$1m teacher will give her `miracle' winnings to school

20th March 2015 at 00:00
Nancie Atwell says prize is a win for `progressive' methods

The winner of the first $1 million award for teachers, dubbed the "Nobel prize for teaching", has described the decision to hand her the money as a "miracle".

Nancie Atwell, a US teacher who runs a small private school in Maine, New England, was the surprise victor ahead of nine other finalists from countries around the world, including Afghanistan, Cambodia and the UK.

Even before she was awarded the Global Teacher Prize, Ms Atwell said she intended to invest all the money in her school, which she described as a "jewel box" in rural America.

"It feels like a miracle," she said after the announcement at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai last weekend. "There's nothing like this and there never has been."

Beating off competition from more than 5,000 nominees, the English teacher was chosen for her work at the school she set up 25 years ago, called the Center for Teaching and Learning, which educates children from a range of backgrounds from kindergarten to Grade 8 (ages 13-14). About 80 per cent of her students receive financial support to pay the fees of up to $8,000 a year.

"We purposefully hand-select a rich socio-economic mix for our kindergarten class. They're not all from deprived backgrounds but the majority are on some sort of tuition assistance, even though we have very low [fees]," Ms Atwell said.

The money she receives from the Varkey Foundation, which set up the Global Teacher Prize, will allow those children whose families cannot afford the fees to stay on for their entire school careers, she added.

The centre, which she describes as a "demonstration school", has just 75 students and welcomes teachers from all over the US to observe lessons and take the methods back to their own classrooms.

"It does what charter schools were supposed to do," Ms Atwell said. "I started [the school] 25 years ago so we could innovate and develop methods, and so we could pass on the innovations that worked to other teachers around the country.

"We've published 13 books so far about the work of the school and we have hosted hundreds of teachers for a week at a time, who observe what we do and take it away to their schools. It's a little jewel box of a rural schoolhouse with work that has informed the nation."

Ms Atwell's work means the school's students read about 40 books a year - four times the US national average - and alumni have gone on to establish writing careers of their own.

As part of her approach, students choose the subjects they write about as well as the books they read, and they have access to a library in every room.

As a staunch opponent of attempts to introduce the US' first national curriculum, the Common Core State Standards, Ms Atwell said the decision to award the Global Teacher Prize to a "progressive" classroom practitioner was unexpected.

"In my own life, apart from the school, I work actively against the Common Core. I think it's very bad for teachers of writers and readers, and children as writers and readers," she said.

"The fact they have acknowledged the work of a progressive educator is a wonderful surprise, and a commentary on how teaching and learning has been depersonalised and deprofessionalised. It has been stripped of context and turned into exercises of frustration for children and teachers."

Just before her own name was announced, Ms Atwell said she was certain the winner would be Aziz Royesh, a teacher who established a school in Afghanistan despite facing calls for his execution. "I thought it would be Aziz," she said. "The man is a saint."

Mr Royesh told the Global Education and Skills Forum that despite being shortlisted as one of the 10 best teachers in the world, he didn't receive a single phone call or message of support from his government.

The finalists, who included England's own Richard Spencer, a biology teacher at Middlesbrough College, each received pound;25,000.

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