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Original photo by Maglara/ Shutterstock
9 of History’s Most Famous Teachers
Read Time: 6m
Article image
Original photo by Maglara/ Shutterstock

Most of us can recall at least one teacher who made the classroom fun, inspired a love for learning, and provided sincere encouragement. While these wonderful educators are remembered by those who benefited from their lessons, they are often unheralded in the bigger picture. After all, the best teachers tend to keep the focus on their students, rather than themselves.

Nevertheless, the legacies of some teachers have endured through time thanks to their groundbreaking contributions to the classroom — and beyond. Here are nine who truly deserved every apple placed on their desks.

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Socrates

The Greek philosopher Socrates (469 - 399 BC) teaches his doctrines to the young Athenians.
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Cutting a distinct figure in fifth century BCE Athens with his unkempt clothing and long hair, Socrates conducted his “classes” in the marketplace and other public areas by engaging passersby in discussions designed to winnow out the truths of existence from popular wisdom and ingrained assumptions. Ironically, he claimed he wasn't a teacher during his trial for corrupting the minds of Athenian youth, though that may have been part of what was ultimately a failed attempt to stave off execution. Socrates is remembered today as a towering figure in the formation of Western philosophy, while his “Socratic method” survives as a proven tool for fostering debate in the classroom. His method also lived on in his most famous student: Plato.

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Anne Sullivan

A portrait of Helen Keller's teacher, Anne Sullivan.
Credit: Kathryn Scott Osler/ Denver Post via Getty Images

Rendered partially blind by disease and orphaned at an early age, Anne Sullivan had already faced numerous challenges by the time she agreed to teach a 6-year-old deaf and blind girl named Helen Keller. Sullivan famously penetrated her student's shell by holding one of Keller's hands under running water and tracing the word "water" on the other, commencing a series of accomplishments that remain awe-inspiring more than a century later. With Sullivan — who is often referred to as the “Miracle Worker” — at her side, Keller went on to publish an autobiography in 1903, graduate from Radcliffe College in 1904, and embark on a career as a world-famous humanitarian. As Bishop James E. Freeman eulogized at Sullivan's funeral in 1936, "The touch of her hand did more than illuminate the pathway of a clouded mind; it literally emancipated a soul."

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William Holmes McGuffey

Portrait of William Holmes McGuffey, famed McGuffey Reader originator.
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William Holmes McGuffey served as a professor and college president at several schools from the late 1820s into the early 1870s. But his greatest contribution to academia came with McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers, the first textbooks to enjoy widespread use as the common school system found its footing in a rapidly developing nation. Expanding to a series of six books after the first two volumes appeared in 1836, the Readers progressed from the basics of the alphabet to advanced lessons in literacy, science, and history, eventually selling more than 100 million copies by 1900. McGuffey's Bible-based works largely disappeared from classrooms within a few decades, though they remain in print for those with a homeschool curriculum in mind.

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Emma Willard

American educationalist and pioneer for equal education opportunities for women, Emma Willard.
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Born in Connecticut in 1787, Emma Willard saw her intellectual curiosity fostered by the progressive men in her life. Her father enrolled her at a local girls' school, and a nephew later provided instruction from his college geometry and philosophy courses. Willard sought to pass along similar educational opportunities to other girls, starting with the launch of the Middlebury Female Seminary from her Vermont home in 1814. Seven years later, she opened the Troy Female Seminary, the nation's first higher-education institution for women, in upstate New York. Willard stepped away from its day-to-day management in 1838, but the school, which opened with 61 boarding and 29 day students, continued its steady growth. By 1872, more than 12,000 students had passed through its doors. Now known as the Emma Willard School, it retains the lofty goals of its founder as one of the elite girls' college preparatory schools in the country.

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Savitribai Phule

Rare photo of Mahatma Jyoti Rao Phule teaching her wife Savitribai Phule.
Credit: Raj surve/ Shutterstock

Like Willard, India's Savitribai Phule was fortunate to find others willing to nurture what was a gifted, ambitious mind. Married at age 9, she learned to read and write from her husband, Jyotirao Phule, before pursuing a formal education that made her India’s first female teacher. Phule teamed with her husband to open a rare school for girls in 1848 — a move that ignited controversy in a country with strict societal codes but also garnered accolades from the British government. Although she eventually opened 18 schools, Phule's accomplishments as an educator form just one component of her outsized legacy. She also famously set up support systems for India's "untouchables," child brides, widows, and abused women as part of efforts to spark widespread social reform.

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Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori and a child in class.
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Already a distinct figure as one of Italy's first female physicians, Maria Montessori channeled her interest in childhood development into the launch of a daycare center in Rome in early 1907. She subsequently fine-tuned the "Montessori method," in which kids essentially learn subjects for themselves through immersion in preferred activities and adult guidance. Her schools spread to Europe and then the United States in 1911, before falling out of favor across the Atlantic by the 1920s. Montessori nevertheless continued writing and lecturing until she died in 1952, shortly before American educators began rediscovering the benefits of her methodology. Today, there are approximately 20,000 Montessori schools worldwide, with Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and former Amazon chief Jeff Bezos among the accomplished alumni.

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Toru Kumon

Close-up of Kumon pencils.
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Amid a steady career as a high school math teacher in Osaka, Japan, Toru Kumon discovered that his young son was struggling to keep pace in his own math class. Kumon subsequently designed a series of worksheets for his son and, upon seeing notable improvement, began instructing other children around the city. In 1968, he retired from teaching to focus on his burgeoning educational service, which hit American shores in 1974. Unlike some of the other educators on this list, Kumon left little room for improvisation in a system that stressed the importance of rote memorization for his carefully detailed worksheets. But his Kumon Centers topped a total of 2 million enrolled students around the world before his death in 1995.

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James Naismith

Photo of Dr. James Naismith.
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The first full-time athletics instructor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, James Naismith went on to spend four decades as a professor, coach, and athletic director at the University of Kansas. Of course, he's best known for his stint at the Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA International Training College in the early 1890s, during which time he was asked to develop a winter activity for the students. Naismith devised a game in which two teams of players scored points by lofting a ball into peach baskets fastened at opposite ends of the gym. His “basket ball” quickly caught on to the point where college teams were competing against one another by the mid-1890s, en route to expanding into a global sport with an estimated 450 million participants by the early 21st century.

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Jaime Escalante

Math teacher Jaime Escalante assists a student.
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A Bolivian immigrant who had to rebuild his educational credentials from scratch, Jaime Escalante wound up teaching remedial math at Garfield High in East Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. Unwilling to accept the low expectations the school placed on their students, Escalante launched an advanced placement (AP) calculus course in 1979, and alternately pushed, cajoled, and charmed his troubled students into becoming college-ready scholars. In an incident dramatized in the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver, all 18 of Escalante's students passed the AP calculus exam in 1982. However, many of the students made similar errors, which the Educational Testing Services assumed was them cheating. Eventually, the students were allowed to retake the difficult exam and again passed. By the time the famed teacher left Garfield High in 1991, a whopping 600 students at the once-underperforming school had accepted the challenge to take AP courses across a wide range of subjects.