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

Nancie Atwell, who founded the Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb 25 years ago, 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 person to win the award, which was created to elevate the profession of teaching and improve education as a result.

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

She plans to donate the full amount of the prize to the school, said Head of School Scott MacDonald. MacDonald said the $1 million will be used to fund scholarships, book purchases and building maintenance projects.

Shortly after it was announced that she 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,” MacDonald said.

Atwell, who was flying to New York on Sunday night, is not expected to return to Maine until later this week. MacDonald said members of the school community plan a big welcome for their returning hero.

He said “it’s fabulous” that she is donating the prize money to the school, “but for those of us who know Nancie, it’s typical. This school has been her passion.”


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

“I love my teaching life – the intellectual, social and personal challenges of working with young people and the satisfaction of developing methods that transform their lives and give them perspective on the lives of others,” Atwell said.

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, dubbed the “Nobel Prize for Teaching,” is aimed at doing for education what the Nobel has done for science, literature and peace.


Atwell was presented the award at an evening ceremony in Dubai by Sheikh 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.

“Your incredible story will shine a light on the tireless work that teachers do all over the world,” Sunny Varkey, founder of the Varkey Foundation, told Atwell at the ceremony. “We all need to find ways of collectively celebrating teachers, of saying to a celebrity-obsessed world that teachers are important and worthy of respect.”

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

“Attracting the best people to teaching, developing and supporting their skills, and holding them in high regard would lift learning levels all around the world,” said Clinton, who serves as honorary chairman of the Varkey Foundation.

“However much we achieve in life, we all began learning the basics from a teacher in the classroom,” said a written statement from Kevin Spacey, an Academy Award-winning actor and a member of the panel that selected the winner. “Those that teach – devoting their talents and time to nurturing the talents of others – deserve to be respected and celebrated.”

The selection panel was composed of education experts and activists from around the world.

Atwell had 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 Clinton, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Atwell and her daughter, Anne Atwell-McLeod, flew to Dubai on Friday for the award ceremony. Atwell-McLeod teaches seventh- and eighth-grade reading, writing and math at her mother’s school.

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 of 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 kindergarten through eighth grade.

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

The Edgecomb school’s eighth-grade students read an average of 40 books per year, compared with the national average of about 10. They also write extensively, and many of Atwell’s students have gone on to become published authors, the AP reported. All of her students choose the subjects they write about and the books they read.


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

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

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

MacDonald wasn’t able to speak with her, but said she was probably stunned that she won.

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

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,” she said.

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

“Now the whole world knows,” she said.

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