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50 Great Teachers: A Celebration Of Great Teaching

LA Johnson/NPR

Anne Sullivan was a great teacher. Famously, she was the "Miracle Worker," who taught a blind and deaf girl named Helen Keller to understand sign language and, eventually, to read and write.

Socrates ...now there was a great teacher. More than 2,000 years after he gave his last pop quiz, we still know him for the teaching style named after him, the Socratic method. And through the writings of his most famous pupil, Plato.

Who else? Well, there's Booker T. Washington — who founded the Tuskegee Institute. And Jaime Escalante, who taught calculus to poor kids in Los Angeles when no one really thought they could learn it.

That's four. After that my list gets pretty sketchy.

And yet, if you asked me to, I could (probably) sit here at my desk and write out the names of 50 great generals. Fifty great political leaders? No problem.

With teachers, it's not so easy. Google isn't much help, either — you mostly get the names mentioned above, and maybe a few more.

A lot of people who show up on lists of great teachers, when you look carefully, aren't really known for their teaching: John Dewey, for example, is remembered more as a philosopher and reformer than an actual teacher. Maya Angelou's writings can certainly teach us a lot — and she was a professor at Wake Forest — but she's really known for being a poet and author and civil rights leader. Einstein? OK, sure he taught, but that's not why he's famous.

You get the point: While our history and culture celebrate military or political leadership, it rarely elevates teachers. Escalante is a rare example from recent times who actually won fame for what he did in the classroom. But he's an exception that proves the rule.

So, what can we do about this? That's our next big project here at NPR Ed: 50 Great Teachers.

We began this week with a two-parter on Socrates: Eric Westervelt's piece and then this video with children talking about the ancient philosopher. And with a little digging, some creative thinking, and hopefully your help too, we're going to spend the next year celebrating great teachers and telling their stories. Because, of course, they're as important in their own way as generals and politicians.

As my NPR Ed colleague Cory Turner puts it, "Teachers shape lives. And great teachers shape lives that shape the world."

So we'll set out to find 50 of them and tell their stories. This won't be some kind of contest to name the best teachers in America. Or a ranking that says this teacher is better than that one.

Instead we'll use it to celebrate teachers past and present (mostly present), famous or not. We'll be looking for personal stories about how a teacher can change the lives of students. Or just one student.

At the same time, we'll use this project as an opportunity to do some reporting on what makes a great teacher, and how teaching can and should be be taught. And, we'll take a hard look at the big question of What, exactly, is great teaching?

As we go forward, tell us about the great teachers you've known, the ones you think ought to make our list. Or send your own story about a great teacher in your life. We'll read them over and pull some out and share them.

Drop some thoughts in the comments below or find us on on Facebook or Twitter #50GreatTeachers, or send an email to npred@npr.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Drummond heads up two teams of journalists at NPR. NPR Ed is a nine-member team that launched in March 2014, providing deeper coverage of learning and education and extending it to audiences across digital platforms. Code Switch is an eight-person team that covers race and identity across the network, and in an award-winning weekly podcast.