DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - An English teacher from rural Maine won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize on Sunday after 42 years of work as an innovator and pioneer in teaching literature.
Nancie Atwell plans to donate the full amount to the Center for Teaching and Learning which she founded in 1990 in Edgecomb, Maine as a nonprofit demonstration school created for the purpose of developing and disseminating teaching methods. The school says 97 percent of its graduates have gone on to university.
Atwell said that winning the award is a valedictory for her life's work, but that her true validation comes from the responses of students.
"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.
Atwell was selected from a pool of 1,300 applicants from 127 countries.
The top 10 finalists, which included two other teachers from the U.S. and others from Afghanistan, India, Haiti, Cambodia, Malaysia, Kenya, and the U.K., were flown to Dubai, United Arab Emirates for the ceremony. The winner was announced on stage by Sunny Varkey, founder of the non-profit Varkey Foundation that focuses on education issues and founder of the for-profit GEMS Education company that has more than 130 schools around the world.
The award was created to be the largest prize of its kind and to serve as a sort-of Nobel Prize for one exceptional teacher each year.
After Atwell won the award, a young boy no older than 11 with a book bag strapped to his back waited patiently with his mother for a photograph with the winning teacher.
Varkey said that the award is aimed at fostering that kind of admiration for teachers and to say "to a celebrity-obsessed world that teachers are important and worthy of respect."
Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who is honorary chair of the Varkey Foundation, were also on-hand to give Atwell the award.
Atwell has received numerous other awards throughout her life for her innovative approach to teaching. She has authored nine books about teaching, including "In The Middle," which sold more than half a million copies.
"The other recognition I've received has been content-area specific," she said. "This is global... this is really an award for a body of work, for a lifetime of teaching."
Hundreds of teachers have visited her center in Maine over the years to learn its writing-reading practices.
Her school's eighth grade students read an average of 40 books per year, compared to the national average of about 10. They also write extensively, and many of her students have gone on to become published authors.
All of her students choose the subjects they write about and the books they read. The school's website boasts that there is "never a raised voice or standardized test," but that there are tens of thousands of books and time to read from among them every day.
"If we want them to be highly literate, we have to value the power of stories and self-expression," she said, explaining her approach. "Anything else is a false choice. Anything else will be an exercise that gets kids good at doing exercises."
This is the first year for the Global Teacher Prize to be awarded, though the Varkey Foundation plans it to be an annual event.
Experts, including other teachers and school administrators, shortlisted the top 50 finalists and a prize committee helped select the top 10. The winner was then selected by a group of more than 60 people that included CEO's, investors, professors, journalists and public figures such as Oscar Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey and Grammy Award-winning artist Esperanza Spalding.