25 Teachers Who Drastically Changed the World

Everyone has a story of their favorite teacher and how they were inspired to graduate, appreciate a certain subject or achieve a certain academic, professional or personal goal. The teachers in this list have inspired whole communities. Some have even transcended the generations of their students and continue to influence the way we view philosophy, education, politics and humanity. Keep reading for our picks of 25 different teachers who drastically changed the world.

Historical Leaders

This list features some of the most successful and well-respected thinkers and teachers from antiquity to the twentieth century. Through research and discoveries and philosophy and mathematics, as well as the firm belief in the fundamental rights of all human beings, these teachers are still admired today.

  1. Socrates: Educators, philosophers, politicians and scientists all over the world acknowledge that Socrates was one of the most enlightened teachers and thinkers in our history. Through students like Plato, Socrates encouraged the pursuit of virtue through critical thinking and questioning. This system has affected all industries and fields of study and has inspired other great philosophers.
  2. Annie Sullivan: Annie Sullivan is best known as being Helen Keller’s instructor. She coached her deaf and blind student by giving her obedience and social etiquette lessons, as well as teaching her Braille. Sullivan became well-known and respected for her teaching methods and for being able to help Keller progress well beyond her expected potential. Sullivan traveled with Keller to give lectures and was supported by Alexander Graham Bell and Andrew Carnegie. Sullivan was also recognized by Temple University and other educational institutes "for her tireless teaching and commitment to Helen Keller."
  3. Leona Edwards: Leona Edwards was the mother and teacher of the civil rights legend Rosa Parks. In a 1995 interview with the Academy of Achievement, Parks credits her mother with inspiring her to believe "in freedom and equality for people." She says that her mother "did not have the notion that we were supposed to live as we did, under legally enforced racial segregation." Edwards was a teacher in a small school in Montgomery, AL, and her basic faith in the fundamental rights of all human beings could be credited as indirectly responsible for her daughter’s reputation as "the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement."
  4. Nathan Hale: Nathan Hale was a devout revolutionary and patriot who was hanged in September of 1776. He famously declared, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country," inspiring courage and honor in his fellow soldiers and future fellow Americans. Before the Revolutionary War, Hale was a teacher in Massachusetts and then later in Connecticut. According to the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, Hale "considered the question whether the higher education of women were not neglected" and eventually opened up a special class just for female students. When the Revolutionary War broke out, Hale joined the militia and eventually spied on the British troops, for which he was hanged.
  5. Verrocchio: Verrocchio is still considered one of the greatest Florentine sculptors and painters, but his pupil Leonoardo da Vinci is perhaps the most well-known Renaissance artist in the world. Verrocchio is credited as teaching Leonardo basic skills and nurturing his genius, and "it was in Verrocchio’s studio, according to the art historian Giorgio Vasari, that Leonardo gave the first great demonstration of his ability" when "he assisted in painting Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ."
  6. Walt Whitman: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is considered one of the most important works of poetry in the nineteenth century. Like many writers, Whitman was a teacher in his early professional life, on Long Island, NY. He later became a journalist and political activist in Brooklyn, in addition to writing poems that introduced new and often controversial themes like the poet’s individuality, rebirth, democracy and the elements of both body and soul. His poems influenced other major American poets like Emily Dickinson and Allen Ginsberg, and "is a poet not only of America but of the whole of mankind."
  7. Harriet Beecher Stowe: When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he famously remarked, "So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." As a child in Connecticut, Harriet Beecher attended her sister’s seminary and eventually became an assistant teacher there. In the 1840s, she founded a new school with her sister in Ohio, where the family had moved and where Harriet married Calvin Stowe. In Ohio, Stowe often studied and communicated with slaves who fled to her free state from Kentucky. When she and her husband moved to Maine, Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which revealed the harsh treatment of slaves in America and enraged critics and slaveowners. The Ohio History Central website maintains that Stowe’s book "did cause more and more Northerners to consider ending the institution of slavery."
  8. Lyndon B. Johnson: Lyndon B. Johnson was often harshly criticized for his handling of the Vietnam War as President of the United States, but before he even made it to Washington, LBJ was a teacher in South Texas. Johnson attended the Southwest Texas State Teachers College and served as principal at a Mexican-American school during a brief break from college. After graduating, Johnson taught at Pearsall High School in Pearsall, TX, and led his debate team to to win the district championship when he taught at Sam Houston High School in Houston.
  9. John Adams: As a respected patriot and lawyer involved with the drafting of the U.S. Constitution and the 2nd president of the United States, John Adams made a drastic impact on the shaping of the United States. Before getting into politics, however, John Adams graduated from Harvard College and became a teacher. He was greatly respected and admired for his independence, intelligence, and his devotion to and involvement with the Continental Congresses, the Declaration of Independence, various peace processes and the presidency.
  10. Pythagoras: Pythagoras, also known as "the father of numbers," was a Greek philosopher and mathematician who invented the Pythagorean theorem, which is still taught and used today. Though Pythagoras spent much of his life traveling and learning, he also became a teacher in India, where he is still known as "the Ionian teacher," or Yavanacharya. He later built an educational institute in Croatia to teach philosophy and basic "moral training."
  11. Sir Isaac Newton: Sir Isaac Newton is credited with discovering the theory of gravity, but he was also a Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, appointed by Isaac Barrow. During this time, Newton made advances in his optical research.
  12. Roger Bacon: During the second half of his life, Roger Bacon lived the simple life of a friar in England during the 13th century. As a younger man, however, he studied geometry, mathematics, philosophy and astronomy in Paris, where he was also a teacher. Bacon made groundbreaking discoveries and conducted experiments in these areas, understanding how each field was closely intertwined with the other. Bacon was also known as Doctor Mirabilis, which in Latin translates to "wonderful teacher." Wikipedia acknowledges that he is "sometimes credited as one of the earliest European advocates of the modern scientific method."

Pop Culture Icons

From popular authors to real-life teachers who inspired Hollywood movies as well as their students, these teachers can also be considered pop culture icons.

  1. Ayn Rand: Ayn Rand’s novels like The Fountainhead and Anthem, as well as nonfiction works like The Romantic Manifesto and The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution introduced controversial topics that affected the ways in which people all over the world considered gender roles, identity, sexuality, war and peace, capitalism and religion. Rand founded the Objectivist movement, which encouraged the idea that "individuals should choose their values and actions solely by reason." Famous followers of this philosophy included Alan Greenspan, and Ayn Rand traveled as an educator and lecturer during the 1960s and 70s.
  2. Erin Gruwell: Erin Gruwell was the original teacher who inspired the movie Freedom Writers, starring Hilary Swank. Gruwell began her teaching career at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, CA, where her students came from tough, often dangerous neighborhoods and immigrant communities. Gruwell was able to inspire her students to embrace learning, and she progressed with her class by teaching them each year until they graduated high school. She also followed her students to college, where she continued to support their Freedom Writers campaign, based on journals they kept in class and as a tribute to the Freedom Riders who impacted the Civil Rights movement. The Freedom Writers Foundation is still in existence, bringing awareness to educators and students, as well as government groups and corporations across the country.
  3. LouAnne Johnson: Another popular movie inspired by a real-life teacher is Dangerous Minds, starring Michelle Pfeiffer. LouAnne Johnson is the teacher who wrote a book based on her experiences with at-risk teenage students "because [she] was concerned about how easily adults give up on kids who have made mistakes. If we give up on them," she writes, "they give up on themselves." Today, LouAnne keeps an updated website and travels to different schools and conventions to give both teachers and students support. She has written other books, including The Queen of Education: Rules for Making Schools Work, and another of her works, Becoming Eduardo, is going to be adapted into a movie in early 2009.
  4. Melvin B. Tolson: Melvin B. Tolson has been named the poet laureate of Liberia, and was a scholar of the Harlem Renaissance, but many people today recognize him as the character played by Denzel Washington in the 2007 film Great Debaters. That movie portrays Tolson’s life when he was a speech and English teacher at Wiley College in Marshall, TX. Tolson challenged his students to break with convention and led them to the national debate championship at Harvard. His group organized the first debate team at Wiley College and were some of the first black students to compete against white students in the same championships.
  5. Frank McCourt: In works like the Pulitzer-Prize winning Angela’s Ashes, ‘Tis, and Teacher Man, Frank McCourt chronicled his rough Irish upbringing and his professional experiences as a teacher in New York City. McCourt’s unique writing style disposes of quotation marks yet involves colorful dialogue. He was a high school teacher in New York City, refusing to give up on his boisterous students and instead learning how to work with them in order to earn respect and help them learn.
  6. Mary Duncan: It’s pretty safe to say that the teacher who inspired Oprah Winfrey has drastically changed the world, indirectly affecting racial progress, media trends, and even orphans in Africa. Mary Duncan, Oprah’s fourth-grade teacher in Nashville, TN, led the class in which Oprah has said that she "really came into myself." In 1989, Oprah hosted Duncan on her show, saying "after all these years, I could say thank you to a woman who had a powerful impact on my early life."

Award Winning Teachers

Read about the projects and methods of these teachers, who’ve won the National Teacher of the Year Award, and other awards.

  1. Stephen Collis: Stephen Collis of the Northern Beaches Christian School in New South Wales was one of Microsoft’s Innovative Teachers’ Award winners in 2006. Collis developed a computer program called Beyond Borders, which his class used to send e-mails, post blogs and chat live in order to practice their French. Beyond Borders has also been used for teaching other foreign languages, as well as math and visual arts, and teachers and students from countries all over the world now use the program.
  2. Thomas A. Fleming: Fleming was the 1992 recipient of the National Teacher of the Year award. Fleming is a special education teacher in Ann Arbor, MI, but as a teenager, he dropped out of his Detroit high school. After going back to school and earning a Master’s degree, Fleming is a teacher at the Washtenaw County Juvenile Detention Center, educating inmates in history, geography and government. He tells his students that "there is still time to make good choices," and helps drop outs, students with learning abilities, and kids from broken homes realize their potential.
  3. Chauncey Veatch: Chauncey Veatch is an inspiration to his students, especially students who come from migrant worker families. Veatch won the National Teacher of the Year award in 2002, and he teaches social studies at Coachella Valley High School in Thermal, CA. Many of his students are migrant workers, which means that they fall behind in class. Veatch, though, wants to be ""a dream-maker for my students, not a dream-breaker," and spends extra time helping his students catch up on their work. Veatch is respected because of "his acceptance and sincerity" when getting to know the local community.
  4. Tom Byers: Tom Byers is a professor at Stanford University and the Faculty Director of Stanford Technology Ventures Program. Byers has received several awards that recognize his teaching strategies and commitment to students, and his Stanford Technology Ventures Program combines engineering and entrepreneurship resources to help students recognize their professional potential through academic study.
  5. John Taylor Gatto: John Taylor Gatto is a three-time New York State Teacher of the Year, but he ultimately quit his teaching career in order to focus his attention on reforming the public school systems, which he claimed "hurt children." Now, John Taylor Gatto’s mission to "challenge the myths of modern schooling" has sparked nationwide discussion and activism.
  6. Tim Thompson: Tim Thompson is dedicated to making technology accessible to his school children. Thompson is an award-winning educator who uses blogs "to communicate class activities to parents" and encourage students to use technology in everyday school projects. He has also produced a daily show called "The Morning Show" to review skills, as well as various podcasts and at-home learning videos that can be shared online.

Everyday Inspirations

For a look at how one teacher can truly make a difference, consider the story of music teacher and Irish immigrant Caroline Duggan.

  1. Caroline Duggan: In 2008, the New York Times reported on music teacher Caroline Duggan’s Irish step dancing troupe: her Bronx students. In response to her students’ unending curiosity, Duggan began teaching Irish step dancing moves as a way to share her native heritage and open up the rest of the world to the group of inner-city kids. The students completely embraced Duggan’s culture and even took a trip to Ireland to perform on national television.
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