Throughout history, there have been many people who have served as great teachers, both inside and outside of the classroom setting. These are ten of the most notable.
This King of Israel was not a teacher as such in his own time, but he was lauded far and wide for his wisdom, and his writings have endured for three millennia. Among the books attributed to him are the brooding “Ecclesiastes,” the erotic “Song of Songs” and the often-quoted “Proverbs,” which contains practical advice that is still useful in a contemporary context. “As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” is one of Solomon’s most famous sayings, and “Proverbs” deals extensively with the differences between the wise and the foolish.
Born a slave in ancient Greece, Aesop is renowned for the fables that he wrote. Usually involving anthropomorphic animals as main characters, they instill such lessons as the value of perseverance (“The Tortoise and the Hare”) and planning for the future (“The Ant and the Grasshopper”). Some of these tales have made their way into modern literature and cinema, and the Smothers Brothers and “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” both mined the tales for their comedic possibilities. Meanwhile, most of the morals Aesop espoused remain just as valid today.
This Chinese philosopher, otherwise known as Kong Qiu, spent his childhood in poverty. An intense student, he eventually married but found that it interfered with his search for meaning and his mission to revive the ideals of Chinese civilization. Among his words of advice are the following: “Forget injuries, never forget kindnesses” and “Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true virtue.” His aphorisms, collected in “Analects of Confucius,” are as frequently quoted as Solomon’s proverbs.
Probably a contemporary of Confucius, this sage Indian better known as Buddha was the founder of Buddhism. Most of his wisdom was passed down through oral tradition and includes the idea that one must empty oneself of all attachments in order to attain enlightenment. His most notable teachings include the Four Noble Truths, which identifies desire as the primary source of suffering, and the Noble Eight-Fold Path, which includes eight facets of a Nirvana-bound life, including “right” understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.
Considered one of the fathers of Western philosophy, along with his student Aristotle and his teacher Socrates, the great Greek thinker Plato is responsible for some of the most enduring thought about how the world works. His Allegory of the Cave, one of his most famous works, posits that the world is like a cave wherein people are trapped, and everything we see is like shadows on the wall, mere hints of the True Forms that exist outside the cave, in some ideal realm. Through his Socratic dialogues, he helped to pave the way for modern science and philosophy.
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Among fairly contemporary teachers, one of the standouts is Laura Ingalls Wilder, a pioneer who became known through her accounts of her childhood and early adulthood in the “Little House” books, which went on to enjoy a resurgence in popularity thanks to the 1970s television show starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert. Though she was a schoolteacher, she is famous for her work outside the classroom that helped to introduce 20th century Americans to the rigors of life in the 1800s.
A contemporary of Wilder, Annie was a teacher who enabled the deaf and blind Helen Keller to interact and communicate with those in the outside world. Initially an unruly child, Helen went on to become one of the great inspirational speakers of the 20th century, with Annie, the one person who had figured out how to reach her, always by her side. Annie’s work serves as the basis for several film versions of “The Miracle Worker,” the most famous starring Anne Bancroft.
C. S. Lewis
Oxford professor Clive Staples Lewis was an avid student of ancient mythology and philosophy who eventually became one of the premiere Christian apologists of the 20th century. His worldview was profoundly influenced by fellow Oxford professor J. R. R. Tolkien, who scribbled the iconic first sentence of “the hobbit” on a blank page in a paper he was grading. While Lewis’s noted theological works include “Mere Christianity” and “The Screwtape Letters,” he is perhaps most famous for penning the seven-book children’s fantasy series “The Chronicles of Narnia”.
This Irish-born storyteller immigrated to New York in his late teens and, after serving in the Korean War and taking an assortment of odd jobs, went on to work as a teacher in schools throughout New York City for decades. In this position, Frank McCourt inspired countless students but remained in obscurity until the publication of his memoir, “Angela’s Ashes,” which chronicled his hard-scrabble life as a youngster in Limerick. He went on to publish “‘Tis,” which recounts his early experiences in America and “Teacher Man,” which deals specifically with his teaching career, before his death in 2009.
Born in Bolivia, James Escalante dedicated his life to teaching mathematics to students. Most notably, he spent 15 years teaching algebra and calculus at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. Thanks to his tireless efforts, he went from bemoaning the apathy of his initial batch of teens to watching hundreds of his students successfully pass the Advanced Placement Calculus exam. “Stand and Deliver,” a streamlined version of his time at Garfield starring Edward James Olmos, garnered an Academy Award nomination and catapulted Escalante to national attention, but he continued to teach until his 2010 death from cancer.
Making an Impact
These men and women are notable for different reasons, but all of them made an impact upon many individuals, both directly and indirectly. The world would be a much more hollow place without teachers such as these to provide guidance and inspiration.