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What’s the Most Important Thing You Learned from a Teacher?

Posted on December 2nd, 2011 in Certification Map | 1 Comment »


Take a second to think about the most famous, respected people in society today. Most likely, you are thinking of an actor, musician, entrepreneur, politician, maybe even an athlete. There is no doubt that these are the most glorified professions out there, and there is no doubt that these people often have earned the respect and attention they deserve. But where and how did they cultivate the skills and passion that have gotten them to where they are today? Who do they have to thank for their success?

This is the question that blogger Steve Silberman set out to answer in his post on the Public Library of Science website.

As Silberman writes, it’s becoming too often that we hear successful entrepreneurs encouraging students to drop out of school and pursue a career. But behind nearly every great mind or great success story, the words of a solid and effective, yet unsung teacher can be found. “It struck me how rarely we hear from accomplished people about the debt they owe to their teachers,” writes Silberman. “The words of a true teacher stay with us a long time, offering wise counsel in a world and a potent inoculation against foolishness. Yet we rarely get to thank them explicitly.”

To get at this notion, Silberman asked some of the most brilliant and successful people he knows a simple, yet important question: “What’s the most important thing you learned from a teacher?”

The list of willing and enthusiastic respondents includes best-selling authors Rebecca Skloot and Deborah Blum, culture critic Mark Dery, award-winning science journalists David Dobbs, Amy Harmon and Hillary Rosner, cognitive psychologist Uta Frith, and prolific bloggers Maggie Koerth-Baker, Geoff Manaugh and Ed Yong.

Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, got her inspiration while taking an elective writing course in college. Though she always planned on being a vet, professor John Calderazzo of Colorado State University saw her innate writing talent. He encouraged her to write and helped ease her mind about not being a vet, saying, “Letting go of a goal doesn’t mean you failed, as long as you have a new goal in its place. That’s not giving up, it’s changing directions, which can be one of the best things you ever do in life.”

Deborah Blum, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author of The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, remembers kindness from an 8th grade English teacher, Lois Player, who recognized her ability to write. Instead of praising her publicly, Mrs. Player pulled her aside. “She bullied a rather reluctant school administration into putting me into a brand new class… It was the first time I realized that writing could be community… that kindness can literally shape a life.”

Mark Dery, cultural critic and author of I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams, picks Mrs. C, a senior year high school English teacher, out of his pantheon of life-changing professors. It was not her compassion or kindness that made an impact, but rather her dogmatic and unflinching approach to the English language and literature that inspired Dery. “The endorphin buzz of hitting the interpretive bull’s-eye, making Mrs. C.’s eyes light up with that you-got-it! glow of approval, struck sparks in my teenage mind. My year with Mrs. C. inspired a major in English, a career in cultural criticism, and a lifetime habit of overthinking everything.”

Silberman’s point is well received, and his respondents are excited to have the opportunity to thank their most influential teachers and professors. Silberman encourages readers to gain some inspiration from his post and the stories it contains, and maybe even write an email or letter to your most influential teacher. After all, when was the last time you thought about those words, that kind gesture or that meaningful paper that led you to where you are now? Take some time to thank a teacher for doing what they do best: inspire.

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  • Eco Fem13

    I was wondering about teaching jobs in North Dakota- there is a jobs boom but teacher salaries remain very low.  When will they rise as other salaries are rising in the state