EDGECOMB — Nancie Atwell tried to retire in 2013 after four decades as an educator, but it didn’t take.

She kept finding herself back inside the cozy walls of the Center for Teaching and Learning, a private, nonprofit K-8 school she founded in 1990, working with students on reading and writing.

“Where else am I going to get 70 hugs every day?” she said Tuesday at the school in the coastal Lincoln County town of Edgecomb, as energetic children swirled around her. “It’s pure pleasure. It’s like eating dessert all day long.”

Atwell, 63, plans to continue teaching indefinitely, but she may need to take a few days off soon.

In December, she was chosen as one of 50 finalists in 26 countries – and only one of 16 teachers from the United States – out of 5,000 nominees for a new but prestigious teaching prize that comes with a $1 million award.

In February, the list of 50 will be culled to 10. That group will be invited to the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates for a March 16 ceremony sponsored by the Varkey GEMS Foundation, a philanthropic arm of Global Education Management Systems, which operates private K-12 schools around the world.


A judging committee will award the Global Teacher Prize to “one exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession,” according to the Varkey GEMS Foundation website. The award is given to a teacher who is judged on “how they open up their pupils’ minds, how much they contribute to the community, and how much they encourage others to become teachers.”

Atwell has not seen the nomination letter, and she doesn’t know who nominated her for the award, only that it was a former student.

If she’s fortunate enough to win, she said she’ll give every penny of the $1 million to the school.


Atwell moved to Maine from Buffalo, New York, in 1975 with her husband when she got a teaching job at the middle school in Boothbay Harbor. She taught English and writing for the next 12 years until her daughter, Anne, was born.

But Atwell did more than just teach, and continued to learn about her craft and develop ideas for effective teaching practices.


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. In 1991, she won the Modern Library Association’s MLA Mina P. Shaughnessy Prize for the manual, now in its third edition. She has nine books on teaching to her credit.

But the longer she was out of the classroom after her daughter’s birth, the more she missed interacting with students. Rather than look for another teaching job, Atwell decided to open her own school.

She said the Center for Teaching and Learning is Maine’s only “demonstration” school, where each year it hosts 40 to 50 classroom teachers from all over the world for weeklong seminars in which they observe the school’s 10 full- and part-time teachers in a classroom setting.

“We can offer teachers so much more here than if I was just speaking from a podium, which is what I used to do,” Atwell said.

For the teachers, whom they refer to as “interns,” she said the professional development is invaluable.

Each “intern” pays $850 to spend a week there. The money goes into a scholarship fund for students at the center who cannot pay the full $8,500 annual tuition.


Atwell never wanted to start a school that only rich kids could attend and keeps the tuition lower than other private schools. Tuition at North Yarmouth Academy, for instance, starts at $22,000 for fifth-graders, according to its website.

There are 69 students enrolled at the Center for Teaching and Learning, according to head of school Scott MacDonald. He sees his job as handling all of the administrative responsibilities so teachers can do what they do best: teach.

The teachers, all of whom have a background in public schools, said that’s what separates the Center for Teaching and Learning from other schools – they get to spend almost all of their time interacting with students.

And they don’t have to worry about some of the issues that have become topics of hot debate in public education, such as Common Core standards – which Atwell dislikes because she says they were created by corporations without the input of teachers – or standardized tests.

“It’s freeing in many ways, but we also feel a responsibility to impart our strategies to schools and teachers that are looking for ways to reach students effectively,” she said.

On Tuesday at the school, the students ate take-out pizza at lunchtime, a weekly ritual. They then retreated to their classrooms for reading time. The Center for Teaching and Learning prioritizes reading, but lets students have control over what they read.


In the fifth- and sixth-grade room, where Atwell consulted with students on their texts, a dozen or so students lounged on bean bag chairs, quietly reading.


Atwell admitted she doesn’t know that much about the Global Teacher Prize, which was launched in March 2014, but said the Varkey Foundation has a strong reputation worldwide. The foundation focuses on teacher training programs and education advocacy, as well as building schools around the world. Former President Bill Clinton serves as its honorary chairman.

Among the criteria for the prize are: contributing to the public debate that raises the bar for teaching; employing innovative instructional practices; and preparing students to be global citizens.

Those who work with Atwell say she more than meets the criteria. Kamala Grohman, the administrative assistant at the Center for Teaching and Learning, said a crew from the BBC is expected to come to the school next week in connection with the Global Teacher Prize, which she hopes is a good sign for Atwell’s chances.

“She’s phenomenal,” McDonald said. “She not only is a wonderful teacher, but she is a wonderful teacher of teachers.”


Students flock to her whenever she walks into a classroom, and she’s quick to engage them in conversation.

When she talks about her students, past and present, it’s with pride.

“We have eight that have gone on to become high school valedictorians,” she said, adding that others went on to prestigious prep schools such as Phillips Academy and Phillips Exeter.

Atwell has been honored for her work and writing before, but the Global Teacher Prize and its $1 million award would put her nonprofit school on strong financial footing for decades to come. The school’s annual budget in 2013 was about $800,000, according to its tax filing.

It may even allow her to retire. But even if she does, Atwell will keep a strong connection to the school.

Her daughter, Anne, who 28 years ago was the reason Atwell briefly suspended her teaching career, now teaches seventh- and eighth-grade writing, reading and history at the Center for Teaching and Learning.

“It’s such a warm place,” said Anne Atwell-McLeod, who attended her mother’s school. “I don’t think there are other schools that have the kind of community we have here.”

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