The most important thing I learned from a teacher

Who inspired you?

The role that teachers play in influencing the lives of their students is something that's been lost in current debates about education mandates and standardized testing. Teaching isn't just about making sure kids can pass exams. It's also about helping future adults find their gifts, discover their interests, and learn who they want to be. That's a hard thing to quantify. You can't really put together a concise list of "Children I've Inspired" for a CV. But this is the part of a teacher's job that is the most lasting. What we remember about good teachers isn't necessarily the dry facts they taught us, it's the doors they opened, the curiosity they kindled, and the moments where they made us rethink everything.

Science journalist Steve Silberman is married to one of America's hard-working teachers. Watching his husband, Keith, inspired Steve to collect stories of how teachers shaped the lives of a wide range of writers, thinkers, and scientists. In a post on Steve's blog, you'll find stories from people like award-winning journalist Deborah Blum, cultural critic Mark Dery, and molecular biologist Bonnie Bassler.

I'm honored to be a part of this line up, as well. Below is my contribution, dedicated to the grade school teacher who made me the person I am today.

I had the same teacher for 4th and 5th grades, Shirley Johannsen. She started teaching at State Street Elementary in Topeka, Kansas in 1963, so by the time I met her in the late 1980s, this woman was already educating the children of her first students. She taught both grades, simultaneously, in the same classroom. And there were more than 20 of us in each grade. Forty-plus students, one room, one well-loved Apple IIE, and Ms. Johannsen.

That sounds like a recipe for a failing school, but Shirley Johannsen was one of the best teachers I have ever had. There are two things this woman did that completely changed my life.

First, Ms. Johannsen made me a writer. It was in her classroom that I first made the connection between my obsessive love of reading, and the fact that I could write books, too. And she encouraged me to write, not just for school assignments, but for fun and for practice. She was the first person who told me that writing was something I was good at. She was my first editor.

Second, Ms. Johannsen made me love science. In my memories, it’s like I woke up one day, in her classroom, with a 9-volt battery and an electric switch in my hand. Before her, science was dinosaurs and trips to the museum with my parents. After, it was something to look forward to every school year—new discoveries, surprising knowledge, a better understanding of how the world around me worked.

Today, I’m a science journalist. I love my job. And I owe that to the teacher who saw my gifts and inspired my curiosity.


  1. All my amazing teachers at Western Technical and Commercial High School in T.O, Doug Joliffe, Ms. Smith in English, my economics teacher, media studies…I’ve met so so many inspiring teachers who treat their jobs and students with reverence and respect, what a trust it is to inspire a child! 

    I love Mr B’s passion for his chorus too, look at how engaged they all are, teacher, students and audience!

  2. Teachers taught me to hate authority. All my respect for teachers dried up when I was asked to write an essay on what I had done wrong as punishment for reading a book in class. I submitted an essay demanding explanations for all the petty injustices done to myself and other students and calling the teacher a hypocrite for demanding respect from us that she would not give in kind. I got the essay back with a checkmark on it, she had never even read it.

    The funny thing is, I have a huge respect for teachers. My mom is a high school teacher. I know there are good ones out there… I just never encountered any. My experiences soured me on formal education as a whole, so I clawed my way up the corporate IT ladder to the position of dept. manager with only a high school diploma. I’ve always loved learning, I just hated being forced to do it at particular times in particular ways.

    1. It’s kinda sad that we remember our bad teachers so well, but we do.  How keenly I recall my ninth grade English teacher (who will remain nameless) who tried to “teach” us that Queen Elizabeth (the first) killed her sister to sieze power, and who tried to punish me for insisting that she had gotten it wrong :( 

      That said, kudos to all those great teachers out there!  Shelly (once Fishbein now) Greenberg, Marion Truslow, John Roeder, Monica Edinger, Lily Bar David…  Hats off to all of them!

  3. One teacher did make a difference to me though, a teacher who encouraged my interest in programming, told great stories, and made science awesome. Mr. Roger Pelland. 

  4. Let’s see, would it be the 5th grade teacher that told me that the reason i got beat up nearly every day was because i didn’t smile enough or the 6th grade teacher that said it was because i didn’t act as much like a boy as i should?

    Perhaps the 8th grade teacher who encouraged the other students to call me an STD?   The principal who told me I was wrong and immature for objecting to that?

    Oh I know – the high school teacher who watched a football player choke me nearly to unconsciousness and suspended me (6ft 200lbs against a 5’2 100lber)?

    Teachers encouraged me by showing me that authority figures suck up to the popular and the football players as much as everyone else.

    Not that I retain any bitterness any longer of course.

    1. Where did you go to school?  And when?

      In Massachusetts in the first half of the 70s, Miss Rosenthal encouraged me to wear my grandmother’s feathered hat at our 6th grade Be-In, Mrs. Long gave me Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation as a 9th grade reading assignment, and Mrs. Johnson taught the whole 10th grade Biology class how to override our gag reflexes if we wanted to give anyone a blowjob. 

      I suspect that bullying is tolerated far more now than it was 40 years ago.  Anything that interfered with academics would have been ruthlessly suppressed.  Plus, Massachusetts probably provides a different school experience than, say, Texas.

      1. Several schools in small towns in SE Ontario, Canada in the 70s and 80s.   Bullying was very much tolerated.

  5. 4th grade: Question everything, even your own assumptions.

    edit: Also, Bill Nye. Seriously speaking, that show made me more interested in science than any teacher ever.

  6. Fr. Bernadino, Latin. “It’s not dead. Only the people who speak it.” Taught me to seek out wry people.

  7. Maggie, YOU are awesome.

    And a shout-out to my elementary school teachers: Mrs. Leonesio, Mrs. Kite, Mrs. Medford, Mrs. Whittock, Mrs. Coy, Ms. Valentine.  You all gave me the shove I needed to become a good student, of the classroom and of life.

  8. Mrs. Blackwell, her passion for the written word was obvious and infectious.  It’s because of her that I sometimes say words out loud just to relish their shape and sound.

    And Mrs. Barbara, seventh grade science teacher who once told her class that the point of an education wasn’t to learn a bunch of facts we could recite on command, but to learn how to think for ourselves, how to test things that were stated as facts for their truthfulness. It was the most profound thing a teacher ever said in all my years of school, but it should have been over the door to ever classroom. Also, one day she handed me her copy of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and said she thought I would enjoy it. She was entirely correct on that assessment.

  9. Thank you for this, Maggie.  I’ve just sat here for 10 minutes quietly thinking about the many wonderful teachers in my life. So many good ones.

    And the beat goes on – my best friend is a HS English teacher who is bringing writing and reading alive for her students in ways that wouldn’t have been thought possible 30 years ago when I was a student. Go Mrs. G!

  10. I think his name was Mr. Rosen, he was my Art history teacher, and he had a really interesting way of teaching the history of art – start with the present, and figure out how art evolved the other way. The cubist figures of Picasso become the impressionist figures of Manet and Cezanne, become the highly realistic figures of Van Eyck and Rembrandt, and so on and so forth.

    But the most important thing he taught me was the difference between truth and facts:

    Rembrandt’s painting Man with the Golden Helmet was quite a famous Rembrandt painting. Some time in the eighties, it was determined that in fact it had been painted by someone in the “style of Rembrandt”. So, until the eighties, this was a Rembrandt, and then suddenly it wasn’t. That was the truth. The facts were that it had never been a Rembrandt. We just didn’t know all the facts yet.

  11. The single most memorable lesson in my years at primary school happened one day when our teacher was sick and there was no emergency teacher available for a while. This was a long time ago and our school employed an elderly gentleman as a gardener. These days it would be contracted out. So the gardener took our class for one hour. He sat at the front of the class and told us useful stuff. One thing I remember was how to work out the number of days in each month Thirty days hath September, April, June and November  and so on. I still use that to this day. It made a big impression on me.

  12. My thanks goes to Mrs Johnson, choral director, who first put it in my head that music was something I should do.  To Mrs. Hamilton, art teacher, who taught me calligraphy and encouraged me to draw for the sheer joy of it.  To Mr. Rea, master of dry humor, who demonstrated that you don’t have to be young and fashionable to be awesome.  To Mr. Mann, who helped me overcome fear.  To Dr. Z, who taught me to ditch my pride for something better.  To Dr. Nebeker, who encouraged me to study theology.  To Dr. Dahlquist, who had exactly the right words to say to me at the exact right time.  To Dr. Rushing, who taught me not to be afraid to be wrong.  To Miss Fields, who let us have a class duck, who taught me compassion by example, and who sadly passed away more than fifteen years ago. 

    There were bad ones, sure.  But why bring them up?  I’ve had too many awesome teachers to count.

  13. Ms. Gloria Kerr, of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.  In a school where open-mindedness was considered disrespectful (a friend once got detention for wearing peace sign earrings), Ms. Kerr taught me to love difficult texts, to disregard expectations,  to wake up from my teenage skateboardy angst-slumber (but also to trust my inner punk), and most of all to be skeptical of smooth talking authority figures.  I was president of my science club before that year.  The next year I was an English major.  Ultimately, she fed my curiosity and stoked my intellectual confidence.  Thanks, Ms. Kerr.

  14. I have had many great teachers.

    Mr Swanson – inspired me to paint – something I hadn’t really given a lo of thought. I am not a great painter – but good enough to get a BFA in it.

    Ms McDonald pushed me in a way few others have. I remember distinctly one of her crits on a paper, “You are a very smart person, but you’re not very funny.” Oh – yeah? The next paper was a humorous one and I nailed it with an A. She had us right a “My Club Foot” paper. (in reference to a character in a story we just read, but the name escapes me. Pygmalion maybe?) It was the must ‘adult’ paper I had writte – and it was an honest and bare account of my physical limitatoin. She ended up not actually reading the papers, saying it was in prep for something we would do in college. I kind of wish she had read mine.

    Finally, if one noted my use of “one” instead “you”, one should know that she is the person who instilled this in me. I am terrified her ghost will haunt me if I were to stop using it ;o)

  15. In my case, my best teacher would have been my mother with the whole toilet training thing.   Everything else followed from that.

  16. “Watching his husband, Keith, inspired Steve to collect stories of how teachers shaped the lives of a wide range of writers, thinkers, and scientists”. 
    There’s something wrong with this sentence.

    1. Psst – Chentzilla – in the 21st century, gay people can get married.

      To each other, even.

      Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.

  17. Nearly the entire staff of the Newark Center for Creative Learning in Newark, Delaware (  I have never seen such a dedicated and creative group of teachers in my life.  The difference they have made in my children’s lives is phenomenal.

    If your kid is so smart that public school can’t keep him focused, send him to NCCL.  If your kid is so well-behaved that public school teachers treat her like a doormat, ignoring her to focus attention on brattier, more demanding children, send her to NCCL.  If your kid falls anywhere outside the narrow range of children that the local public school system can teach – send your kid to NCCL.

    I was very resistant to sending my children to a private school that sends home detailed, individualized analyses of each child’s progress instead of a list of letter grades A-F and standardized test scores.  That hippy stuff about each child being a unique flower doesn’t sit all that naturally with me, to be honest.  But I realized that my kids weren’t being properly educated in public school – they were learning how to obey orders and quote dogma, but not how to think – and then I read Cory’s bit about his experiences as a child in “alternative” schools, which convinced me to give it a try.  I will never regret it.

    I personally didn’t have a whole lot of great teachers, but here’s a shout-out to John Slimick, professor of computer science at the University of Pittsburgh’s Bradford campus, and one of the best.

  18. Thank you:

    Mr. Baker, 7th grade history, for not dumbing anything down and teaching everyone how to take notes.  My AP history teacher in high school was worthless, I passed the AP test largely because of what I remembered from Mr. Baker’s class.

    Mr. Dion, the most excellent math teacher I’ve ever had, whose skills and passion I did not properly appreciate as a high school freshman.

    Mrs. St. Arnaud, middle school English, for forcing me to actually learn some grammar.  This lady was so intense that “passionate” doesn’t do her justice.  That is meant as a compliment.

    Mr. Mills, high school physics, just for being a hilarious and crazy dude.  Also, for using school property to pirate music via Napster.

    Mrs. McKenny for being such a godawfully bad math teacher that I read proofs in the textbook instead of listening to her.  Never would have gotten a math degree if it weren’t for her.

    My department head when I taught high school math was a pretty inspirational dude too.  I was never literally his student, but I’d really like to thank James Babineau, possibly the hardest working man I have ever met.  Almost all of my students had a story about why J-Babs was one of their favorite teachers.

    The reject list:

    Coach Dallesander.  He tried to teach us how compasses work.  “There is a gigantic piece of magnetic metal under the north pole,” he said.  I said “That is not true.”  His response:  “Oh yeah?  Then how do they work!”  (fucking magnets)  To this day, geologists do not understand exactly what causes the earth’s magnetic field, but they’re quite sure it’s not a big lump of iron under the north pole.

    He’s probably the only teacher I ever had who actively discouraged independent critical thought. 

  19. Of course there are bad teachers-in any field there are good and bad employees. There shouldn’t be because teachers directly effect young children and their minds and their futures. I’m sorry when I read that some people feel their lives were literally ruined because of bad teachers. I had both good and bad, but the good ones inspired me to be a teacher myself, and I hope that I’ve done justice to the profession. Here’s to Gary Crook and Phil Kuepker-my high school math teachers and to two great college math professors: Bruce Linn and Ron Vanekevort who saw promise in me and encouraged me to pursue mathematics. Also, thanks to Carolyn Miller, my high school junior English teacher. I was terrified of her but she helped me to appreciate good writing and good literature. She made me rewrite almost every paper I turned in, probably at least 3 times before it was acceptable. No little red check at the top of the paper. Instead, comments galore all throughout my papers, and a big “SEE ME” in read at the top of the page! I can imagine how long it took her to read and reread our papers and make all those comments. Boy, did she work hard. Hers was the most difficult class I ever took, both in high school and in college-more challenging than my graduate level math courses. Although I struggled, I knew the class was good for me, and I appreciate all she tried to teach me. Thanks teachers!

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