If Nancie Atwell appeared to be poised and prepared Sunday when she accepted the first-ever Global Teacher Prize at a ceremony in Dubai, it wasn’t because she knew she would win.

“They asked all of (the 10 finalists) to write acceptance speeches,” Atwell said in a telephone interview. “I had no idea. It was a genuine surprise.”

Atwell, a longtime educator and author from midcoast Maine, returned Monday from a whirlwind weekend with some extra luggage – the Global Teacher Prize, which came with its own bulletproof case. The award, sponsored by the Varkey Foundation, the largest operator of private elementary and secondary schools in the world, already has been called the Nobel Prize for teaching, and Atwell is its first winner.

It comes with $1 million that will be paid out in installments over 10 years.

Winning the prize “is validating, but it’s also important in terms of representing not just my work, but the work of a whole profession,” she said.

Atwell, 63, already was a renowned teacher and author when she founded the Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb in 1990. In 1987, she wrote a teaching manual called “In the Middle” that has sold more than 500,000 copies and made her a sought-after educational speaker all over the world.

But her heart was always in the classroom.

Her private K-8 school is unique in that students are not the only ones who go there to learn. Every year, 40-50 teachers from across the world visit as “interns” to learn about teaching practices from Atwell, who espouses the power and value of reading above everything.

Atwell and her colleagues at the Center for Teaching and Learning have graduated hundreds of students since the school was founded. It was one of those students who nominated Atwell for the Global Teacher Prize. She still doesn’t know who it was, and doesn’t necessarily want to know.

“It’s so nice to think that there was someone out there who wanted to do that,” she said.

More than 5,000 educators were initially nominated for the award. Atwell was named one of 50 finalists in January and then made the top 10 in February.

Atwell said she was particularly happy that her daughter, Anne Atwell-McLeod, who teaches at the Center for Teaching and Learning, was able to travel to Dubai with her for the award ceremony, “especially as a mom whose daughter went into the same profession,” she said.

Atwell admitted that she was a little starstruck, not just by her fellow finalists, but also by one of the Varkey Foundation’s most well-known board members, former President Bill Clinton.

“I still miss Bill Clinton as president, so that was an honor,” she said. “And he was lovely. So enthusiastic and persuasive about the role of teachers.”

News of the win has earned her universal praise.

“Anyone who ever spent a day at the Center for Teaching and Learning has seen how dedicated Nancie Atwell is to her students, to other educators and to the teaching profession,” U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said in a written statement. “Now the whole world knows.”

“Nancie has dedicated her life to enriching the lives of others, and this international recognition is a reflection of the tremendous impact she has had in Maine and around the world,” U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King said in a joint statement.

Atwell said she plans to make good on her promise to donate every penny of the prize money back to her school.

“I have everything I could want,” she said.

The money hasn’t been specifically earmarked yet, but Atwell said her top priority is making sure the school has a “robust tuition assistance program,” to give students of all backgrounds the opportunity to attend. The annual tuition is $8,500.

She also hopes to use the money to continue building the school’s impressive collection of books.

Atwell was still jet-lagged early Monday afternoon from a 13-hour flight back to the U.S., but said what she wants most is to get back to her school.

“That’s the place where I’m happiest,” she said.

School officials said they didn’t want to give anything away, but they have plans for a celebration.

Atwell said she can’t wait to show students the award.

“But we’ve gotten lots of awards and recognition,” she said. “This is just one more.”


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