A veteran teacher and education author from midcoast Maine was awarded the first-ever $1 million Global Teacher Prize at a ceremony in Dubai on Sunday attended by former President Bill Clinton.

Nancie Atwell, who founded the Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb 25 years ago, plans to donate the full amount of the prize to the school.

“I really find that I’m validated every day just by the experiences I have with children in the classroom,” she told The Associated Press after receiving the award.

Shortly after it was announced that Atwell had won the prize, her school’s emergency phone chain went into action to inform all of the staff and parents of the news.

“We are so excited we are just pinching ourselves,” said Scott MacDonald, head of school at the Center for Teaching and Learning.

Atwell was one of 10 finalists for the prestigious prize. She was chosen from a field of 5,000 nominees from 127 countries who were winnowed down to 50 in January and to the 10 finalists last month.

Other finalists included educators from Indonesia, the United Kingdom, India, Haiti, Kenya, Cambodia, Afghanistan and two other teachers from the United States. She is the first to win the award, created to elevate the profession of teaching and improve education as a result.

After accepting the award Sunday, Atwell said teaching is a privilege and a career she has loved and hopes young people will consider for themselves.

“I love my teaching life,” said Atwell.

The Global Teacher Prize was created by the Varkey Foundation, a philanthropic offshoot of Global Education Management Systems, a Dubai-based company and the largest operator of private elementary and secondary schools in the world. It has schools in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, North America and Europe.

The prize is aimed at doing for education what the Nobel Prize has done for science, literature and peace.

Atwell was presented the award at an evening ceremony in Dubai by Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and the ruler of Dubai. The ceremony was shown live on the Internet.

Former President Clinton also spoke, recalling the influence his teachers had on his life.

Atwell was chosen by a global panel of education experts and activists. She received a congratulatory phone call from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last week and messages of support from former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates and U.N. Secretary General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon.

“I am honored to accept this award especially in the company of these extraordinary teachers,” Atwell said.

Atwell and her daughter, Anne Atwell-McLeod, who is also a teacher, flew to Dubai on Friday for the award ceremony.

Atwell, 63, lives in Southport with her husband, Toby McLeod. In 1990, she founded the Center for Teaching and Learning, a private demonstration elementary and middle school, after more than a decade teaching middle school English and writing in Boothbay Harbor.

About 40 to 50 teachers from around the world descend on the Edgecomb school each year to study the teaching methods of its 10 full- and part-time staff members. The student teachers’ tuition goes toward a scholarship fund for students who cannot afford the school’s annual $8,500 tuition. The school has an enrollment of 69 students in grades kindergarten through 8.

Atwell has also written nine books on teaching, one of which has sold more than 500,000 copies. She speaks about teaching all over the world, and asks to be introduced at her speeches simply as a teacher who was in the classroom the day before.

In an interview with the Portland Press Herald in January, Atwell described teaching as “pure pleasure. It’s like eating dessert all day long.”

Atwell tried to retire in 2013 after four decades as a teacher but she couldn’t stay away from her school. She now intends to teach indefinitely.

The prize also put the Center for Teaching and Learning on the map. The prize organizers said they expect Atwell and the nine finalists to gain the attention of education-oriented philanthropic organizations around the world.

MacDonald said many friends, family and alumni and others associated with the school watched the ceremony on the Internet.

“We were just holding our breath this morning,” MacDonald said.

Atwell was immediately whisked away after the ceremony for an awards dinner.

MacDonald said Atwell, whom he had not yet spoken to since she was awarded the prize, was probably stunned that she won.

“She mentioned to all of us just the breadth of the teacher finalists and what a fabulous group of them they were,” said MacDonald.

Fellow teacher Katie Ritterhaus, who was at the school Sunday afternoon trying to get some work done, said the phone was ringing off the hook with excited well-wishers.

Ritterhaus said Atwell changed the teaching paradigm when she wrote her first book, “In the Middle.”

“Some people think outside the box, but Nancie broke the box when she wrote that book,” said Ritterhaus.

Ritterhaus said anyone who has worked with Atwell knows how special and wonderful she is.

“Now the whole world knows,” said Ritterhaus, a math teacher.

Atwell is due back in Maine sometime midweek. MacDonald said plans for a celebration are afoot but there were no details yet.


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