5 Terrific Teachers

YouTube / TED
YouTube / TED / YouTube / TED

Teachers are heroes. Without teachers, I wouldn't be able to read, write, or bring you this list of wonderful people. Read on.

1. Kathy Pitt, Fifth Grade Teacher

Kathy Pitt figured out a simple way to find out which students in her fifth grade class were struggling, being ostracized, being bullied, or generally needed more of her attention. Every Friday, Pitt asks her students to nominate one of their peers whom they think is “an exceptional classmate.” The nominations, along with answers to a few similar questions, are submitted privately to her on notecards.

Pitt then identifies the students who receive the fewest nominations, or who themselves are unwilling or unable to nominate others. It’s a simple indicator of issues that aren’t always visible to the teacher when she's standing at the front of the class. She says she has been using the technique “Every single Friday afternoon since Columbine.” A mother of a student in Pitt's class brought national attention to Pitt when she blogged about the practice earlier this year.

Pitt teaches in Naples, Florida. You can see photos of her classroom in a gallery from the Naples Daily News.

2. Kent Knappenberger, Music Teacher

Kent Knappenberger is the winner of the 2014 Music Educator Award, presented by The Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation. Judges received thousands of nominations, but Knappenberger stood out -- and not just for his amazing beard. He said, "I think it's my job to try to approach children in a way that I can try to find something musical in them. And sometimes in the kid you think shouldn't have some musical gifting, if you start looking -- wow! It's there! And amazing things happen."

Knappenberger, known as "Mr. K." to his students, also runs a farm with his wife. Of the farm, he said, "I think I went through a midlife crisis a couple of years ago and said 'I need to have a cow.'" In addition to having a cow, he and his wife have nine kids, eight of whom are adopted.

If you know a music teacher who deserves recognition, you can nominate him or her online.

3. John Masterson, Social Studies Teacher

In January, John Masterson convinced a boy who brought a shotgun into his New Mexico school to put it down. The 12-year-old shooter had already injured two students in a crowded gym when Masterson intervened.

NBC News reported:

[Masterson] was facing away from the shooter, and the shooter away from him, when the first shot was fired. The teacher thought it was a firecracker, [Gov. Susana Martinez] said. The teacher wheeled around and saw the young man fire more shots before he pointed the gun at Masterson, she said. The teacher talked to him and urged him to put the gun down. The shooter put the gun down and raised his hands, and Masterson put him up against a wall, the governor said. Just then, an off-duty state police officer arrived — he was dropping his own son off at the school — and they contained the student.

“I'm still the same person,” Masterson said in one interview. “I just had something happen. An event that happened and I don't feel like it changed me.” In addition to teaching Social Studies, Masterson also coaches soccer and track in Roswell, New Mexico.

4. Dr. Rita Pierson, Teacher

Dr. Rita Pierson was a teacher her entire adult life, teaching elementary school, junior high, special ed, and more. Her parents were educators, her grandparents were educators, and Pierson herself began teaching in 1972, so she has some experience in the field. Last year she wrote for The Huffington Post:

“Teachers don't make a lot of money. They are usually not deemed worthy of news coverage unless there is a scandal or a strike. Most of the time, their major accomplishments are shared only with colleagues and family members and not the media. The celebration is often cut short by some catastrophe the next day. Yet, in spite of the highs and lows, I cannot think of another profession that brings both joy and challenge on a daily basis.”

Pierson is on this list not because of a scandal, a strike, or a catastrophe -- but because she was an inspiring, dedicated teacher. She spent four decades in the classroom, and in 2012 she gave the TED Talk above, which has been viewed more than 2.7 million times. She passed away in 2013.

5. Taylor Mali, English Teacher/Slam Poet

"I make parents see their children for who they are, and who they can be," says Taylor Mali in his performance of "What Teachers Make," a poem about his teaching career in New York City. Have a look:

After nine years teaching, Mali is now a full-time poet, speaker, and author. He's all over YouTube, and he has apparently inspired a lot of people to teach. From his website:

[Mali's] 12-year long Quest for One Thousand Teachers, completed in April of 2012, helped create 1,000 new teachers through “poetry, persuasion, and perseverance,” an achievement Mali commemorated by donating 12″ of his hair to the American Cancer Society.

Here's one more nice performance by Mali, set in kinetic typography: