Teaching Profession

George Lucas, Venus Williams, Stephen Colbert—and the Teachers Who Inspired Them

By Sasha Jones — May 07, 2018 5 min read
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This Teacher Appreciation Week, May 7-11, comes on the heels of a school year defined by teacher walkouts and protests in response to low wages and insufficient school funding.

As this wave of teacher activism has shown, teachers have long struggled with feeling undervalued. According to Gallup, almost half of teachers in the United States say they are actively looking for a different job or are watching for new opportunities. And yet teachers—who make up the largest profession—are beginning to use their collective power to demand change.

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, Education Week has collected quotes from celebrities and other prominent figures about the impact teachers have made on their lives.

In a provided statement, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos named two teachers who made the biggest impact on her “for very different reasons"—her 2nd grade teacher and her high school civics teacher.

“I’m a lefty and learning to write in cursive can be more difficult for some of us. [My 2nd grade teacher] was always very encouraging of me and helped me to embrace my uniqueness,” DeVos said. “The next teacher I recall having a big influence in my life was my high school civics teacher, Mr. Pothoven. He really piqued my interests in politics and civic engagement. I give them a lot of credit for influencing me and the work I’ve been doing over the last 30 years.”

In his 1991 Academy Awards acceptance speech, filmmaker George Lucas gave a special shoutout to teachers.

“From kindergarten through college, their struggle—and it was a struggle—to help me learn to grow and learn was not in vain, and it is greatly appreciated,” said Lucas, the creator of the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” franchises. “I’ve always tried to be aware of what I say in my films because all of us who make motion pictures are teachers, teachers with very loud voices. But we will never match the power of the teacher who is able to whisper in a student’s ear.”

During the 2017 Academy Awards, several award winners—including “Moonlight” actor Mahershala Ali and “La La Land” songwriter Justin Paul—gave their teachers a shoutout in their acceptance speeches.

Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart said in a 2016 Parade article, “My favorite teacher was Irene Weyer, my 3rd grade teacher at Yantacaw School Nutley in New Jersey. She was a small lady and ruled with an iron fist. She was always pleasant. She inspired me so much that I always wanted to be a teacher.”

In 2011, as part of a Teach.gov campaign, President Barack Obama remembered his 5th grade teacher. “I don’t think there is any job that is going to give somebody more satisfaction than teaching,” he said.

According to Parade, tennis player Venus Williams credited Sandra McManus as being her favorite teacher. “She believed in not only us, but a lot of students,” Williams said. “Some of the students that had a tough time, she never gave up on them. That’s what I loved about her. It takes a lot to stay motivated and not become jaded as a teacher because you so often see so many cases you can’t help. But she never thought of it that way.”

In a speech at an awards gala in 2015, actress Rene Russo, who is known for her roles in movies “Nightcrawler” and “Lethal Weapon 4,” didn’t mince words about how one teacher actually saved her life: “I want to thank my 8th grade Spanish teacher. Hola! ... for navigating me through all those f--ed-up a-hole football players. They called me Jolly Green Giant. You didn’t keep me from dropping out of high school, but you did keep me from killing myself.”

Meanwhile, 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said she has had many excellent teachers, according to Parade.

“One I’ve never forgotten is my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. King. She would say, ‘Hillary, don’t put your light under a bushel basket!’ I didn’t exactly understand the metaphor at the time, but I knew she was telling me to work hard, be true to myself, and stand up for what I believe,” Clinton said. “Every child should have someone in their life who helps them see, from the very beginning, that they have something of value to offer the world. That’s what Mrs. King did for me. She was so encouraging, and it meant the world.”

In recognition of teachers in 2012, composer, director, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame tweeted:

Comedian Stephen Colbert, who has been a big proponent for DonorsChoose.org, which helps teachers get donations for their classrooms, sat down with his 4th grade teacher for a walk down memory lane on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” two years ago:

Along similar lines, talk show host Oprah Winfrey reunited with her 4th grade teacher in 1989.

Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also met with his favorite teacher in 2010:

Mike Massimino, a former NASA astronaut and current professor, has recognized his high school English teacher, Krista Boseling, as his “favorite teacher amongst many favorites.”

“She saw potential in me and encouraged me to fulfill that potential,” he said. “Ms. Boseling not only shared her love of writing and the classics with me and my classmates, she also taught us to use our talents wisely and that the sky was not the limit.”

And New York Times op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow expressed his gratitude for teachers in his 2011 column, “In Honor of Teachers,” writing: “So to all of the Mrs. Thomases out there, all the teachers struggling to reach lost children like I was once, I just want to say thank you. You deserve our admiration, not our contempt.”

Last but not least, in an unpublished memoir, Ronald A. Wolk, Education Week’s founder who died on April 28 at age 86, remembered the English teacher who encouraged him to pursue college.

Had it not been for one persistent English teacher, I probably would be a retired steelworker living in Homestead, Pa. On the last day of classes in my senior year at Munhall High School in late May 1950, my English teacher, Miss McClatchey, asked everyone planning to go to college to raise his or her hand. Out of 30 or so students, perhaps five hands went up. Mine was not among them. When the bell rang, and I was leaving the classroom, Miss McClatchey called my name and signaled me to wait for a minute. "Why aren't you going to college?" she asked when my classmates were gone. I replied that I had no money and had not applied anywhere. She went to her desk and got an application to Westminster College, her alma mater—a small church-related school about 60 miles north of Pittsburgh. We filled out the application, she wrote a check for $5 or $10 dollars to cover the application fee. "And how do I pay for it," I asked. "We'll see what we can do," she replied. A few weeks later, I received a letter telling me that I was admitted and had a job in the dining hall that would cover my room and board. A loan would be arranged to cover my tuition."

Did a teacher inspire you? Use the hashtags #WhyTeachersMatter and #ThankaTeacher to express your gratitude.

Post updated with quotes from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.