “I know that’s what they want me to do by having me take off for a year and going to all of these places … Whenever I speak at different places, all the teachers stand up and cheer me on, but I’m not always sure about the other people listening!”

We ended on the parts that hurt. Her students are suffering. Her interpretation of solutions ultimately point in improving the lives of her students. She wants to use the largesse she’s gotten from this prize to create a kayaking program for the town. I don’t know what I’d do with a million dollars besides hold onto it for a rainy day. (And my students have had a lot of rainy day.) I certainly couldn’t tour the world meeting with different entities telling them as much.

As a teacher, I wasn’t even concerned with the riches nor how she would spend it. In fact, I wish every teacher worth their weight in chart paper would accrue a million dollars as a matter of principle. What I wanted to find out was whether her compass would lead her back to Salluit, to the young people who got her here. Once I found out it would, I didn’t need to hear much else. I wished her well and wished the other folks well.

Our experiences as educators teach us humility as a means of self-effacement, as if we don’t deserve the love and gifts bequeathed to us. I do believe in humility for the sake of serving students, parents, and our communities. I don’t believe in it for the purposes of allowing society to devalue us in our monies or our status. Saccharine-heavy commercials and salutations won’t be enough. Our stories deserve elevation. Such augmentation need not change the temperament it takes to succeed in our profession.

MacDonnell impressed me with her understanding of the community she serves, but also the way that this newfound celebrity has overwhelmed her. Teachers don’t get to win often, so when one of us wins, a part of us should feel like we won, too. When we finally get to the point where we can all win, we’ll look back at this current period of education reform and say “The solutions were under our noses.” Or, in MacDonnell’s case, in her kayaks.

photo c/o