Nancie Atwell, a trailblazing language-arts teacher and former U.S. teacher of the year, was awarded the world’s first $1 million Global Teacher Prize on Sunday in Dubai by the Varkey Foundation.

She beat out nine other finalists, including two other Americans, and Haiti’s Guy Etienne. Etienne is a chemistry teacher and the headmaster of Collège Catts Pressoir in Port-au-Prince where students are challenged to use their science- and technology-focused educations to come up with projects to aid their country’s development.

In her acceptance speech, Atwell paid homage to her fellow finalists, all of whom were chosen for their innovative teaching methods. They were selected from more than 5,000 nominees for the award that is considered the Nobel Prize of teaching. The 10 of them, she said, share “in one essential philosophy.”

“We invite our students to engage in worthwhile schoolwork, and we ease the way however we can,” she said.

Among those who feted Atwell’s win was Dubai’s ruler, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Also present were former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Both spoke of the importance of teachers in their lives. Noting that he was only the second governor of a small state (Arkansas) to be elected president, Clinton said it never would have happened “without my teachers.”

“They taught me to memorize and synthesize, to understand and to imagine. To think and to dream,” he said.

The honorary chairman of the foundation, Clinton said the most important thing the prize and the publicity around the finalists have done is “reawaken the world’s appreciation of the importance of teachers.”

Atwell discovered a love of books as a child and entered the teaching profession in 1973. In 1990, she founded the Center for Teaching & Learning, an independent K-8 school based in Edgecomb, Maine. The school has been recognized for its small class sizes, research-based curriculum, and teacher-outreach programs. She teaches English as a writing-reading workshop, which has led many of her students to become published authors. She is the author of “In The Middle,” which has sold a half million copies.

The finalists were as diverse as the subjects they taught. Etienne said that making the top 10 was a proud moment for him and Haiti.

“Today, a lot of young people will look at me and think, if I can make it to be among the top 10 teachers in the world selected by Global Teacher Prize, than they, too, can enter the profession,” he said.