You've likely met at least one teacher who changed your life for the better. And whether that person was an understanding elementary teacher, a high school teacher who pushed you to pursue your passions, or a college professor who spent extra hours helping you shape your thesis, in honor of these beloved figures (and to mark Teacher Appreciation Week, which runs this year from May 2-5), here are five historic educators whose strength, dedication, and creativity deserve extra gold stars.
1. JAIME ESCALANTE
Escalante was a rigorous teacher. His students came in an hour before school started, stayed long after classes were over, and attended mandatory summer school. However, the teacher's intensity paid off: In 1982, all 18 of Escalante’s advanced math students passed the calculus AP test.
Escalante’s students were accused of cheating, a claim they proved false when they re-took (and passed) the test a second time. Their academic achievements spurred a school-wide trend: By 1991, 600 Garfield students were taking AP courses—and not just in math.
Escalante retired in 1991, and returned to his native Bolivia. He died in 2010 from cancer, at the age of 79.
2. MARIA MONTESSORI
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The Montessori Method is an education approach for children that emphasizes exploration, choice of practical activities, independence, and learning through the senses. It’s named after Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952), an Italian physician and educator who pioneered the unique form of pedagogy.
Montessori was a trained doctor, but she was also interested in educational theory—particularly methods used to teach children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Montessori eventually became co-director of a new training institute for special education teachers, where she observed various teaching styles to see which ones were most effective.
In 1907, Montessori opened a childcare center called the Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, in Rome. Noting that the children learned best when they freely interacted with their environment, Montessori designed a special classroom environment and learning materials. Her style was so successful that “Montessori” schools began popping up across Italy. Today, they're common across the globe.
3. ANNE SULLIVAN
Anne Sullivan (1866-1936) was only 21 years old when she taught the deaf, blind, and mute Helen Keller to communicate with the outside world. Sullivan, whose own vision was impaired, had attended the Perkins School for the Blind. There, she learned the manual alphabet—hand signs for the deaf that can also be communicated via touch. Sullivan used these signs to teach Keller that everything has a name.
In 1877, Sullivan achieved a pivotal breakthrough with her young pupil. She described the moment in a letter to a friend:
...I wrote you that "mug" and "milk" had given Helen more trouble than all the rest. She confused the nouns with the verb "drink." She didn't know the word for "drink," but went through the pantomime of drinking whenever she spelled "mug" or "milk." This morning, while she was washing, she wanted to know the name for "water." When she wants to know the name of anything, she points to it and pats my hand. I spelled "w-a-t-e-r" and thought no more about it until after breakfast. Then it occurred to me that with the help of this new word I might succeed in straightening out the "milk-mug" difficulty. We went out to the pump-house, and I made Helen hold her mug under the spout while I pumped. As the cold water gushed forth, filling the mug, I spelled "w-a-t-e-r" in Helen's free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face.
4. RICHARD FEYNMAN
Dr. Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was an American theoretical physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project and co-won the 1965 Nobel Prize for work on particle physics. He was also a skilled science instructor who had a knack for delivering intelligent yet approachable physics talks.
As a young man, Bill Gates watched a video of one of Feynman’s talks. He loved it so much that in 2009, he bought the rights to Feynman’s lectures, and collaborated with Microsoft to make them free and accessible online. Recently, Gates paid homage to Feynman’s teaching prowess in a blog post and accompanying video, "The Best Teacher I Never Had."
5. MARY JANE PATTERSON
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Mary Jane Patterson (1840-1894), a daughter of fugitive slaves, became the first African-American woman to receive a college degree when she graduated from Oberlin College in 1862. However, she was also a noted educator.
Patterson briefly taught in Chillicothe, Ohio, before relocating to Philadelphia to work at the Institute for Colored Youth, a college preparatory school for African Americans. In 1869, Patterson moved to Washington, D.C. There, she eventually became principal of the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth (later renamed M Street High School, now called Dunbar High School).
Patterson was the city’s first African-American high school principal, and she is still remembered for her “strong, forceful personality,” and for increasing school enrollment from fewer than 50 students to 172.