This weekend, Maine teacher Nancie Atwell was awarded the first Global Teacher Prize, a $1 million award intended to be the "Nobel Prize of teaching."

Growing up, Atwell, 63, never expected to become a teacher, or even to go to college. But from the moment she began teaching in 1973, Atwell says she felt right at home.

"I am so inspired by all my students, but especially the seventh- and eighth-graders," she says. "They are so uninhibited and if you ask them to do something they will just work their heads and hearts off."

She founded the Center for Teaching & Learning as a demonstration school in 1990. The independent K-8 school based in Edgecomb, Maine, has gained recognition for its small class sizes, research-based curriculum and teacher training programs.

Atwell has also become known for reading-writing workshops where children have the freedom to choose what they read and can tackle as many as 40 books a year. Her 1998 book about these workshops, In The Middle, has sold more than half a million copies and has become a blueprint for other teachers across the U.S.

After 40 years in the profession, Atwell was nominated for the Varkey Foundation's Global Teacher Prize by a former student. The foundation announced her as the winner at a ceremony held in Dubai on Sunday.

"I was horribly anxious. It was something that was on my mind even when I didn't know it was on my mind," Atwell says. "Those other nine teachers are extraordinary, so it was daunting to even think about."

She plans to use all of the prize money for her school. Among her top priorities are expanding the school's library system and maintaining diversity among its student body, 80 percent of whom receive tuition assistance.

During a time when many schools push for high test scores, Atwell says it's important for more organizations to look at the real quality of education rather than reducing it to a number.

"The yardsticks for measuring teacher achievement, especially in the U.S., I don't think are accurate or humane," she says. "I would like to be a model for the kind of teacher that is autonomous, creative and thoughtful."

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