Blackboard Jungle … The Miracle Worker … Dead Poets Society … Stand and Deliver: Hollywood has often found the classroom a suitable set for high drama and inspirational uplift.
As we know, even the most ordinary teachers are real-life heroes, doing their best to bestow the tools for a better life upon often-uncooperative students, whose parents can be alternately demanding and negligent. They typically work in an underfunded system, besieged by impossible pressures of time and class size, and are frequently on the receiving end of political scapegoating. Nevertheless, many of them have indeed managed to work miracles, and their stories are worthy of celebration. Here are 10 educational overachievers who ought to be in pictures:
Let’s start with someone who’s already a towering historical figure, and author of one of the great autobiographies in American letters, Up from Slavery. Indeed, Washington was so much more — author, skillful political operator, leader of a whole social movement — but first and foremost he was an educator. The very title of his masterpiece indicates his bottom-up, community-driven approach, and while many civil rights leaders still see him as too accommodationist regarding the Jim Crow realities of the South, his Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) is one of the great stories in American education. A short TV biopic was made in 1984 with LeVar Burton, but Booker’s story deserves feature treatment someday.
No, not Ronald, though he is also an advocate for a worthy cause. Ranald McDonald was certainly no clown. His parents were Princess Sunday (also known as Raven) of the Chinook tribe, and Archibald McDonald, a Scottish fur trader and provincial governor. As a child in 1830s Oregon, he met a few shipwrecked Japanese sailors and was fascinated by the idea that his Indian ancestors were once from Asia themselves. He took to the sea as a teenager, and sneaked into Japan, which at the time was strictly closed to the outside world. He was taken prisoner and brought to the free port of Nagasaki, where Dutch traders did business. Technically under house arrest, he studied Japanese and 14 men (mostly samurai) came to him to learn, making him Japan’s first English teacher. One of these samurai, Einosuke Moriyama, became the interpreter between the shogunate and Commodore Perry, facilitating Japan’s opening to the West.
Francis Parker was born in 1837 in Bedford, N.H. He was educated in public schools, began teaching in one at age 16, and was a principal by age 22. His civic spirit also led him to enlist at the start of the Civil War. After being shot in the throat, he became a prisoner of war in North Carolina. When the war ended he returned to education administration, traveling to Germany to learn the latest pedagogical theories. He was in high demand, reforming the school systems in Chicago and in Boston and Quincy, Mass., where he developed the “Quincy Method,” which cultivated independent thinking rather than rote memorization. Here’s some real talk from Colonel Parker:”Fighting for four years in the Civil War, as best I could, for the preservation of the democratic ideal, a teacher of little children for nearly 40 years, I believe four things, as I believe in God—that democracy is the one hope of the world; that democracy without efficient common schools is impossible; that every school in the land should be made a home and a heaven for children; that when the ideal of the public school is realized, the blood shed by the blessed martyrs for freedom will not have been shed in vain.”
Gallaudet was studying at Andover Theological Seminary, planning to become a minister, until he had an encounter with a nine-year-old girl, Alice Cogswell. She was deaf, and he became interested in teaching her English, scratching words on the ground with a stick. Her father, a surgeon, was intent on improving deaf education, and encouraged Gallaudet to travel to Europe and learn the state of the art. He wasn’t satisfied with the oral methods he had been sent to study in Britain, but was invited to France where hand-based communication was being developed. He came back and Alice was among his first students at the American School for the Deaf, which is still open today in Hartford, Conn. His son carried on his work after his death, running what became Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., still America’s only college especially for the deaf. Since the story of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller made for a classic movie, we think this pioneer of deaf education deserves one too.
Another education hero with a TV movie (this one an Italian miniseries), Maria Montessori still deserves the Hollywood treatment. Montessori remains the best known figure in the history of alternative education, more than 100 years after she began her work. Receiving her medical degree from the University of Rome in 1896 (a time when such a thing was unheard of), she first came at education from the special-needs angle, but soon extrapolated her findings to the general population of children at her Casa dei Bambini. Her humanist approach to free learning within constructive parameters became an international sensation, and there are now several thousand Montessori schools worldwide.
Wendy Kopp grew up in glitzy 1980s Dallas in the affluent Highland Park neighborhood, and spent her college years in the Ivy League enclave of Princeton. While there, however, she became interested in the problem of improving America’s less fortunate students, and her undergraduate thesis developed an idea for a teaching corps of recent college graduates, on the belief that they shared a desire to serve after graduation that outstripped the profit motive. Her bet paid off. Her brainchild Teach for America is today a thriving (even insanely competitive) program that’s now funneling 6,000 top achievers each year (out of 48,000 applicants) into jobs at the country’s poorest schools.
Mary McLeod Bethune was the 15th of 17 children born to former slaves who farmed rice and cotton in South Carolina. Her own education took her from a one-room schoolhouse in Mayesville to the Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College), then to the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. She hoped to become a missionary to Africa but was, preposterously, told no black missionaries were needed. So she ran a mission school and taught prisoners in Florida. In 1904 she started a school in Daytona Beach, taking advice from friend Booker T. Washington and successfully courting rich donors. Today that school is Bethune-Cookman University, where she was president for the periods 1923-1942 and 1946-1947. She was a member of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s unofficial “Black Cabinet” and a prominent civil rights leader, registering black women to vote despite KKK threats. She died in 1955, a year after Brown v. Board of Education, meaning she had outlived the Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” decision, made when she was 21, that determined the conditions of her career.
Susan Blow was the daughter of lead magnate, congressman, and ambassador Henry Taylor Blow (whose parents were the original owners of famous slave Dred Scott). She was always deeply intellectual, learning Portuguese to facilitate her father’s work at the U.S. Embassy in Brazil, and studying German philosophers, importing from them new theories about early childhood education. With her own money, she opened America’s first kindergarten in St. Louis in 1873. It was so successful that by 11 years later, every school in the city had its own kindergarten, and the movement spread nationwide.
Since 1984, Rafe Esquith has taught at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles, the second largest elementary school in America. Nearly all of his students are from non-native-English-speaking immigrant families, the vast majority of which are living below the poverty line. Yet Esquith’s students continually score in the top fifth or 10th percentile of the nation. What is his secret? Esquith teaches from 6:30 in the morning to 5:00 in the evening, and takes it slow, rather than fracturing learning time into seven or eight discrete blocks. He emphasizes experiential learning and each year his fifth-graders perform a Shakespeare play. They have been invited to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company and perform at the Globe Theater in London. Esquith’s books include Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, There Are No Shortcuts, and Lighting Their Fires. Recently departed director Mel Stuart (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Wattstax) made an hourlong PBS documentary called The Hobart Shakespeareans, but their tale seems ripe for the full Hollywood treatment.
A married pair of teachers in the coal country of Kentucky, Roy and Karen decided to combine their two separate classrooms (one mainstream, one special ed) and co-teach. They didn’t know how this radical merger would work out at first—it’s practically a pedagogical Brady Bunch—but the experiment has been a smashing success. Students stay in the class for up to four years, and help design the curriculum, learning civic skills in a classroom they chose to dub the “Country of Peace,” incentivizing schoolwork with their own system of currency. For sheer thinking outside the box, this would make an inspiring screen story.