HAWTHORNE (CBSLA.com) — It only took one after-school rehearsal to see how Hawthorne High School drama and English teacher Estella Owoimaha-Church commands her classroom.

And it only took talking to one of her students to see how she inspires them.

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“I wasn’t doing what I wanted, not until I met Ms. Church. She really made me believe that I could do it,” Elizabeth Pinzon said.

Church is one of 50 teachers from around the world nominated for the Varkey Foundation‘s $1 million Global Teacher prize.

The nominated teachers are from more than 170 countries. Church is one of only five from the United States. The winner will be announced in March.

“I don’t think there’s anyone else that deserves it as much as she does. “I feel like I’m her daughter. I’m not just a student to her,” Pinzon said as her eyes welled up with tears. “She just tries really hard.”

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“She’s more of like a family member to me than she is a teacher,” Malik Lamont said.

Church credited her own high school teachers for her accomplishments. She pointed out that her former teacher, Ms. Sweeney, paid for her college applications.

“She just told me to pay her back. I don’t know if she meant literally or figuratively. That was one of the most important moments of my high school,” Church explained.

Church has been trying to pay Ms. Sweeney back by paying it forward. “She forced us to sign up for community colleges and stuff,” Lamont said.

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If she wins, Church said she would use the million dollars to pay off student loans and start a social justice arts academy.