During the three years from 1987 until 1990, I spent considerable time with 117 notable Americans, gleaning from their writings ideas about what makes a great teacher. These individuals have all made extraordinary contributions to their chosen fields as well as to the American culture. In many cases, they had influence throughout the world.
In the solitude of my home, I reflected on the words of these 117 people. I thought of them as my house guests as I searched through their autobiographies. They were poets and musicians, journalists, historians, novelists, biographers, attorneys, theologians, a champion boxer, three Presidents, members of the United States Congress, scientists, a handful of radicals, and a blind and deaf woman. As they revealed how their lives had been shaped, each of them included one or more references to teachers having a significant influence on their lives.
What these outstanding men and women said about their teachers was authentic. They had not been asked to write about them for a specific occasion or a particular publication. Rather, they commented voluntarily on teachers as they reflected on life and wrote their autobiographies. In an autobiography people select and write about persons and events that have been most important to them.
I learned from these men and women that searching for a pat definition of a great teacher is an elusive quest. Great teachers defy a standardized description. Perhaps one of the best descriptions was expressed by Henry Siedel Canby, the great literary critic. In writing of his teachers at Yale, Mr. Canby said, “We loved them, or hated them, or even despised them, but never escaped their daily presence in our thoughts.’'
A great teacher is remembered, but not necessarily liked at the time he or she was a teacher in a student’s life. The novelist Eudora Welty echoed this sentiment when she wrote about one of her teachers, Lorena Duling. Ms. Welty forthrightly declared, “But I did not, in life, love Miss Duling.’' Ms. Welty is also quick to state, however, that Miss Duling has played an influential role in her work as a writer.
For Dan Rather, the CBS News anchorman, a great teacher is one "... who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you on to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called truth.’' In my search for a definition of a great teacher, Mr. Rather is most perceptive when he says, "... the term a good teacher is redundant, while the phrase a bad teacher is a contradiction in terms.’'
Sometimes a great teacher offers just one idea that a student latches on to and develops later. This was the situation for the theologian Norman Vincent Peale. It was in the 5th grade that his teacher, George Reeves, planted the idea that would later become Mr. Peale’s theological principle of positive thinking. And for the woman’s-suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a teacher’s belief that girls were as good as boys made all the difference in her life.
For the civil-rights leader Roy Wilkins, Lulu Converse--his 7th-grade English teacher--taught him how to diagram sentences. She also made a powerful social statement; she taught him how to dance, "...white schoolmarm and gawky black scholar gingerly waltzing to the thumping chords of the piano--the Ku Klux Klan would have been beside itself.’'
These few examples demonstrate the memorable influence of a teacher upon a student. At the same time, they are just pieces of a larger puzzle that were necessary in constructing a definition of a great teacher. As I pulled together what these 117 notable Americans said about their teachers, I discovered a pattern.
Great teachers, almost without exception, display masterful command of their subject matter. They care. They possess the uncanny ability to unleash youthful potential. They are demanding and they are relentless in their determination to ignite in every student the will to excel. Great teachers also have boundless energy.
But if there is an overriding attribute that great teachers possess, it is passion--passion for learning, passion for knowledge, passion for excellence, passion for life, and a passion devoted to the ideal that education is sacred, and the denial of education profane.
This robust passion was embodied in Grace Bidlack, who taught Mackinlay Kantor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. “The gods ... had given her the power to teach young boys,’' Mr. Kantor wrote. “She spent her natural life doing just that. I never met a human being with more single-minded purpose.’'
While Grace Bidlack’s passion was robust, it may have been surpassed by the tenacious passion of one of the world’s most unforgettable and exemplary teachers, Anne Mansfield Sullivan. She tutored the blind, deaf child, Helen Keller. For Helen Keller, Miss Sullivan unlocked the mysteries of language, awoke her soul, and set her free. Great teachers do just that--they liberate.
Having the knowledge, determination, energy, and passion for teaching do not alone make a great teacher. These combined factors are necessary, but great teachers are not solo performers. They depend upon their students for definition. Had it not been for the qualities which these notable Americans brought to their teachers, we--more than likely--would never have known of their particular teachers. This brings us, then, to another piece of the puzzle in defining what it is that makes a teacher great. As I studied the 117 autobiographies of these notable Americans, it emerged that each harbored a desire to discover and to learn.
This common tinder--the desire to discover and to learn--was what these outstanding Americans brought to their teachers. Their teachers, in turn, ignited it, allowed it to burn, and to contribute--perhaps without either knowing it--to their individual greatness as teachers and as leaders in American culture.
Thus, it was in the classroom that a future architect, Louis Sullivan, found the “self discipline of self power’’ by which to focus his energies. Upon discovering Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry, the anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston declared, “This was my world. ... I shall be in it, surrounded by it, if it is the last thing I do on God’s green dirt ball.’' For Aaron Copland, “the daring decision to spend my life as a musician’’ came to him when he was 15 years old. In the case of Anna Howard Shaw, “life was smiling at me, and with all my young heart I smiled back’’ after she decided to enter high school so that she could pursue becoming a minister. And for Martin Luther King Sr., learning was the key for his “becoming a teacher, or a builder, or a railroad engineer’’ and being freed from the farm.
Sometimes we are blinded by the obvious. This fact was true for me as I plumbed for great teachers’ qualities. Just as teachers are not solo performers, neither do they and their willing students perform in isolation. Teachers in their teaching and students in their process of discovering and learning are both dependent upon support--especially from parents, significant individuals in their lives, and their communities. This support was universal in the lives of these 117 Americans.
The biographer and historian Earl Schenck Miers was a cerebral-palsied child. In the early part of this century, such children did not attend public schools. Mr. Miers’s mother, however, was not daunted by this reality. It was because of her insistence--over the great opposition of the school’s principal--that Mr. Miers became enrolled in public school.
The power of support from a student’s community is illustrated in the lives of two distinctly different people, Ohiyesa (a.k.a. Charles A. Eastman) and Marian Anderson. A physician and writer, Ohiyesa was schooled by his uncle, Mysterious Medicine, and the whole Santee Sioux tribe in Minnesota. Community support for the opera contralto Marian Anderson, on the other hand, was in the form of funding for her early voice lessons. It came from her family, high-school principal, neighbors, and the members of the Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia.
It was through the autobiographies of these 117 Americans that I identified some of the qualities that contribute to the making of great teachers. As I reflected on their lives and thought about my own teachers and those with whom I have taught, I was reminded that great teachers are not only people of the past. They exist today and they can be found throughout America. Wherever teachers and students meet, where their special relationship is permitted, fostered, and supported (by school officials, family or other important people in a student’s life, and community members), teaching and learning exist. It is in such an environment that we can find great teachers and American leaders emerging.
A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Great Teachers Are Not Solo Performers