3 U.S. Teachers Named Finalists for $1 Million Prize

By Jordan Moeny — February 13, 2015 2 min read
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Three U.S. teachers have been selected as finalists for the Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize, an annual $1 million award designed to honor an educator who has had an “inspirational impact on their students and community.”

Nancie Atwell of Edgecomb, Maine, Naomi Volain of Springfield, Mass., and Stephen Ritz of New York City join seven other educators from around the world as finalists for the $1 million prize.

According to the Varkey Foundation’s website, the prize “seeks to do for education what the Nobel Prize has done for science, literature, and peace” by recognizing the work of outstanding classroom teachers. More than 1,300 teachers in 127 countries applied for the award, and the 10 finalists were chosen from a shortlist of 50 teachers. The winner of the prize will be selected by a 67-member panel of international judges, including entrepreneurs, professors, politicians, journalists, and Kevin Spacey, though business executives make up the majority; it’s light (understatement) on practicing educators from traditional school districts (in any country).

Criteria for the prize include not merely excellence in the classroom but also a penchant for innovative practices, a history of advocacy for the teaching profession, and a commitment to education for “children of all backgrounds.” All three U.S. finalists are known for their work in and out of the classroom.

Atwell founded and teaches at the Center for Teaching and Learning, a K-8 demonstration school in Maine that focuses on innovative classroom methods, small class sizes, and enrichment activities. The school also hosts an intern program in an attempt to spread its methods to other teachers around the world. An English teacher for more than four decades, Atwell is a noted supporter of emphasizing literature in the classroom.

Volain is a science teacher at Springfield Central High School in Springfield, Mass. She’s also a member of the NASA Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers, a group of teachers who incorporate NASA content into their classes and help promote the agency. In 2012, Volain’s work was recognized on a national level when she received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

Ritz teaches at a public high school in New York’s South Bronx, where he founded the Green Bronx Machine. The nonprofit organization helps students grow their own vegetables, an important resource in the high-poverty neighborhood where Ritz teaches. Ritz and Green Bronx Machine have drastically increased attendance rates and test scores at the school and has helped create more than 2,200 jobs for students.

All three teachers will travel to Dubai in March for the Global Education and Skills Forum, where the winner will be announced. In addition to the monetary prize, the winner will serve as an ambassador for the Varkey Foundation. The Dubai-based philanthropic organization is part of GEMS Education and works to promote worldwide access to quality education.

Bill Clinton, Honorary Chairman of the foundation, has said that he hopes the prize will raise awareness about the work teachers are doing around the world: “We introduced the prize in order to return teachers to their rightful position—belonging to one of the most respected professions in society.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.