Women Who Have Changed the Teaching Landscape


If someone asked you why you got into teaching, how would you answer? Passion for your subject? Yes. Love of kids? Absolutely. Most likely, however, somewhere in your explanation would be the altruistic notion that you wanted to change the world. In honor of International Women’s Day, here are five female teachers who not only made a difference in the lives of their students but–regardless of how long ago they taught–also changed the lives of everyone today.

They’ve inspired both students and adults, believed in the importance of educating in order to empower, and taught in ways that, at the time, were considered controversial and unorthodox.

Christa McAuliffe

Christa McAuliffe was a social studies teacher at Concord High School in New Hampshire. In 1985, she was chosen from over 11,000 applicants for the NASA Teacher in Space Project. As the first teacher in space, she was going to conduct science experiments and teach two lessons live from the Space Shuttle Challenger. It was because of her participation in the launch that media interest was reignited in the US Space program. Schools around the country tuned in to watched the launch and follow McAuliffe’s journey.

Unfortunately, on January 28, 1986, the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch. But her legacy and passion for education made her a trailblazer in education. NASA recently released her lost lessons that would have been delivered while she was on the Challenger. Here she is doing a run-through of what she calls “The Ultimate Field Trip”:

Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune was born in 1875, one of seventeen children. She was the first in her family born free and the only one who received a formal education…choosing to walk eight miles each day to attend school. In 1904, she moved to Florida and opened the Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Negro Girls. She did everything in her power to make the school happen…even going so far as to build the tables and chairs for the classroom herself. In the 1920s, it became a co-ed school and was renamed the Bethune-Cookman College, where Bethune served as President (the school is known today as Bethune-Cookman University).

But her passion was not only for education–she also fought for women’s rights. In 1935, she founded the National Council of Negro Women and in 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt named her director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration. In 1940, she became the vice president of the NAACP. Bethune used the power of education, political activism and civil service to achieve racial and gender equality not only in the United States but around the world.

One of her most famous quotes: Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it might be a diamond in the rough.

Catharine Beecher

Catharine Beecher was a nineteenth-century teacher and writer (her sister was also a writer…you might have heard of a little book Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote called Uncle Tom’s Cabin?). She was an advocate for equal access to education for women.

Beecher believed women should be taught what was traditionally only part of the “male” curriculum: history, Latin, algebra, and philosophy. This belief was extremely because, during this time, most women were given a “domestic” education which focused on etiquette, literature, and modern languages. She believed women should know the same concepts as men and that women deserved equal access to education.

Some of her ideas, however, were contradictory–she was a huge supporter of education reform but did not believe women should be allowed to vote. As more and more teachers were needed in the United States, she advocated that women should fill these roles because of their natural tendency to be nurturers.

Catharine Beecher

Erin Gruwell

If you’ve ever had to teach a group of students that other people deemed “unteachable,” then you’ve most likely read Erin Gruwell’s story or watched the movie based on her first year as a teacher. Gruwell’s teaching method was simple: give kids books that had to do with their lives, make them keep a journal, and (here’s the kicker): don’t give up on them. Believe it or not, this approach was unorthodox when she first started doing it in the late 1990s.

Gruwell used her own money to buy books for her students (something many teachers can relate to) and encouraged them to keep a journal. She published journal entries in a book called The Freedom Writers Diary and in 2007, the movie Freedom Writers hit the screen. Below is her TedX Talk from 2011 where she discusses The Freedom Writers:

Anne Sullivan

No list of teachers who have changed the course of learning would be complete without mentioning Anne Sullivan, who is best known as the teacher of Helen Keller. Sullivan was hired by the Keller family to teach Helen, who was both blind and deaf. Initially, Sullivan, who was also blind, stuck to a strict schedule and constant instruction. However, like all great teachers, she eventually realized that the best way to teach Helen was to focus on Helen’s interests.

Sullivan continually spelled words into Keller’s hands but it wasn’t until Keller was at a water pump that she made the connection between water and the word water being spelled into her hand. It was this moment that changed her life. Below is rare footage of Sullivan explaining how she taught Helen Keller to speak: