Why this Maine teacher received the world's first Global Teacher Prize

Nancie Atwell has challenged her students to find purpose in their writing for over 40 years. Now she has been internationally recognized for her work.

Kamran Jebreili/AP
Nancie Atwell, a teacher in Edgecomb, Maine, U.S., center, throws a kiss as she poses with former President of the United States Bill Clinton, left, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister of the U.A.E. and Ruler of Dubai, after she won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, March 15, 2015. Atwell has been teaching since 1973 and founded the Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb.

Through her 41 years of teaching, Nancie Atwell has learned that the best way to make children take charge of their educational futures is to make reading and writing assignments personal.

What are they passionate about? What are their interests? 

For Atwell, the struggle for all teachers is to strike a balance between having students comply with assignments for the sake of completing school work, and engaging them with the assignments they are tasked with completing. Therefore, she has dedicated her career to engaging students by using their passions and interests to focus critical thinking. On Sunday she was honored with a landmark teaching award of global proportions. 

Ms. Atwell, originally a writer by trade, was recognized for her decorated teaching career as well as founding the Center for Teaching and Learning, located in Edgecomb, Maine, and was presented the first ever "Global Teacher Prize" from the Varkey Foundation, a Dubai-based organization that supports and trains teachers internationally, according to National Public Radio.

Nine other educators were vying for the grand prize of $1 million, of which Ms. Atwell intends to use every last dollar to improve the school by expanding the library system and increasing diversity among the student population. Eighty percent of students at the Center for Teaching and Learning receive tuition assistance, according to the report. 

"They asked all of the finalists what each of us would do with the prize money, and everyone said they would donate it away," Ms. Atwell is enthusiastic at direction the teaching is headed. "It's going to be exciting to see the range of teachers who will be selected. The cumulative impact of the work all these teachers accomplish will change the public's perception of the teaching profession."

Ms. Atwell was nominated for the honor by a former student and she was awarded the first-ever prize at a ceremony in Dubai, according to NPR. Ms. Atwell founded the Center for Teaching and Learning back in 1990 as an independent K-8 demonstration school. She currently serves as the school's writing support teacher, and she previously taught 7th and 8th grade reading, writing, and history, according to the school's website. Ms. Atwell funded the school from cashing in her personal Maine teacher's retirement fund and the royalties off her best-selling book on education titled, "In the Middle," which has sold over a half million copies, according to NPR. 

At her school, she has come to represent a shift in thinking behind how children are taught to write, according to the Christian Science Monitor. In 1997, the Christian Science Monitor profiled Ms. Atwell and the Center for Teaching and Learning just as the shift away from the one-size-fits-all five-paragraph essay was gathering steam. Author Abraham T. McLaughlin noted in his piece while he observed her students working: 

"Every piece of their writing has a purpose. They ship their poems off to poetry contests. They fire their critiques of books off to the authors. Their opinion pieces appear in local papers. And their pace is fast and rigorous: They produce some 24 pieces of finished work over the year."

Atwell is the recipient of numerous other awards and distinctions such as the Modern Language Association's Mina P. Shaughnessy Prize, the National Council of Teachers of English's David H. Russell Award, and the same group's award for Outstanding American Middle School English Teacher. She was honored by the Library of Congress and River of Words Foundation as Poetry Teacher of the Year, and has been bestowed an honorary doctorate by the University of New Hampshire. 

In the end, for Ms. Atwell teaching is about the instilling the love of writing and expression into her pupils, through this exchange of ideas she has come to love all of the relationships she has formed with her students over the years.

"I always got a kick out of adolescents, especially the younger adolescents in the 11, 12, 13-year-old range because their minds are so wide open," Ms. Atwell says. "Because I'm teaching them these authentic ways and they are pursuing their interests, the conversations are so rich."

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