Finally, a teacher gets some extra cash and what does she do with it? She puts it back into her profession. At least that’s the plan for Nancie Atwell, an English teacher from Maine. And this is more than just a little bonus going to purchase classroom supplies — rather, Atwell won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize on Sunday.
Atwell is the founder of the Center for Teaching and Learning, a private K-8 school in Edgecomb, Maine. The school only services about 75 students, and while its nearly $9,000 annual tuition seems pricey, it's about a third of the average cost of private schools along the East Coast and the school helps subsidize tuition for almost 80 percent of student families.
Beyond teaching the students, the Center for Teaching and Learning is also a center where instructors come for workshops on how to incorporate more innovation into their teaching.
Atwell plans to use her entire $1 million prize to enhance these teacher workshops, for tuition assistance for eligible families, to improve the school’s library and for infrastructure upgrades and maintenance. These are worthwhile goals, as the Center for Teaching and Learning sees 97 percent of its graduates go on to university.
The Varkey Foundation, a nonprofit based in Dubai, is the group behind the Global Teacher Prize; the contest is being heralded as the Nobel Prize for teaching. The company’s founder, Sunny Varkey, had the idea for a contest to recognize the best teachers in the world when his research found that China is the only country where teachers are on the same pedestal as doctors. Everywhere else, teachers are severely undervalued for their role in society. He hopes this annual contest will help counteract that stigma.
This year’s winner is certainly deserving of the award and prize money. Atwell has taught literature for 42 years and has authored several books on her teaching methods. She was nominated for the award by a former student, as were the other nearly 5,000 other teacher nominees. They hail from all over the world — United States, Afghanistan, Kenya, the U.K., to name a few. The 10 finalists were flown to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for the award ceremony. More than 60 experts in education and business selected Atwell as the final winner, based on her proven achievements in the classroom and beyond, innovative instructional practices and her efforts to prepare children to be successful global citizens.
It’s safe to call Atwell an advocate for change in education — she gave Common Core as an example of one problem in the national education system. She sees national assessments as a way to turn teachers into technicians who just read from a script. Real teachers, on the other hand, need to be creative enough to make the curriculum effective for individual students. Her school uses portfolios for every student to measure their progress. Parents get to see these portfolios at parent-teacher conferences to visualize their child’s growth and help plan out the next set of objectives.
Atwell’s higher-grade students read, on average, 40 books per year that they select themselves. It is this idea of giving students choice in their own learning, Atwell believes, which makes the difference. Thanks to the Global Teacher Prize contest, teaching models like Atwell’s not only get accolades but also more exposure, in turn allowing education leaders to choose to emulate these models in their schools.