Top 10 Most Inspiring Teachers (real and fictional)

“A woman and a child sitting in chairs opposite to each other and playing” by Alexandr Podvalny on Unsplash

Our teachers are among the people who can have the greatest impact on our lives. Most people remember an exceptionally good or exceptionally bad teacher who influenced them in some way as they grew up.

Below is a list of the 10 most inspiring real and fictional teachers that we can all learn from.

10. Walter Lewin

Walter Lewin in 2011. Credit: Walter Lewin. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Walter Lewin is a Dutch astrophysicist and former professor of physics at MIT. He became famous and amassed a large following online due to the popularity of his lectures on physics, which were published on Youtube, MIT OpenCourseWare and edX.

Lewin is known for promising students at the beginning of his course that he would make them love physics, and for delivering on the promise by delivering high-quality lectures which he rehearses several times. The lectures often include spectacular experiments and demonstrations which he conducts with a contagious passion for his subject.

Unfortunately, Lewin disappointed the world by sexually harassing an online student in 2013. After an internal investigation, MIT revoked his Professor Emeritus title and removed his lectures from its online learning platforms. While his lectures are still great and highly inspirational, Walter Lewin is not a great educator. He is a sex offender who violated the fundamental social contract between teacher and student. The only reason he made it to the list is the massive impact he had on several people’s lives before he decided to destroy his legacy.

9. Melvin B. Tolson

Melvin B. Tolson. License info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Melvin_B_Tolson.jpg

Melvin B. Tolson was an American poet and educator. He built an award-winning debate team at the historically black Wiley College in Texas, which he led as they participated in the first known interracial college debates against white colleges in the South of the United States.

Tolson was known for encouraging his students to stand up for their rights, which was controversial in the segregated U.S. South of the early and mid-20th century. He mentored James L. Farmer, Jr. and Heman Sweatt, who later became civil rights activists. The 2007 biopic The Great Debaters starring Denzel Washington as Tolson depicts his work as teacher and debate team coach at Wiley College.

8. Andria Zafirakou

Andria Zafirakou. Credit: Fuzheado. License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Andria Zafirakou is a UK Cypriot teacher who won the 2018 Global Teacher Prize. In order to connect with her students on a personal level, Zafirakou has learned the basic greetings in about 35 languages used by her students.

Zafirakou has stated that her focus in the classroom is on building trust between herself and her students:

[Teaching] is all about building relationships. Instead of worrying about teaching the curriculum or making sure that you’ve got a strict classroom environment, build your relationships first.

7. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Tyson hosting the 40th anniversary celebration of Apollo 11 in 2009. Credit: Bill Ingalls. License: Public domain

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an American astrophysicist and science communicator. He is the director of the Hayden Planetarium and a visiting research scientist and lecturer at Princeton.

All it takes is a quick Youtube search for his name and a few minutes of any video of his in order to fall in love with this man. His eloquence and passion for his subject are mesmerizing. I could go on praising him for several paragraphs, but it is better to just head over to his videos and see for yourself.

6. Anne Sullivan

Sullivan in 1887. Credit: Unknown. License: Public domain

Anne Sullivan was an American teacher, instructor and lifelong companion of Helen Keller, a blind and deaf child.

During a lesson with Keller, Sullivan finger-spelled the word ‘water’ on one of Keller’s hands as she ran water over her student’s other hand. The method worked, and she discovered a way to teach her blind and deaf student how to spell. Sullivan went on to teach Keller nearly 600 words, the multiplication tables, and how to read Braille within months.

Later on, Sullivan helped Keller pursue higher education at Radcliffe College. She spent hours spelling Keller’s class lectures onto her hand and helping Keller understand the textbooks. As a result, Keller became the first deaf-blind person to graduate from college.

5. Erin Gruwell

Erin Gruwell in 2006. Credit: Phil Konstantin. License: Public domain

Erin Gruwell is an American teacher known for her unique teaching method. She was able to reach her students by asking them to keep journals and to make movies of their lives. Writing journals became a source of solace for many of her students, and due to the fact that the journals were shared anonymously, teenagers who were once afraid to speak out finally got their voices to be heard. She also taught her students Shakespeare by relating the family feud in Romeo and Juliet to gang wars.

The Freedom Writers Diary is a book composed of journals that Gruwell told her students to write about the troubles in their life. It became the basis of the 2007 movie Freedom Writers starring Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell.

4. John Keating

Robin Williams as John Keating in a still from the movie Dead Poets Society

John Keating is a fictional English teacher portrayed by Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poets Society.

In the movie, Robin Williams plays a character who teaches his students to appreciate poetry and to pursue the things they love. Furthermore, he motivates his students to question authority when necessary and not to be afraid to stand up for what they believe is right. At the end of the movie, his students pay homage to their teacher by boldly supporting him in front of their antagonistic headmaster despite the headmaster’s orders for them to sit down.

3. Jaime Escalante

Poster of the movie Stand and Deliver

Jaime Escalante was a Bolivian educator known for teaching Calculus at Garfield High School, Los Angeles.

Instead of dumbing down his lessons for the poorly performing students at Garfield High School as was expected, Escalante instead offered AP Calculus. Escalante endeavored to convince his students that they had control over their future and that they could get jobs in engineering and computers if they would learn math:

You’re going to college and sit in the first row, not the back because you’re going to know more than anybody.

Despite all the obstacles in his way, Escalante managed to gradually get so many students to enroll and pass the calculus test that at one point Garfield graduates were entering the University of Southern California in such great numbers that they outnumbered all the other high schools in the working-class East Los Angeles region.

His faith in his students and determination to teach them were highly motivational for his underprivileged students. One of his students is known to have commented:

If he wants to teach us that bad, we can learn.

2. Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman. Credit: The Nobel Foundation. License: Unknown

Richard Feynman was an American theoretical physicist and recipient of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The Feynman Lectures on Physics, a physics textbook based on his series of undergraduate lectures, became the most popular physics book ever written. Feynman’s lectures were written to stimulate the interest of students with a good grasp of physics by presenting new ideas and exciting developments in the field. They became a valuable resource not only to undergraduate students with a strong background in physics but also to graduate students and faculty. This led to Feynman being dubbed “the great explainer” and an “extraordinary teacher of teachers”. The textbook is freely available online.

When it comes to his teaching philosophy, Feynman opposed rote learning and believed in encouraging students to be curious, open-minded and especially to refrain from blindly trusting knowledge passed on to them and so-called experts.

Feynman does not make it to the top spot as the most inspiring teacher due to his attitude toward women, which is unexemplary by today’s standards. While perhaps normal among people who grew up during his time, his attitude today can be considered sexist. When he would have his daily bowl of soup, he would ask the nearest female to fetch it to him, whether she is a server or an engineer. In his autobiography Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he expressed his indignance at women who would accept free drinks from him but then refuse to spend the night with him, explaining that this amounts to exploiting him since they knew that he was expecting ‘something’ in return for the free drinks. He also frequented topless bars and painted nude models which caused people to believe that he did not respect women.

1. E. R. Braithwaite

E. R. Braithwaite. Credit: Carl Van Vechten. License: Public domain

E. R. Braithwaite was a Guyanese-born British-American writer and teacher known for his 1959 autobiographical novel To Sir, With Love, which was made into a 1967 movie of the same title starring Sidney Poitier.

Due to pervasive racial discrimination, Braithwaite could not find work in his field despite being highly qualified and resorts to taking a job as a schoolteacher in the East End of London.

Braithwaite is met with students who are unmotivated to learn and who constantly attempt to demoralize him with disruptive noises, profanity and even the burning of a used sanitary towel in the fireplace. Dauntless, Braithwaite decides to try a new approach. Since the students will be leaving school soon and are about to enter adult society, he would treat them as adults and give them the freedom to choose what topics to study. In return, they would offer him their respect as their teacher. After he perseveres to win over his students over the course of several weeks, he finally succeeds.

E. R. Braithwaite’s novel To Sir, With Love, is a great read for teachers and non-teachers alike and earns him the title of the most inspiring teacher.

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