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.