5 Awe-Inspiring Teachers of Yore

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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.

May 8, 2014 - 8:00am
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