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How Teachers Change Lives

Many of us are who we are because of an educator.

Key points

  • Teachers can have a deep, positve impact on the life of a young person.
  • People tend to undervalue the role that teachers play in shaping students' minds.
  • People's personalities as adults can have much to do with the direction a teacher provided.

Teachers are a central figure in our lives, if only because almost all of us have had direct experience with quite a number of them. Americans are a highly diverse group of people, but our memories of teachers serve as something that we have in common, an all too rare and good thing these divisive days. While most of the teachers we’ve had were forgettable, there are those who, decades later, still pop up in our dreams, and not in a good way. (I really did lose my homework on the way to school, Mrs. Pallidino.)

But then there were likely one or two, maybe three if you were really lucky, who had a deep and positive impact on your life at the time. Events in one’s youth can have a profound effect on who one becomes as an adult, many agree, making the potential influence of teachers critical in the trajectory of life. We tend to underestimate this phenomenon, focusing instead on our relationships with parents and siblings when looking back on our personal and psychological evolution, which is just one reason why teachers have not been given the credit that is due to them.

There is much anecdotal evidence suggesting that teachers not only help students prepare for their careers but can make a lasting imprint on their minds and personalities. As I show in my book The American Teacher: A History, stories abound about how teachers have shaped a young person’s life at an emotional and almost spiritual level. Wilbur Gordy of Hartford, Connecticut, told his story in the Journal of Education in 1923 in a piece he called “One of My Real Teachers.” Gordy, who had been a school principal and was then a school superintendent, knew a “real” teacher when he saw one, understanding full well that they were not a common breed.

Gordy had had three such “real” teachers over the course of his own education, he explained, the most memorable one being in a one-room schoolhouse in the Maryland countryside. “His evident desire to be helpful to me in my hopes and my eager aspirations soon gripped my whole being,” Gordy wrote, recalling that the man “fed my hungry soul and taught me not so much facts from books as truths about life.” With that teacher’s ability to “open my eyes to new beauties and undreamed-of possibilities in life,” Gordy could now see that the man had “a divine gift.”

The lasting legacy of a good teacher

Flash forward 60 years to 1982, when two friends of a teacher who had died in old age went to the man’s funeral. They had just read a newspaper obituary of the deceased, which closed with the sentence, “He left no survivors.” While at the funeral, however, the pair chatted with a number of the teacher’s ex-students whose stories made the friends question the accuracy of that rather sad sentence. “He made me a lover of the written word,” a successful executive recalled, with another previous student saying, “He was the chief influence in my going to college.”

There was no shortage of praise for this man, it seemed. “I wanted to be like him,” a mourner commented, adding that “he was both my textbook and my model.” In addition to being an apparently wonderful teacher, he and his wife had held holiday season reunions in their home, one more reason why so many fondly remembered him.

Did this teacher leave no survivors? The two friends in the anecdote, Thomas E. Robinson and Walter A. Brower, certainly didn’t think so. “The influence of a good teacher never ends,” Robinson, president emeritus of Glassboro State College in New Jersey, and Brower, dean of the School of Education at Rider College in that same state, beautifully wrote, thinking “it flows onward forward, like an evolutionary stream, through generations.” This particular teacher had no immediate family but had left many survivors, they held. “Doesn’t every successful teacher build a kind of immortality through the lives and activities of his or her students?” Robinson and Brower asked, answering that question by responding, “No good teacher ever dies.”

Jump ahead another 40 years, and little has changed. There are currently more than 3 million teachers in America, but one might not know that, judging by their relatively low public profile and less than impressive social status. From a macro view, public school teachers can be said to be pawns in the game of education, with most pedagogical decisions made by Washington lawmakers, state departments of education, and local school boards.

Still, each and every teacher holds great sway in her or his own classroom, thus having a direct effect on the lives of students. In his book There Are No Shortcuts, Rafe Esquith, who taught students of low-income families at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles, described teaching as “a holy mission” that required tremendous effort but offered the great reward of changing people for the better. Many of us are the people we are because of a teacher or two, something we should acknowledge and appreciate.


Samuel, Lawrence R. (2024). The American Teacher: A History. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Rafe Esquith. (2003). There are No Shortcuts. New York: Pantheon.

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