$1m ‘nobel prize for teaching’ goes to US English teacher

A “pioneering” English literature teacher from the US is the first to win a $1m teaching prize – dubbed the Nobel Prize for Teaching – and has pledged to give all the money to her school.

Nancie Atwell from Maine was awarded the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize on Sunday and she described the award as a “miracle”.

“There’s nothing like this and there never has been,” she said. “I had no idea it would be me. The fact they have acknowledged the work of a progressive educator is a wonderful surprise. It’s a commentary on how teaching and learning have been depersonalised and de-professionalised. ”

Ms Atwell was chosen at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai ahead of nine other finalists from around the world, including the likes of Afghanistan, Haiti and Cambodia.

The UK’s own hopeful, Richard Spencer a biology teacher at Middlesborough College in the north east of England missed out on the award, but said he was “delighted” for Ms Atwell.

The US teacher founded what she describes as a demonstration school back in 1990, called the Center for Teaching and Learning, a Kindergarten to Grade 8 non-profit school that serves mixed ability children, teaching them English through reading and writing workshops.

Her work means students on average read around 40 books a year and alumni from the school have gone on to establish writing careers of their won.

“It does what charter schools were supposed to do. I started it 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,” Ms Atwell said.

“We’ve published 13 books so far about the work of the school and we host teachers for a week a year who observe what we do and take it away to their schools. It’s a little jewel box of a rural school house.”

As part of Ms Atwell’s approach, students choose the subjects they write about as well as the books they read, boosting their capacity to take on literature that sees them read four times as many books as the national average.

The centre takes on just 75 students but gives them access to tens of thousands of books, with a library in every room. The school also conducts seminars and publishes the results of its educational research in books and journals.

Mr Spencer, who was nominated for his innovative approach to teaching biology through the medium of song and dance, congratulated the winner.

“I’m delighted for Nancie. Not only is she a classroom teacher through and through who has dedicated her life to her passion,” he said.

Related stories:

Middlesbrough teacher in running for $1m prize – 13 February 2015

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