Little girl with glasses in front of blackboard

12 Influential People You Didn’t Know Were Teachers

It has been said being a teacher is one of the hardest—and yet most rewarding and impactful—of careers. (To all teachers: Thank you for all you do!)

In honor of National Teacher Appreciation Day (May 7), we highlight 12 influential people of history who—not-so-coincidentally—were also teachers.

1. Maya Angelou

In 1982, the famed poet, writer and activist accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University, where she taught a variety of subjects, including philosophy, ethics, theology, science, theater and writing.

“When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” – Maya Angelou

2. Walt WhitmanAntique Photograph Portrait of American Poet Walt Whitman

Before he turned his attention to a full-time career as a poet, Whitman taught intermittently at schools around the New York area in the late 1830s and 40s.

“Re-examine all that you have been told… dismiss that which insults your soul.” – Walt Whitman

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3. Andy Griffith

Long before he was known in living rooms across America as Sheriff Andy Taylor on “The Andy Griffith Show,” Griffith taught music and drama at Goldsboro High School in Goldsboro, North Carolina.

“If you think and feel what you’re supposed to think and feel, hard enough, it’ll come out through your eyes, and the camera will see it.” – Andy Griffith

4. George Orwell

The author, known off the page as Eric Arthur Blair, supported his early literary career in the early 1930s as a schoolteacher. He later drew upon his teaching experience while writing his novel A Clergyman’s Daughter.

“If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.” – George Orwell

5. John AdamsJohn Adams

After graduating from Harvard in 1755, the future 2nd President of the United States taught school for a few years in Worchester, Massachusetts, before deciding to follow a career in law.

“Before any great things are accomplished, a memorable change must be made in the system of education…to raise the lower ranks of society nearer to the higher.” – John Adams

6. J.R.R. Tolkien

The prolific writer of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was a professor at the University of Leeds and Pembroke College, and later served alongside C.S. Lewis on the English faculty at the University of Oxford, where he retired in 1959 as Merton Professor of English Language and Literature.

“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

7. C.S. Lewis

A contemporary and close friend of Tolkien, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he worked for nearly 30 years before moving on to the University of Cambridge, where he was elected a fellow of Magdalene College and chair of Medieval and Renaissance English.

“The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” – C.S. Lewis

8. Robert Frost

The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet also had a nearly 50-year career teaching English at Amherst College, Middlebury College, and the University of Michigan.

“I am not a teacher, but an awakener.” – Robert Frost

9. Clara BartonPortrait of Clara Barton

The pioneering nurse and founder of the American Red Cross became a teacher at the age of 16 at a one-room schoolhouse in North Oxford, Massachusetts, where she was praised for producing disciplined scholars without the need for corporal punishment. Barton later opened New Jersey’s first free public school in Bordentown and lobbied for equal pay for teachers.

“I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay.” – Clara Barton

10. Sir William Golding

The Nobel Prize-winning author of Lord of the Flies taught English from 1945 to 1962 at a grammar school in Salisbury, Wiltshire, England.

“The thing is, fear can’t hurt you any more than a dream.” – William Golding

11. Albert Einstein

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist lent his considerable intellect to teaching and lecturing on theoretical physics at a multitude of universities in Europe and the United States.

“I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” – Albert Einstein

12. Louisa May AlcottSigned portrait of Louisa May Alcott

Much like her semi-autobiographical character Jo in Little Women, Alcott worked as a teacher among her many other ventures. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a pioneer in education reform, de-emphasizing rote learning and traditional punishment in favor of a conversational, didactic style that focused on each child’s intellectual, physical, and emotional development.

“Painful as it may be, a significant emotional event can be the catalyst for choosing a direction that serves us—and those around us—more effectively. Look for the learning.” – Louisa May Alcott

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By K. Bothwell

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