Celebrating Teachers and Their Impact with 9 Famous Educators

Celebrating Teachers and the Return to School with 9 Famous Educators

Outside of immediate family, teachers can have some of the strongest impacts on our lives. To honor teachers everywhere, we’re looking at nine educators who influenced the world.

According to one survey, 88 percent of Americans say they had a teacher who had a significant, positive impact on the course of their lives; and 87 percent say they wish they had told their best teachers how much they appreciated their work.

During the pandemic, teachers across the world have risen to the challenge of remote learning, spending tireless hours trying to provide children with a stable, seamless education. It has proven once again how important teachers are for children and for society as a whole. We’re looking at just nine educators from the last century who influenced individual student lives and classroom practices, though many more teachers worldwide deserve to be honored. We’ve included high school teachers and educational theorists, advocates and activities, and even the occasional television presenter.

Their careers and lives each took different paths and trajectories — often inspiring hope, and sometimes changing the course of history — but they all helped to shape their communities, whether it be within the confines of a single classroom or via a global platform.

Nine Influential Educators and Their Stories

Anne Sullivan (1866-1936)

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan (1839)Helen Keller being read to by her teacher, Anne Sullivan (1839). Image by Historia/​Shutterstock.

After graduating from the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts, this educator, who had herself struggled with eye disease since the age of five, became the teacher of six-year-old Helen Keller, who had been deaf and blind since the age of 19 months. After months of studying, she traveled to Tuscumbia, Alabama to meet her new pupil.

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan (1893)Helen Keller (left), with her teacher and companion, Anne Sullivan in 1893. Image by Everett Collection/​Shutterstock.

Though they began by following a strict schedule, Sullivan quickly adapted her method to her student, immersing herself in Keller’s world and pursuing her interests. She communicated and taught by spelling words on the young girl’s hand. After just six months, Keller had learned the Braille system and added 575 words to her vocabulary.

Helen Keller and Anne SullivanHelen Keller (left) “hears” Anne Sullivan by feeling the vibrations on her lips. Anne was to become a source of deep inspiration to the deaf-blind and their teachers. Image by AP/​Shutterstock.

Sullivan remained Keller’s lifelong friend and companion, ultimately accompanying her to Radcliffe College and beyond. They spent 49years working together, and Keller was at her teacher’s bedside when she died, holding her hand. Their work continues to influence the education of children today.

Helen Keller and Anne SullivanHelen Keller holding the hand of her teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan (c. 1909). Sullivan began teaching the deaf and blind Keller in 1886 and was her interpreter until Sullivan’s death in 1936. Image by Everett Collection/​Shutterstock.

Maria Montessori (1870-1952)

Portrait of Maria Montessori (1935)Maria Montessori, Italian education theorist, adapted her methods of educating mentally disabled children to mainstream education. Ca. 1935. Image by Everett Collection/​Shutterstock.

This Italian physician developed the educational system that still bears her name, while working at the Casa dei Bambini, a full-day childcare center in Rome’s San Lorenzo slum.

Montessori’s teachings were founded in part on the idea that children learn best through hands-on, self-directed activities. In the classroom, she introduced sensory-rich tools like puzzles, cylinders, cubes, and beads as part of the educational process, allowing young children to embrace their natural desire to learn. Students participated in gardening, preparing lunch, and caring for animals, among other engaging activities.

Maria Montessori with Her StudentsMaria Montessori, Italian educator, with a large group of children from one of her “works” in Italy. Image by AP/​Shutterstock.

Not only was Montessori one of Italy’s first female physicians, but she also advocated for women and children’s rights throughout her career, speaking openly about equal pay at a time when opportunities for women remained limited. At the same time, she advocated for world peace through education, resulting in back-to-back Nobel Peace Prize nominations.

Portrait of Maria MontessoriPortrait of Dr. Maria Montessori, Italian education expert and founder of the Montessori schools. Image by AP/​Shutterstock.

Today, her methods are taught in public and private schools around the world.

Nannie Helen Burroughs (1883-1961)

Portrait of Nannie Helen Burroughs (1909)Portrait of Nannie Helen Burroughs, African American Educator and Civil Rights Activist, Rotograph Co., 1909. Image by Glasshouse Images/​Shutterstock.

With support from the National Baptist Convention, this legendary educator, intellectual, and activist established the National Training School for Women and Girls in Northwest Washington, DC, in 1909, at the age of 26.

The choice to open the school was met with some resistance at the time, as some believed women’s roles should be limited to domestic work. But she persisted, ultimately raising enough money from within the black community — mostly from women and children — to support the historic project.

Students at National Training School for Women and Girls, 1911-1918Women learn to sew at National Training School for Women and Girls, in Washington, D.C., c. 1911-1918. Image courtesy Everett Collection/Shutterstock.

The school offered academic and vocational courses to black women from around the world, including dressmaking, power machine operation, music, a school newspaper, and much more. A course on African American history was required of all graduates.

Nannie Helen Burroughs with two acquaintances c. 1905-1915Nannie Helen Burroughs with two acquaintances c. 1905-1915. Image courtesy Everett Collection/Shutterstock.

Throughout her career, Burroughs was active in both the civil rights movement and the fight for women’s suffrage. She was a renowned speaker, writer, and religious leader, admired by contemporaries ranging from Dr. Carter G. Woodson to Mary McCleod Bethune. She spent time with Mary Church Terrell, W. E. B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, and other leading voices of her generation.

Burroughs stayed on as president of the school she established until she died. It was renamed in her honor three years after her passing, and its Trades Hall is now a designated National Historic Landmark.

David Attenborough (1925-present)

Sir David Attenborough portraitPortrait of Sir David Attenborough in 1984. Image by Neville Marriner/Daily Mail/Shutterstock.

For decades, this natural historian and broadcaster has educated the public and raised awareness about the animal kingdom, in part through his iconic BBC series, The Life Collection. In 2019, his series Our Planet debuted on Netflix, and his documentary Climate Change — The Facts was broadcast by the BBC.

David Attenborough with orangutansDavid Attenborough with a mother orangutan and her child in 1982. Image by Shutterstock.

Throughout his career, Attenborough has introduced us to landscapes, habitats, and communities across all seven continents, traveling to some of the most remote regions on earth and capturing unprecedented footage of some of our planet’s rarest species.

Young David AttendboroughA young David Attenborough in 1965. Image by Evening News /Shutterstock.

Over the years, he’s become a devoted advocate for the natural world, attending climate talks around the globe while reminding millions of us at home about the beauty and diversity of the environment — and the importance of protecting it for generations to come. “We won’t be able to do enough to mend everything,” he told TIME last year. “But we can make it a darn sight better than it would be if we didn’t do anything at all.”

Jaime Escalante (1930-2010)

Jaime Escalante teachingJaime Escalante teaching math at Garfield High School, in Los Angeles, 1988. Image by Anonymous/AP/Shutterstock.

This Bolivian-American mathematics teacher rose to prominence after teaching calculus to inner-city students in East Los Angeles. Escalante immigrated to the United States in his thirties, carrying just $3,000. He learned the language, studied math and physics, worked as a technician, and ultimately landed a job at Garfield High School in Los Angeles.

During his time at Garfield High, Escalante was instrumental in building a large and successful Advanced Placement program, even though his early years were marked by challenges from colleagues within the school system, many of whom did not believe that the students could learn calculus. 

As the years passed, more and more of his students passed the exam, with his encouragement. Not one for the conventional, he was known to play rock ’n’ roll music and incorporate magic tricks into his lessons. A sign in his classroom read, “Calculus Does Not Have To Be Made Easy — It Is Easy Already.”

The 1988 film Stand and Deliver is inspired by Escalante’s life and work. The teacher would later describe it as 90 percent truth, 10 percent drama. Throughout his teaching career, he often said that to thrive, one needed “ganas,” or drive and desire. His students, who had been overlooked by many before him, had both.

Marva Collins (1936-2015)

Marva Collins at Westside Preparatory SchoolMarva Collins hosts Alabama Governor Fob James in her classroom at Westside Preparatory School in Chicago, IL, 1982. Image by Jim Bourdier/AP/Shutterstock.

After years of working as a substitute teacher within the Chicago school system, this educator set out on her own, determined to combat the neglect facing inner-city students. The school she founded with her $5,000 of pension savings, Westside Preparatory School, opened in 1975 and set high, rigorous standards for students, many of whom had been underestimated, underserved, and failed by the public school system.

Despite rising stardom on the national stage, including a television movie based on her life and offers to become the U.S. secretary of education, Collins chose to stay at the school, which remained open for more than thirty years. Throughout the decades, she trained over one hundred thousand teachers, principals, and administrators in her methods.

Collins was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2004. At the time, she reflected, “When you believe in what you do and have a passion about what you do, it is easy. It’s like climbing a beautiful mountain — it’s difficult getting there, but it’s beautiful once you’re there.”

Christa McAuliffe (1948-1986)

Christa McAuliffe NASA portraitChrista McAuliffe’s portrait for NASA’s Teacher in Space Project. Image by Encyclopaedia Britannica/Uig/Shutterstock.

This American social studies teacher was one of seven crew members to die tragically in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. As part of NASA’s Teacher in Space Project, she trained for a year and planned to teach and conduct experiments from space. She would have been the first private citizen in space.

Christa McAuliffe trainingChrista McAuliffe preparing for an orientation flight aboard one of the T-28 NASA training planes, in Houston, Texas, 1985. Image by Ed Kolenovsky/AP/Shutterstock.

In 2017-18, Joe Acaba and Ricky Arnold, both educators who became astronauts, filmed demonstrations and classroom lessons from the International Space Station as a tribute to her legacy, titled Christa’s Lost Lessons. In 2019, Congress voted to issue a commemorative coin in her honor.

Christa McAuliffe zero gravityChrista MacAuliffe experiences zero gravity during a training flight. Image by Shutterstock.

“She said to me … that someday she wanted to ride in space,” a friend of McAuliffe’s told The New York Times soon after the disaster, remembering their junior high school days, when they saw the United States send the first man into space.

In her application for the Teacher in Space Project, McAuliffe wrote about the importance of opportunities for women and how she’d been inspired by Sally Ride, and other women who’d trained as astronauts. Throughout her career, she firmly believed in the influence of ordinary people on national and global history, something she stressed to her students in the classroom.

Kakenya Ntaiya (1975-present)

Kakenya Ntaiya with ImanKakenya Ntaiya with Iman at an event in 2011. Image by Fairchild Archive/Penske Media/Shutterstock.

As a child growing up in a Maasai village in Kenya, Ntaiya dreamed of becoming a teacher, despite the obstacles that stood in her way. Though she was engaged from the age of five, she advocated for herself to continue high school. And, as a young adult, when she was accepted to Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Virginia, she negotiated with her village for their support.

With time, Dr. Ntaiya returned to advocate for girls in her community, who remained at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation in preparation for early marriages. In 2009, she founded Kakenya’s Dream, a non-profit dedicated to uplifting women and girls in rural communities, while ending harmful practices like child marriage and FGM.

That same year, she opened the Kakenya Center for Excellence, a boarding school for girls. In 2018, they broke ground on their second campus. An estimated eighty percent of Maasai girls in rural Kenya leave school by the age of twelve. Ntaiya aims to bring that number down to zero. As alumni of the school, hundreds of girls and women have avoided FGM and early marriage and have gone on to pursue continued education.

Joe Wicks (1985-present)

Joe Wicks on This Morning TV showJoe Wicks appears on This Morning TV show for a live PE session, March 2020. Image by ITV/Shutterstock.

This British fitness coach has been a phenomenon since 2014, but during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, he became the P.E. teacher to the world, including millions of children stuck at home during lockdowns. The live-streamed videos are so popular, in fact, that schools have been sharing them directly with students.

By his second class, more than 950,000 viewers had tuned in to elevate their heart rate and lift their spirits. “We’ve had Jamaica, India, Uruguay, Australia, New Zealand, and people from Scandinavia,” Wicks told ESPN earlier this year. “There are so many countries taking part in this because they want to see their kids exercising. I’m taking that role on and helping people get through this time.”

Children follow along to Joe Wicks's live PE lessonTwo children in London join Joe Wicks for a live PE lesson during coronavirus. Image by Andrew Parsons/Shutterstock.

In addition to his role as a fitness coach, TV presenter, and author, he’s come full circle to one of his initial goals of becoming a P.E. teacher — albeit with a much larger reach than he might have imagined.

See more from our Editorial archives:

LGBTQ+ Rights Movement: Take a Walk Through HistorySeven 20th-Century Writers and Artists Who Defied the Status Quo8 Young People Who Changed History and the World

Cover image via Everett Collection/Shutterstock

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