New England Historic Genealogical Society (Public Domain)
New England Historic Genealogical Society (Public Domain)

5 Awe-Inspiring Teachers of Yore

New England Historic Genealogical Society (Public Domain)
New England Historic Genealogical Society (Public Domain)

It's Teacher Appreciation Week! This is a great time to reflect on the teachers who have helped you—and are helping students of all ages right now.

To celebrate teachers, let's look back at some educators from years gone by.

1. Anne Sullivan (1866-1936)

Anne Sullivan circa 1887. Image courtesy of Perkins School for the Blind and Wikimedia Commons.

Anne Sullivan is best known as the teacher and friend of Helen Keller. But Sullivan's road to becoming Keller's teacher was extremely rough.

Sullivan grew up in abject poverty. She was one of five siblings, three of whom died as children. Sullivan's father was an alcoholic, and her mother died from TB when Sullivan was just 9 years old. As a child, Sullivan contracted trachoma, a bacterial infection of the eye, which left her nearly blind, though a series of surgeries would eventually restore some of her vision.

After spending years institutionalized in the infamously cruel Tewksbury Almshouse, Sullivan pleaded to go to school, and was admitted to Perkins School for the Blind. When she arrived, she could barely spell. By the time she graduated, she was valedictorian.

Sullivan picked up a crucial skill at the Perkins School: the manual alphabet, originally developed as a series of hand signs for the deaf to communicate the alphabet visually. For a person who can neither see nor hear, the manual alphabet can be communicated by touch (by signing into the palm of someone's hand). This would prove crucial in Sullivan's teaching method with Helen Keller.

At age 21, Sullivan arrived in Tuscumbia, Alabama to teach the young Helen Keller, who was deaf, blind, and by all accounts quite rambunctious. Keller was clearly intelligent, but lacked language. Sullivan proceeded to teach Keller, and they became lifelong friends. Here's a snippet from a letter Sullivan wrote about a breakthrough in her teaching:

...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.

Keller's progress after this moment astounded everyone. Within two years, Sullivan and Keller met with President Cleveland. Later Keller would become an author, and her autobiography was adapted into The Miracle Worker. That "miracle worker" was, of course, Anne Sullivan.

2. Jaime Escalante (1930-2010)

Jaime Escalante was born in Bolivia, the son of two teachers. He became a teacher there, but eventually emigrated in 1963 to California with his wife and son. Although he had taught math and physics in his home country, upon arriving in California he worked as a janitor, cook, and other odd jobs while he took night classes at Pasadena City College. He studied English and ultimately was awarded a scholarship to Cal State Los Angeles, where he earned teaching credentials.

In 1974, Escalante became a math teacher in Garfield High, an underperforming inner-city school in Los Angeles. When he looked at the math curriculum, he was shocked by how weak it was. But he steadily chipped away at the problem, and by 1978 began an Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus class with 14 students. Only five made it through his strict class to the test, and only two passed the AP test.

In 1980, seven of his nine AP Calc students passed the test. In 1981, it was 14 out of 15. Everything changed in 1982. Here's a snippet from The L.A. Times telling the story (emphasis added):

In 1982, [Escalante] had 18 students to prepare for the academic challenge of their young lives.

At his insistence, they studied before school, after school and on Saturdays, with Escalante as coach and cheerleader. Some of them lacked supportive parents, who needed their teenagers to work to help pay bills. Other students had to be persuaded to spend less time on the school band or in athletics. Yet all gradually formed an attachment to calculus and to "Kimo," their nickname for Escalante, inspired by Tonto's nickname for the Lone Ranger, Kemo Sabe.

Escalante was hospitalized twice in the months leading up to the AP exam. He had a heart attack while teaching night school but ignored doctors' orders to rest and was back at Garfield the next day.

Then he disappeared one weekend to have his gallbladder removed....

...Escalante's calculus students took their exam in May under the watchful eye of the school's head counselor. The results, released over the summer, were stunning: All 18 of his students passed, with seven earning the highest score....

The Educational Testing Service didn't believe the result, accusing 14 students of cheating. Of those 14, 12 retook the test...and passed again. After that, Escalante's AP Calculus class became legendary, and only four high schools in the country had more students taking and passing AP Calc than Garfield High. He won a series of awards for his work.

Escalante's story was dramatized in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver. He continued teaching for decades in various schools (including a stint in Bolivia), and passed away in 2010 at the age of 79.

3. Socrates (469-399 BCE)

Socrates is a teacher we know only through his students and some contemporaries. Although Socrates didn't leave behind writings of his own, he is one of the most widely written-about philosophers, and is often regarded as the father of Western Philosophy.

The best-known student of Socrates was Plato, who wrote extensively about Socrates. Socrates used what is now called the Socratic method, a form of discussion based on asking and answering questions, forming hypotheses, and eliminating hypotheses that contain contradictions. This logical progression is one progenitor of the scientific method.

Socrates stirred things up in Athens at a time of political unrest, making enemies by praising the rival state of Sparta. Andrew Irvine wrote in Socrates on Trial:

"During a time of war and great social and intellectual upheaval, Socrates felt compelled to express his views openly, regardless of the consequences. As a result, he is remembered today, not only for his sharp wit and high ethical standards, but also for his loyalty to the view that in a democracy the best way for a man to serve himself, his friends, and his city—even during times of war—is by being loyal to, and by speaking publicly about, the truth."

Ultimately Socrates was put on trial in part for corrupting the youth of Athens. (That "corruption" was due to his question-and-answer dialogues with apparently everyone he met, including youth—who seemed particularly taken by his style of argument, and emulated it.) He was sentenced to death by drinking a poisonous hemlock potion.

4. Joe Clark (1938-)

In 1982, Joe Clark became the principal of Eastside High School. Eastside was a failing school in Paterson, New Jersey, and it was rough. The New York Times noted that Eastside had once been called a "caldron of terror and violence."

Clark turned the school around using a rather intense method of discipline he had picked up as an Army drill instructor. Clark patrolled the hallways with a baseball bat and a bullhorn, shouting at kids who misbehaved. He restored order, throwing out hundreds of students who misbehaved, and SAT scores improved substantially. (Whether this is the result of better education or simply removing the worst students is a matter of some debate.)

Clark's story inspired the 1989 film Lean on Me. He resigned in 1990, and is now an author and speaker.

5. Frederika "Friedl" Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944)

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis studied and taught art at the Weimar Bauhaus in Germany, working in textiles, printmaking, and typography, among other forms. When the Nazis rose to power, Dicker-Braindeis and her husband Pavel were deported to the Terezin "model" ghetto. The ghetto was used in propaganda films, portrayed as a model community with a rich cultural output; in reality it began as just another concentration camp.

But because so many artists, musicians, scientists, writers, and educators were imprisoned at Terezin, it actually did become a cultural haven for a time. Dicker-Brandeis had brought art supplies with her to the ghetto, and proceeded to teach art to over 600 children there. She taught them painting, collage, paper weaving, drawing—you name it.

But Dicker-Brandeis was not just teaching art; she was performing what we now recognize as art therapy seen through a Bauhaus lens. An article from Yad Vashem explains a bit of how it worked (emphasis added):

...[H]er lessons were not designed merely to teach her students technique. Rather, these different techniques became the means through which she taught her young students to dig below the facile to the deep well-spring of their feelings and emotions, and from that intimate place, to create. Through this intuitive method, a drawing of a flower vase on a windowsill, or the portrait of a child, would become something truly absorbed, deeply felt, sublime. It would reflect the child’s inner feelings—a window into their soul. In a lecture she gave in the ghetto in 1943 to explain her teaching methods, she declared that her purpose was not to train the children as artists, but rather to "unlock and preserve for all the creative spirit as a source of energy to stimulate fantasy and imagination and strengthen children’s ability to judge, appreciate, observe, [and] endure" by helping children choose and elaborate their own forms.

On October 6, 1944, Dicker-Brandeis and dozens of her students were deported to Auschwitz and murdered.

After her death, more than 5,000 drawings made by her Terezin students were located and preserved. Many are now in the Jewish Museum in Prague. Her own work is harder to find, as she often destroyed it, did not sign it, or simply gave it away to friends. (You can see some work online.) More than one hundred of her own works from Terezin were discovered in the 1980s and are now at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

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Paradise Found Around, YouTube
A Very Special History of The More You Know
Paradise Found Around, YouTube
Paradise Found Around, YouTube

For the past 29 years, NBC has devoted a portion of airtime that could otherwise be sold for substantial advertising dollars to provide brief reminders about basic human decency, teen issues, and social controversies. Efficiently packaged in 30-second increments and featuring recognizable faces, The More You Know campaign has become synonymous with lessons in ethics. Wrap up a serious conversation with your kid about drug use and they’re likely to respond by humming the campaign’s theme song. (“Da-da-da-dahhh.”)

But how did the network find itself the messenger for these widely celebrated (and widely parodied) spots? And did they really have any impact?

 
 

The idea of a public service announcement—a philanthropic use of airtime on television or radio to serve a greater good—started in the United States back in the 1940s, when stations allocated some of their commercial or program time to remind people about the war efforts under the guidance of the newly-formed War Advertising Council. The idea had been imported from the UK, which had long featured film reels on public safety tips, like how to cross a road. PSAs relied on truncated, catchy messages (“Loose lips sink ships”) to impart ideas with the limited time they had available.

After the Allied victory, the War Advertising Council became the Ad Council, and the scope of their mission changed from world-altering events to comparatively mundane topics. Aligned with mandates from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), public service announcements attempted to balance special interests with objective information. In the late 1960s, for example, the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine took aim at tobacco advertising, with one PSA on the dangers of the habit airing for every three cigarette spots. The number of smokers in the U.S. actually declined before the FCC banned such advertising from airwaves altogether in 1971.

By the 1980s, the major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) narrowed their PSA efforts by giving them a unique identity. ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock was among the most popular, using catchy songs to illustrate points about government or science. NBC aired One to Grow On, a series of cautionary messages about everything from chewing tobacco to finishing your homework, with Mr. T. and Michael J. Fox sharing their scripted wisdom.

 
 

In the late 1980s, Rosalyn Weinman, NBC's vice president of broadcast standards and practices, was approached by several nonprofit educational groups to see if the network might want to get involved in raising awareness for the teacher shortage affecting the country. Weinman reached out to former NBC creative director-turned-ad executive Steve Lance, gave him a slogan (“The More You Know”), and asked him to produce five test spots centered around the importance of teachers and education. While NBC wasn't crazy about the campaign, Weinman had support from her own team and from some marketable names working for the network.

“She said she had a few stars of NBC series willing to do PSAs. What I absolutely didn’t want to do was a talking-head campaign," Lance tells Mental Floss of not wanting to shoot videos where actors would stand or sit on a spare set and deliver their message. "Talking heads were absolute death.”

Instead, Lance wrote a series of spots focusing on bolstering the public perception of teachers by acknowledging famous educators throughout history like Aristotle and Albert Einstein and stretching Weinman’s slogan to “The more you know, the more you can teach.” Miami Vice co-star Saundra Santiago appeared in one of the spots, which began airing in 1989; so did news anchors Tom Brokaw and Deborah Norville, as well as L.A. Law co-stars Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry.

To help give the campaign a visual identity, Lance was paired with Steve Bernstein, a graphic designer who came up with the shooting star illustration that signaled the end of the segment. Bernstein tells Mental Floss he wondered why NBC was reaching out to freelancers rather than in-house employees. "Nobody else [at NBC] would do it," he says. "They were too busy, so Rosalyn had to go outside the network." Bernstein came up with a star that fit neatly under the "W" in the slogan.

Originally, the logo was filmed so it looked like it was in motion, not animated. “We didn’t have the budget for that,” Lance says. The familiar melody was composed by two-time Emmy winner Michael Karp, who also created the theme for Dateline NBC.

The spots garnered praise: Lance wrote a total of 17 that first year, all of them centered around the importance of educators—but Lance left after finishing that first batch when Weinman decided to go in a different direction: NBC was apparently concerned viewers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between set-decorated spots and actual commercials, so Weinman reverted to the “talking head” premise.

 
 

Despite Lance's departure and the change of format, the series continued just as successfully as before. Its minimalist approach was attractive to actors who enjoyed delivering their lines in a loose and informal setting, and by 1996, director David Cornell herded in actors (including Courteney Cox, Jonathan Silverman, and Eriq La Salle) over a single weekend to tape spots for the entire year, often asking them to pare down their delivery so that it would fit into a 25-second block of time. (The last five seconds were reserved for the star graphic and Karp’s melody.)

The Ad Council, which had seen its role minimized over the years, would later take issue with the proprietary campaigns launched by networks, arguing that they were little more than stealth ads for their programs. To their point, NBC did appear to use at least half the casts of ER and Seinfeld. But the spots could sometimes net tangible results: In 1995, after a series of The More You Know spots on domestic violence, calls to the Domestic Violence Hotline went from 228 calls daily to quadruple that amount. The network earned a Public and Community Service Emmy for its efforts, and the campaign—which still airs on NBC—grew to include spots by the cast of Friends and a comedic take courtesy of The Office, as well as appearances by sitting presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. You can watch some of the more well-known (and rather dated) spots below.

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Jeremy Freeman, TruTV
A New Game Show Helps Contestants Pay Off Their Student Loans
Jeremy Freeman, TruTV
Jeremy Freeman, TruTV

Most game shows offer flashy prizes—a trip to Maui, a million dollars, or a brand new car—but TruTV’s latest venture is giving away something much more practical: the opportunity to get out of student loan debt. Set to premiere July 10 on TruTV, Paid Off is designed to help contestants with college degrees win hard cash to put towards their loan payments, MarketWatch reports.

The show gives college graduates with student loan debt "the chance to test the depth of their degrees in a fun, fast-paced trivia game show,” according to TruTV’s description. In each episode, three contestants compete in rounds of trivia, with one contestant eliminated each round.

One Family Feud-style segment asks contestants to guess the most popular answer to college-related poll questions like “What’s the best job you can have while in college?” (Answer: Server.) Other segments test contestants' general trivia knowledge. In one, for example, a contestant is given 20 seconds to guess whether certain characters are from Goodfellas or the children’s show Thomas & Friends. Some segments also give them the chance to answer questions related to their college major.

Game show host Michael Torpey behind a podium
TruTV

Based on the number of questions they answer correctly, the last contestant standing can win enough money to pay off the entirety of their student debt. (However, like most game shows, all prizes are taxable, so they won't take home the full amount they win.)

Paid Off was created by actor Michael Torpey, who is best known for his portrayal of the sadistic corrections officer Thomas Humphrey in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Torpey, who also hosts the show, says the cause is personal to him.

“My wife and I struggled with student debt and could only pay it off because—true story—I booked an underpants commercial,” Torpey says in the show’s pilot episode. “But what about the other 45 million Americans with student loans? Sadly, there just aren’t that many underpants commercials. That is why I made this game show.”

The show is likely to draw some criticism for its seemingly flippant handling of a serious issue that affects roughly one in four Americans. But according to Torpey, that’s all part of the plan. The host told MarketWatch that the show is designed “to be so stupid that the people in power look at it and say, ‘That guy is making us look like a bunch of dum dums, we’ve got to do something about this.’”

Paid Off will premiere on Tuesday, July 10 at 10 p.m. Eastern time (9 p.m. Central time).

[h/t MarketWatch]

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