EDGECOMB — A rocking chair, not a podium, was placed in front of a crowd of students, parents and alumni who welcomed Nancie Atwell back to the Center for Teaching and Learning after she won the first Global Teacher Prize – and the $1 million that came with it – in Dubai on Sunday.

The school’s gymnasium, called the “Barn,” was set up with rows of pillows for student seating Friday, conveying the atmosphere of the school’s reading room rather than that of a news conference.

“I was so homesick for you guys,” Atwell said.

Students cheered and jumped up from their pillows to hug Atwell. After students showered her with spring daffodils and tulips, the educator described her experiences in Dubai and the whirlwind she had been on since winning the prize and returning to Maine on Monday.

“Dubai is so beautiful, but it’s not beautiful like Maine. It’s like Venus,” Atwell told the group, which included nearly 50 alumni and parents. Atwell showed seashells she collected while wading in the Persian Gulf and planned to give to a student with a seashell collection.

U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins each sent a representative to congratulate Atwell, as did Heinemann Publishing, which awarded the school’s library a $1,000 gift card for children’s and young adult books.

Atwell, who founded the private, nonprofit K-8 Center for Teaching and Learning in 1990, said only five people on the selection committee knew she had won the award before the ceremony, and had taken to referring to educators by code names to avoid accidentally revealing the winner prematurely. Her code name was initially “Bob,” but the committee later took to calling Atwell “Dumbledore,” after Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of the fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter books.

“‘You’re kind of a smart old scoundrel like he is,'” Atwell said a committee member told her.

The award is given by the Varkey GEMS Foundation, a philanthropic arm of Global Education Management Systems, which operates private K-12 schools around the world. 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,” according to the Varkey website.

Atwell beat out 5,000 nominees from 26 countries for the prize given to “one exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession,” according to the website.

The 5,000 nominees were winnowed in December to a group of 50 educators from which 10 finalists were chosen in February and invited to Dubai for Sunday’s ceremony.

The award was presented by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and the ruler of Dubai. Former President Bill Clinton, honorary chairman of the Varkey Foundation, also was there.

Atwell doesn’t know who nominated her, only that it was a former student.

Atwell’s focus on reading and writing in the school’s curriculum is partly what prompted her nomination. Alum Lilly Richardson, now a high school junior at Erskine Academy in South China, believes Atwell’s philosophy of allowing students to choose their own books to read, rather than requiring every student to read the same literature, created a hunger for reading that she didn’t have before she attended the school. Richardson said Atwell and the Center for Teaching and Learning influenced her career trajectory.

“Teaching is something I’m considering,” she said. “Not until I came here and saw the teachers demonstrating that it could be a fun job did I ever think it would be something I’d enjoy.”

Parents said they, too, see a difference in the school’s approach compared to traditional public and private schools. Dolores Carbonneau said she chose the school for her daughter, Sophia, in part because of Atwell’s emphasis on critical thinking.

“She doesn’t fit everyone into the same mold, she’s a fantastic innovator against the modern trend of No Child Left Behind, and national standardized testing,” Carbonneau said.

Atwell said she will disburse the $1 million prize in $100,000 installments to the school over 10 years. The funds are likely to help pay for a new roof, carpeting, heaters and other facility improvements. Atwell said the center has no plans to expand the school beyond the 80 students currently enrolled, to ensure that the close student-teacher relationships are maintained.

“And no, there will be no pool,” Atwell joked with the students.

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