“World’s Greatest Teacher”

"World's Greatest Teacher," Nancie Atwell


w_A_fmtppearing on CNN’s New Day morning show last March, Nancie Atwell looked composed and chic, her silver hair swooping stylishly over one eye as she chatted with a trio of hosts about the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, which she’d just won. One million dollars. Atwell sounded measured and upbeat talking about it — less like an elated lottery winner, more like a confident CEO. In reality, though, she was dead tired — jet-lagged and ragged from a multi-day trip to Dubai, where the prize had been awarded days before.

When a smiling blonde anchor tossed out what seemed like a softball question — what advice would you give to young people considering a career in teaching? — Atwell paused, then forged ahead with what would become her Kanye moment.

“Um, honestly,” she said, nodding and pursing her lips with a tiny smack, “right now, I encourage them to look in the private sector.”

One host grunted in surprise. Another asked why. Because public school teachers, Atwell replied, are being transformed into “technicians, not reflective practitioners” by the Common Core standards advanced by the National Governors Association and the assessments used to enforce them.

Nancie Atwell

Nancie Atwell in a classroom at the Center for Teaching and Learning, the Edgecomb school she founded in 1990.

“If you’re a creative, smart young person,” she went on, “I don’t think this is the time to go into teaching.”

The backlash was swift. For Atwell, the 64-year-old career educator who founded Edgecomb’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) in 1990, the harshest criticism came from American public school teachers who felt dissed. This was supposed to have been their moment. The Indian-born billionaire Sunny Varkey had created the Global Teacher Prize specifically to bring prestige to their underpaid, often undervalued profession. Now here was the prize’s first-ever winner, seemingly maligning the field on national TV.

Conscious of the politics involved (for starters, Varkey Foundation partner Bill Gates is an outspoken supporter of the Common Core standards), Atwell issued a conciliatory statement when she got home to Maine. “The world,” she wrote, “needs all the smart, passionate educators it can get.” Like Kanye, though, she refused to back down completely: the same statement underscored her opposition to what she called the “tight focus on standardized tests and methods, which I feel discourage autonomy and encourage teaching to the test.”

Ask her today if she regrets the bluntness of her original words, and she doesn’t hold back. “No, I believe it,” she says. “I believe it.”

So what does Nancie Atwell suppose schools should be doing instead? Why are teachers from around the world flocking to a village in coastal Maine to learn at her feet? And what’s next for her as the Varkey Foundation prepares to name a new winner of what’s been called the Nobel Prize for education? Is there a follow-up act to being the world’s most famous teacher?

w_W_fmthen Atwell learned in February of 2014 that she was a finalist for the Varkey Prize (a former student had nominated her anonymously), her independent elementary and middle school was $100,000 in the red, and Atwell had no idea how to dig it out. For 25 years, she and a few handpicked colleagues had been “out here in the boonies doing really extraordinary work,” she says. “We were well-known and respected in some circles, but not in the circles that would be lucrative. . . . The real excitement and tension of being in the top 10 was the possibility that this money could save CTL.”

Atwell’s route to prestige in the boonies was a winding one. Growing up outside Buffalo, New York, she’d have been hard-pressed to picture herself standing onstage in Dubai, hoisting a 17-pound trophy alongside Bill Clinton and an Emirati sheik.

“I said ‘screw it’ a lot in high school,” she remembers. “I didn’t read a single one of the books I was assigned.” She indulged a rich social life. She partied. But she did read. “I had an underground curriculum,” she says. “Fitzgerald’s romantic novels, like Tender Is the Night; Orwell; Michener; Rosemary’s Baby — that one was quite nurturing.”

Her disdain for the reading list notwithstanding, Atwell was bright. She went to Buffalo State on a scholarship, found herself working as a student teacher, and discovered to her surprise that she loved the job. She taught English for a while in western New York, then fell in love with midcoast Maine during a summer vacation to Boothbay in 1975. On a whim, she put in an application at Boothbay Harbor Grammar School, and that fall, she came on as the small school’s seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher. She’d stay in the position for more than a decade.

Atwell was struck by a realization: by sitting behind her big desk and dictating students’ writing topics and due dates, she was doing things all wrong.

A few years in, Atwell read about research being conducted at a rural New Hampshire school called the Atkinson Academy, a study on how children develop as writers. “Children in the Atkinson study,” she later wrote, “learned how to write by exploring the options available to real authors. These included daily time for writing, conferences with the teacher and peers during writing, pace set by individual writers, and opportunities for publication — for their writing to be read. Most significantly, Atkinson students decided what they would write about.”

Atwell was struck by a realization: by sitting behind her big desk and dictating students’ writing topics and due dates, she was doing things all wrong. So she closed the door to her Boothbay classroom to keep other teachers from peering in. Then she gave her students the news: pre-packaged assignments were history. Instead, they would write about whatever topics were important to them, with Atwell at their sides as coach and mentor. Eventually, she adopted a similar “workshop” approach to reading, dismantling her carefully planned curriculum in favor of one based entirely on student choice. In Atwell’s reading workshops, students have daily conversations with their teacher about their reading material, about what they’re noticing and how they’re responding to it. Then they rate what they’ve read and share reactions, in writing or out loud, with their classmates.

In 1987, the 35-year-old Atwell left her Boothbay Harbor school and published a manual for teachers called In the Middle: Writing, Reading, and Learning With Adolescents. Filled with anecdotes from her Boothbay Harbor classroom and samples of students’ writing, the 600-page book describes in intricate detail the rationale, classroom setup, and methods behind her writing and reading workshops. Three editions and more than a half-million copies later, In the Middle has turned Atwell into something like the Malcolm Gladwell of primary-school English pedagogy.

Nancie Atwell

In Atwell’s classroom, students pick their own reading materials and writing topics. The teacher’s role is to guide and question.

“It’s the greatest book on literacy ever written by an American,” says Thomas Newkirk, an acclaimed literacy educator, University of New Hampshire English professor, and founder of the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes. “It’s just such a comprehensive, demanding vision of what literacy education can be — it’s the fullest vision that anybody’s ever articulated.”

“If everyone in our profession would just read In the Middle and do what the book advises us to do,” says Donalyn Miller, bestselling author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, “the rest of us [literacy consultants] would not be necessary.”

Just a couple months before In the Middle hit shelves, Atwell gave birth to her daughter, Anne. At the time, her husband was director of planning for Coastal Economic Development Corporation in Bath, but the family needed two incomes — and as much as Atwell relished motherhood, she couldn’t imagine not working. So she invented a career for herself as a teacher of teachers, traveling the country to consult on teaching methods thanks to a grant from the Bread Loaf School of English at Vermont’s Middlebury College. But the work was repetitive, and Atwell got restless. “I could predict every question that would be asked,” she says — a deal-breaker for a woman who thrives on challenge. “I missed the unpredictability of kids.”

That’s when Atwell dreamed up the Center for Teaching and Learning. She envisioned an independent school where she’d have free rein to implement her ideas about education, plus a place where she could bring in teachers from across the country to witness her methods in action. In 1990, she sunk her In the Middle royalties and consulting fees into a pre-fab Cape in an Edgecomb field. She put ads in the paper and held informational meetings in town halls and church basements, and that fall, 29 kids from kindergarten through third grade became the first students at CTL — a school without graded tests or worksheets, where students spend huge chunks of their day engaged in group conversation or simply reading quietly.

“If you’re a creative, smart young person,” Atwell said on CNN, “I don’t think this is the time to go into teaching.” The backlash was swift.

Today, enrollment has grown to 77 students, kindergarten through eighth grade. For some of them, CTL’s rigorous, hands-on, kid-centric approach, with its intense focus on reading and writing, is the only formal education they’ve known. Others have transferred in because they weren’t feeling challenged in public schools or wanted a transition from homeschooling. For a certain kind of parent, CTL’s casual flow is appealing — teachers go by their first names, there isn’t a single desk in the entire building, classes are tiny, and students tend to be open, articulate, and extremely engaged. The price tag is compelling too: a year’s tuition at CTL was just $8,900 during this last school year (by contrast, Portland’s private alternative school Waynflete costs more than $22,000 a year).

The low tuition bill — intended to attract students from diverse economic backgrounds — is a key part of Atwell’s vision of CTL as a demonstration school, a place where students receive a top-notch education but also serve to visiting teachers as flesh-and-blood examples of the power of Atwell’s methods. “We want to attract that heterogeneous population of what we call ‘regular kids,’” Atwell says. “A demonstration school has to have a basis in reality, and our kids are our credibility as teachers of teachers. When teachers come to CTL, they see kids like the ones in their classroom at home.”

One other thing motivating Atwell to found CTL back in 1990? It would be a school where her young daughter could receive the best education her mother could imagine.

“It’s not wrong to think that Nancie started the school for Anne,” says Atwell’s husband, Toby McLeod. “Nancie wanted to continue the kind of work she knew she needed to do, and to bring in teachers from around the country — but another important part of starting CTL was to create a great school for Anne.”

w_O_fmtn a warm day last September, Anne Atwell Merkel sat in a rocking chair in front of her seventh and eighth grade class at CTL. The windows were open, and the students were sprawled on bolsters and beanbags on the floor, fanning themselves with their folders. Merkel took over her mother’s position teaching English and humanities at CTL in 2013, following four years of teaching in Maryland and Washington, DC. She and her students were discussing the previous night’s Republican primary debate — the kids had watched it as a kind of social studies assignment — when Atwell wandered in to take a seat beside her daughter.

Atwell asked the students, which candidates seemed to be surging at that moment? They suggested three: Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson.

“Those are great guesses — logical guesses,” Atwell said. She smiled and adjusted her floral scarf. She wears scarves a lot, and her eyes crinkle at the corners when she smiles, which she also does a lot. She speaks to students like they’re adults, without the slight rise in pitch that grown-ups tend to use when addressing children. “Now, what do those three have in common?” she asked. “Think about their current positions in the world — is any of them a politician?” The kids shook their heads, and Atwell went on. “Think about it — why might Republicans be attracted to people with this background?”

The discussion continued, the middle-schoolers feeling out the finer points of neo-populist political philosophy, while Atwell and Merkel chimed with questions. As class wound down, one boy sat up in his beanbag chair and asked, “What do you two believe?”

Atwell and Merkel exchanged a glance. “We don’t come as a set,” Atwell said simply.

Nancie Atwell

Worth its weight in gold: the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize.

In many ways, however, Atwell and Merkel are a set. Merkel’s hire at CTL allowed Atwell to relinquish her position as a teacher and move into a less demanding job as a roaming writing coach for the upper grades — no more onerous prep work, no detailed student evaluations. At the outset, Atwell stayed out of her daughter’s way, giving Merkel room to establish herself in the eyes of students and coworkers. By now, though, the two have developed an easy rapport as colleagues and occasional co-teachers, and Atwell relishes her newly relaxed role at the school she founded.

“It’s like eating dessert all day long,” she says. “It’s something I know how to do really well. And for a teacher it’s the ultimate satisfying response — to sit with a kid who’s working on a memoir or a poem or a piece of fiction, to help them untangle it and make it truer and stronger. Then I pick up my little chair and go on to the next one.”

Merkel joined her mom in Dubai last March for the Varkey Foundation award ceremony. The tension was high leading up to the ceremony, as organizers put the finalists through their paces, rehearsing acceptance speeches and practicing holding the heavy statuette. Since the organizers knew the winner’s identity, they alternated using a pair of code names — Dumbledore and Bob — to refer to Atwell. Atwell herself was oblivious. It seemed miraculous enough that she’d made it into the top 10 from a pool of thousands, a pool that included teachers doing heroic work in war-torn countries.

What neither the organizers nor her fellow nominees knew, however, was CTL’s financial situation. The school’s low tuition covers just 60 percent of its operating costs, and for years, Atwell made up the difference with her paychecks from lecturing and teacher-training workshops, along with fees from 30 or so paying teachers who interned at CTL each year. But when Atwell’s travel got to be too taxing, CTL slipped into debt. The school invited more interns, but it wasn’t enough to make up the difference, and by last year, CTL was some $100,000 in the hole.

So Atwell had made up her mind: if she won the Varkey Prize, she would donate the entire $1 million to the Center for Teaching and Learning. Still, she’d hardly dared to dream.

“I was sort of rehearsing what I was going to do with my face when I found out I didn’t win,” she says.

When Sunny Varkey called Atwell’s name, the nominee standing next to her wrapped her in a bear hug. Atwell stepped forward, carrying the acceptance-speech notecards that her daughter had handwritten for her. She says she doesn’t remember the moment, but Merkel’s memory is intact.

“I was amazed by how calm and composed she was,” Merkel says. “I’ve seen that my whole life. In some ways, it was completely different from anything she had done before, but at the same time, she was completely in her element.”

Atwell was whisked into a pressroom, where she sat for three straight hours of interviews with reporters from around the globe. Then she and Merkel were shuttled to their hotel to pack for what they’d just learned would be a midnight flight to New York — where, among other engagements, Atwell would appear on CNN. In the elevator, she and her daughter had their first moment alone since the ceremony began.

“The doors closed, and we started screaming and jumping up and down,” Merkel remembers. “We were dancing to the music from the awards reception outside while we packed. We knew that this would ensure CTL’s future for at least another 10 years.”

w_A2_fmttwell has enjoyed her year in the spotlight. She’s been introduced by journalist and author Fareed Zakaria, seated at dinner next to bestselling author and education reformer Geoffrey Canada, and quoted frequently in big-audience media like the Washington Post’s education blog. But on some level, she’s looking forward to the anointing of a new Global Teacher of the Year this month. Her TV spots and other appearances at the behest of the Varkey Foundation will taper off, and she’ll find herself again concerned largely with her students in Edgecomb — where, despite CTL’s now sound financial footing, Atwell is still something of a voice in the wilderness. She bristles at the fact that, while US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called to wish her well before Dubai, she hasn’t heard from the White House, likely because of the Obama administration’s support for the Common Core standards she bashed on TV. She’s had a few conversations with Governor Paul LePage and his staff, during which she proposed making Maine “the reading state” by funding access to high-quality children’s literature in every classroom. But the governor’s office hasn’t expressed any interest in moving forward on the idea, and Atwell and the Blaine House are no longer in touch.

In fact, during the 40-plus years Atwell’s been talking and writing about the importance of kid-driven choice in elementary school classrooms, national education policy has gone in the opposite direction. To hear Atwell tell it, it’s because her methods — though research-backed — are simply more difficult to implement than a prepackaged, one-size-fits-all curriculum. UNH’s Newkirk is among those who agree.

“If you’re going to give substantial blocks of time to reading and writing, it requires a big commitment of time, and it involves a high expectation of the teacher,” says the literacy professor. “If you’re going to give the kind of choice of reading that she does, you’ve got to have lots of books in your head . . . and a capacious classroom library. It also requires teachers to have an insider’s view of what reading and writing are — you have to know what it’s like to be a writer. A lot of teachers maybe don’t have that confidence.”

Despite such hurdles, Atwell plans to keep pushing for classroom reform well after her year in the sun has ended. Her reduced workload at CTL gives her more time to focus on writing and speaking. And the genius of the CTL demonstration model is that each new year creates more teacher-acolytes heading out to preach the Gospel of Atwell. Chief among these, of course, is Anne Atwell Merkel, who’s committed to taking over what’s become the family business.

“This isn’t somewhere where you go to teach for a few years,” says Merkel. “It’s a commitment, a lifestyle almost . . . I’m 100 percent in it for the long haul.”

Atwell too is committed to a long-term effort. But a couple of decades from now, she believes, most American classrooms are going to look something more like hers in Edgecomb.

“I feel like it’s just the only way to teach that makes sense,” she says, “and that people who teach the way we do know that in their bones. It’s a question of always providing people with evidence, bringing people along, and to some extent, even lobbying people in government. This is so powerful, so effective — it’s the only way to teach and learn.”

Besides, she adds, “I have to be optimistic, or I can’t go on. I have faith in teachers and children.”

See more from this issue!


Michaela Cavallaro

Michaela Cavallaro is a Down East contributing editor.

1 Comment

  • March 14, 2016

    Lucille Friscia

    The Article about Nancie Atwell was fabulous and informative. Silent voices never change history. I believe to be a better person or scientist you need to be an expert reader and writer. That’s just the way it is. Thanks Nancie!