Education TEDTalks

The teachers who inspired us, and even changed the trajectories of our lives

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

Rita Pierson leads off TED Talks Education, our first televised event, which will air on PBS on May 7. Photo: Ryan Lash

Rita Pierson is the kind of teacher you wish you had. An educator for 40 years, she is funny, sharp and simply has a way with words — so much so that today’s talk feels a bit like a sermon.

Rita Pierson: Every kid needs a championRita Pierson: Every kid needs a championIn this talk, Pierson shares the secret to teaching students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds — make personal connections with them.

“I have had classes so low, so academically deficient that I cried. I wondered, ‘How am I going to take this group in nine months from where they are to where they need to be?” says Pierson, in this amazing talk. “I came up with a bright idea … I gave them a saying: ‘I am somebody. I was somebody when I came and I’ll be a better somebody when I leave. I am powerful and I am strong. I deserve the education that I get here’ … You say it long enough, it starts to be a part of you.”

Pierson’s talk will open our first-ever television special, TED Talks Education, which airs Tuesday, May 7 at 10/9c on PBS. It will be an exhilarating night, featuring talks from educators and innovators with bold ideas, plus performances from host John Legend. Set your DVRs and read lots more here »

In honor of Rita Pierson and TED Talks Education, I asked the TED staff: who is that one teacher who just really, truly influenced you?

“The teacher who changed my life was, serendipitously, my English teacher for kindergarten, 7th grade and senior year of high school. Ms. Barbato taught me how to write eloquently (I hope!), and she had this unexplained faith in me that really galvanized me as a student. What she taught me stuck with me through college and beyond.” —Olivier Sherman, Distribution Coordinator

“Mr. Eric Yang was only in his mid-twenties when I had him as my AP government teacher, but he was unforgettable. He was the first teacher I had who made keeping up with current events mandatory, forcing us to read news sources on our own time and not just from the textbook. He exuded discipline, and that was contagious.” —Thu-Huong Ha, Editorial Projects Specialist

“Mrs. Bailey was my English teacher. I loved her. I was the younger sister of an already very successful big sister, and that was a cloud over my head too. She held my hand and brought me into the sun with her love of the English language. She recommended books just to me, she made me feel special and I just couldn’t get enough of her. I went on a school trip to Amsterdam with her and she brought her husband, who was an artist. She changed my life.” —Juliet Blake, TED TV (who executive produced TED Talks Education)

“Mrs. Mendelson, my 8th-grade English teacher. This was my first year living in the U.S. I think she set the stage for future learning and she’s the main reason I have such good English right now, both written and spoken. So, thank you, Mrs. Mendelson.”  —Ruben Marcos, intern

“I still recall how awesome my 6th-grade teacher, Mr. Fawess, was. Middle school in general is basically Hades. I was extremely small, super nerdy, and had a unibrow, asthma and glasses — plus I left school once a week to take classes at the local high school. I got picked on a lot. Mr. Fawess came up with all these ways to take my mind off that — he talked to me about bullying and how to let things roll off your shoulder and gave me books I could read outside of class. He got me thinking about college early and what kinds of subjects I was most interested in. I consider myself lucky to have had such an inspiring teacher. If only he had discouraged me from dressing up as the skunk in our annual school play.” —Amanda Ellis, TEDx Projects Coordinator

“Robert Baldwin’s class ‘Essay and Inquiry.’ Every day: Walk into class. Sit down. Look at the handout on every desk. Read it. Start writing. Class ends — stop writing. Every day. Except Wednesday, when we’d put the desks in a circle and everyone would read something they’d written. The prompts were everything from simple questions like, “What’s your favorite memory of trees?” to readings from Rachel Carson or W.B. Yeats or Orson Welles. It was a whirlwind of ideas, and the constant writing forced us to wrestle with them, and (tritely but correctly) ourselves. It was like a boot camp in thinking. People I know who took, and loved, that class went on to some of the most amazing careers. Every time we get together, we gush about the quiet, unassuming, force of nature that was Mr. Baldwin. He would have hated that last sentence, because the metaphor is strained. But he also taught us to ignore authority, so I’m writing it anyway.” —Ben Lillie, Writer/Editor

“My high school band director, Mr. Koch, pushed me to reach my full potential. I knew all along that I wouldn’t build a career around playing the tuba, but he never allowed me to think like that. As I slacked and rebelled, he never let me forget that I possessed a special talent. I hated it at the time but now I’m able to reflect — he taught me self-respect and discipline in a firm but kind way. I am forever grateful to him for challenging me.” —Gwen Schroeder, Post-Production Manager

“Mrs. Lewis, my 5th-grade teacher, read to us every week. She made us put our heads on the desk and close our eyes and then read wonderful stories to us: The Golden Pine Cone, The Diamond Feather ... It made our imaginations come alive.” Janet McCartney, Director of Events

“My junior high school science teacher, Dr. Ernie Roy, with his outsized laugh and booming voice, was one of my very favorite teachers. He demonstrated to us how important we were to him by making what were obviously personal sacrifices on our behalf: when the lab needed equipment, we knew he had purchased some of it on his own; when we couldn’t get a bus for a field trip, he took a few of us in his own car (something which could have gotten him into quite a bit of trouble); and when a big science fair deadline loomed large, he opened the lab every weekend to help us with our experiments. At a point in my life when I didn’t have a lot of guidance or positive role models, he taught me a lot more than science; he taught me, by example, the power of sacrifice, discipline and self-respect.” —Michael McWatters, UX Architect

“Dr. Heller, my 10th-grade social studies teacher, taught me that passion is the key to learning. I had never met anyone from kindergarten to 10th grade that matched his raw passion for the meaning behind historical events, and it was so contagious.” —Deron Triff, Director of Distribution

“Rene Arcilla, a professor of Educational Philosophy at NYU, changed the way I think.  Prior to that class, I hadn’t truly been challenged about what *I* actually thought — much of my educational life was about regurgitating answers. Rene was the first teacher who asked me questions that he/we didn’t know the answers to. Realizing that I had to actually provide the answers from within myself, and not look to an outside source, was very difficult at first. It was a muscle I had to build. I owe a lot of who I am today — and even this job — to the introspective, critical and philosophical thinking I learned from Rene’s classes.” —Susan Zimmerman, Executive Assistant to the Curator

“Mr. Downey — 7th- and 8th-grade Humanities. Still the hardest class I’ve ever taken!  I’d credit Mr. Downey with helping me think more expansively about the world. Right before 8th-grade graduation, he showed us Dead Poets Society, and on the final day of class we all agreed to stand on our desks and recite ‘O Captain, my captain.’ It was all very dramatic and I think there were tears.” —Jennifer Gilhooley, Partnership Development

“I took my first painting class my sophomore year of high school and fell in love with it. My teacher, Ms. Bowen, told me I could use the art studio whenever I wanted to, and gave me access to all kinds of new paints and canvasses. I spent almost every lunch period there for a few years, and regularly stayed in the studio after school ended. One day, Ms. Bowen told me that a parent of a student I had painted expressed interest in buying the painting of her daughter. After that first sale, I painted portraits of kids in my school on a commission basis, and continued to do so for the remainder of my high school experience. Thanks to Ms. Bowen’s mentorship, I felt empowered to try to make money from something I was passionate about and loved to do. Here is one of the paintings.” —Cloe Shasha, TED Projects Coordinator

“I had a chemistry teacher, Mr. Sampson, who used to meet me at school an hour before it started to tutor me when the material wasn’t clicking. That was the first class I had ever really struggled with, and he made this investment to help me get through the material — but more importantly learn that I could teach myself anything.” —Stephanie Kent, Special Projects

“On the first day of my Elementary Italian Immersion class, I asked to be excused to use the restroom in English. Professor Agostini kept speaking rapidly in Italian as I squirmed in my seat. Since she seemed unclear about my request, I asked her again to no avail. Finally, I flipped through my brand-new Italian-English dictionary and discovered the words, ‘Posso usare il bagno per favore.’ Suddenly, she flashed me a smile, handed me the key, told me where to go in Italian, and pointed to my dictionary so I could learn how to follow her directions. Even though I only studied with her for one semester, I will never forget that I emerged from her class knowing intermediate-level Italian.” —Jamia Wilson, TED Prize Storyteller

“My history teacher in high school, Mr. Cook, challenged us to think hard about what happened in the past and directly related it to what was happening around us. He gave us ways to try and predict what could happen in the future. He was the first person to make me take ownership of what it meant to be a citizen and the social responsibility that came with that. Because he taught ‘World History’ rather than a regionally specific class, we learned extensively about other countries, and I am convinced he is the reason that I went abroad to Ghana in college and I am now still an avid traveler today.” —Samantha Kelly, Fellows Group

“The professor who taught me Intro to Women and Gender Studies my sophomore year of college completely changed my framework for thinking about human relationships within a hierarchy. She brought coffee and tea to class for us every morning to congratulate us for being so dedicated to learning as to choose an 8:30 a.m. class. When I emailed her to say I’d be out sick, she sent me a get-well e-card. And when, in a fit of undergraduate irresponsibility, I simply failed to do an assignment, she wasn’t the least bit mad — instead, I received a phone call from her a week after the end of the semester informing me that, because I’d done such good work, she couldn’t bear to give me the B+ I numerically deserved. It was incredible to see how fully she lived the subject she taught; the philosophy of compassion and equality.” —Morton Bast, Editorial Assistant

“My high school photography teacher, Susan Now. I’m convinced that the support I got from Susan got me through high school. Two years later, when I was freaked out about transferring colleges, I, without hesitation, called her for advice. She made me feel comfortable and challenged me to speak up and be confident with expressing myself as a student. So valuable!” — Ella Saunders-Crivello, Partnerships Coordinator

“Cliff Simon, one of my college professors, taught me that wisdom is the greatest pursuit, our skills and passions are transferable, and that fear will only ever always hold us back.  To this day, he’s a great mentor.  We’re now great friends, and I even officiated his wedding ceremony.” —Jordan Reeves, TED-Ed Community Manager

“My 10th-grade biology teacher spoke and interacted with me like I was a grown-up individual and not one of a batch of ‘kids.’ He made us all fascinated with the subjects he taught because he spoke to us not at us. I always worked hard to match that capacity that he saw in me. He was only in his 50s when, a few years after I graduated, he died suddenly of a heart attack. Lots of sad former students.” —Ladan Wise, Product Development Manager

“Stephen O’Leary, my professor and mentor at the University of Southern California, showed me that the quality of my thinking could be directly traced to the quality of the authors I referenced in my bibliography. This realization motivated me to both seek and challenge everything I have read ever since. This habit likely played a part in me finding myself so passionate about being a part of TED.” —Sarah Shewey, TEDActive Program Producer

“My high school art teacher was equal parts smart and silly, and always insightful. Mr. Miller showed a bunch of restless seniors that art class wasn’t just about memorizing which painters influenced which periods. Instead, he taught us that art was — at its core — an exciting way to touch both the head and the heart. Mr. Miller took our  class to the Met in New York one warm spring afternoon, a trip I’ll never forget. Great art, he told us, was about great ideas, and not simply the pleasing arrangement of color, shape and form. Thank you, Russ Miller.” —Jim Daly, TED Books 

“Mrs. Presley, my 1st-grade teacher, advanced my reading skills to full-on chapter book independence … and for that I’ll be forever grateful! But the most valuable gift she gave me was self-esteem. At my school, we’d bring a brown bag lunch with our name written on the bag. I always wanted a middle name like the other kids, and this daily ritual made me feel the lack. I must have let my mom know, because she started to write middle names on my bag. At first it started: ‘Marla Ruby Mitchnick.’ Then ‘Marla Ruby Diamond Mitchnick,’ and then ‘Marla Ruby Diamond Violet Mitchnick,’ and so on. Mrs. Presley never skipped a single syllable — she just read it straight through, and I felt like a beloved and fortunate person with a beautiful name, surrounded by wonderful friends.” —Marla Mitchnick, Film + Video Editor

“I signed up for Journalism 1 in high school having no idea what I was getting myself into. Marcie Pachino ran a rigorous course on the joys of telling other people’s stories and on the extreme responsibility that comes with reporting news that might otherwise go unheard. She was kind and inspiring, but wouldn’t hesitate to give you an edit of an article that simply read ‘Ugh’ in big red letters. The key: you always knew she was right. I went on to become a journalist professionally and, in all my years of writing, I’ve never encountered a more demanding editor.” —Kate Torgovnick, Writer (the author of this post)

“Professor Stephen Commins completely changed my  learning experience at UCLA. He pushed the boundaries of what I thought I could accomplish as an undergrad, and having him as my research professor improved my quality of education tenfold. I’ll never forget in my last lecture with him, he left our class with this piece of advice: to work on poverty domestically before attempting to help those abroad, because you aren’t truly a development professional until you have done both.” —Chiara Baldanza, Coordinator

“My high school English teacher Veronica Stephenson went above and beyond to allow me the opportunity to dive into theater and acting in a very underfunded arts community. She saw passion in me, and engaged it by spending a lot of her own time and effort to help me pursue something I loved. I learned so much from her and got more personalized experience than I probably would have from a more arts-focused curriculum due solely to her faith in me.” —Emilie Soffe, Office Coordinator

Now it’s your turn. Who is the teacher who most inspired you? Please share in your comments.

Comments (20)

  • Jenny Walters commented on Nov 22 2013

    My college English teacher (Professor Fred W. Feltner Jr.) is the most positively influential person that I have ever known in my life. I no longer hear from him, but I am sure that he is still “making it.” I had the honor of studying under his tutelage for an entire academic year, and in two different English courses at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis, Indiana. One of the most awe-inspiring moments was when he played hip-hop artist (Lupe Fiasco’s) song American Terrorist II – Superheroes in class. It was part of an assignment on how to write a Cultural Analysis essay.
    What I will remember most is the look on his face the first time that I asked him a question after I had written my first essay ever in his class. I had inquired, “If I work just a bit harder, do you think that I could do better?” His response was not what I was expecting, and he replied, “Absolutely!” It was one simple word, and with 10 simple letters, but the look of genuine compassion and empathy that I saw on his face would forever help me to realize how unique that he was. From that day on, I made it my mission to work as hard as I could as his student to payback that first instance of pure kindness, which he has continuously repeated as long as I have known him Thank you, Sir!

  • Karen Counts commented on May 26 2013

    Unfortunately, I don’t have a teacher from personal experience who helped change my world in anyway or who is worth mentioning :( The teacher that I do want to mention is one that I read about in a book called “Mission to Teach” by author Dipak Basu ( The book is about his incredible daughter, Jhumki Basu, who taught tough teenage immigrants and minorities often from violent environments, unable to break out of a vicious cycle of neglect and poverty. Jhumki was determined to find a way to get through to these kids and making learning science fun. She promoted democratic teaching methods that used the student’s own personal experiences to help with the lessons. Not only did she have a large obstacle in the classroom but at home too. Jhumki was diagnosed with breast cancer and fought it for seven years until it took her life. She did not let this horrible disease hinder her work in the classroom and her revolutionary teaching methods paid off. High school completion rates in the undeserved institutions she touched, and those touched by teachers who have followed her model, have risen from 30% to over 90%. Kids, whom Jhumki and her followers worked for, were candidates for a lifetime of drugs and crime. They are today college graduates and on their way to careers of their dreams. I recommend this book to anyone and everyone. It’s inspiring and motivational and Jhumki deserves to be recognized as an amazing life-changing teacher!

  • commented on May 8 2013

    Reblogged this on Learning A Living and commented:
    What teacher or mentor changed your life?

  • Mike Humes commented on May 8 2013

    I’d have to say that the most inspirational teacher would be my high school instrumental music director/teacher. Through the course of high school this man always told the truth. Life is hard, but what makes a truly great person is one who oversteps the bounds of how hard something is and creates his vision anyway. he was mostly talking of surviving our teenage years (as well as early twenty’s) due to and i quote ” the fact that you do not have a developed brain until your mid twenty’s, your a big mess of hormones and free air breathing”. but through all this, every one of his students respected, and loved this man, as he had a true presence that we could all identify with. He knew our struggles and had gone through them. he inspired us to have pride in whatever it was we were doing and not to just accept second best, because each of was was only as good as we allowed our selves to be.This is the man who inspired me to be the artist, leader, and human being i am today. through the inspiration he led me to, i am a better person today then i ever was before having met him.

    So overall, i just want to say thank you to Mr. Daniel Fosberg.

  • Winfried Deijmann commented on May 7 2013

    The late Cees van As (excellent musician and educator) said one little sentence that changed my whole attitude as a student, from a moaner about how difficult and complicated all that music theory was, and that I would never get it, moan…, moan…, moan…

    After one of those ‘me moaning to him’ sessions he thought that enough is enough. He put his hands on my shoulders, looked me straight in the eyes and said calmly: “Winfried, if it is not difficult, it is not interesting”. The timing was perfect, he couldn’t have hit me harder! It changed my whole attitude towards learning to the bone.

    Winfried Deijmann

  • commented on May 6 2013

    Reblogged this on English Post.

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  • commented on May 5 2013

    My mom told me that Hattie Brown Burch started her teaching career with her graduating class at Rosenwald High School before integration. Ms. Burch never caught me herself, as she had already moved up to administration, by the time I was at one of her schools. But Ms. Burch made more of an impact on me than all of the teacher that I had because she was the first person to ever tell me that I had what it took to go away from P.C. to a 4 year university/college. This was the end of my Junior year. By the end of my Senior year I was accepted into FAMU and had a couple of small scholarships to start my journey.

  • commented on May 5 2013

    Reblogged this on Sex and Relationships and commented:
    My mom told me that Hattie Brown Burch started her teaching career with her graduating class at Rosenwald High School before integration. Ms. Burch never caught me herself, as she had already moved up to administration, by the time I was at one of her schools. But Ms. Burch made more of an impact on me than all of the teacher that I had because she was the first person to ever tell me that I had what it took to go away from P.C. to a 4 year university/college. This was the end of my Junior year. By the end of my Senior year I was accepted into FAMU and had a couple of small scholarships to start my journey.

  • Pamela Kewin commented on May 5 2013

    The teacher who most inspired me was not at school but when I lived in Germany and was learning German at the local evening college. My teacher came from Yugoslavia and knew no German when she arrived. After 5 years she had her degree from the university and was teaching German there and at the evening school.
    I also agree with Rita Pierson that people learn quicker if they are praised. I used to train people at work and some of them had heard so many times that they were stupid and couldn’t learn. I used to tell them they would learn easily and often they did learn a lot quicker than the ones who considered they were more intelligent. If someone believes they can do something then they can.

  • Mohamed Selim commented on May 4 2013

    - The teachers who inspired us, and even changed the trajectories of our lives [Rita Pierson]

    anyone can do anything!!

    though, is it only a psychological issue (motives)?
    I guess yes, and it has nothing to do with teachers
    new generations know technologies just with “experience”

    so it’s more of how to make “every” student interested in learning, if we have let it to only “chance”, it will take the normal time, no enhancements

    - thus looking for the best teaching scheme is not it, I think
    - searching for the best students, good “followers” is not it too

    given the coping ability humans have, the availability of information in a good, desired format(s) will do, I think

  • Rosanne Braslow commented on May 4 2013

    Mrs. Bunyar taught at St. Mary of the Snow in Saugerties, NY in the 1970s. She read aloud to us, which sounds like such a simple, ordinary thing, but her love for the stories and poems inspired us to love reading. The power of such acts by a teacher should not be underestimated.

  • rajes dash commented on May 4 2013

    thanks to give an opportunity to write more about my most inspireable teacher in my life.he is the special one awarded by president of my country.he is always most respectable in my life.he knows how to creat life of a student at the beginning stage.i also read the comment of other friend all mostly specify their childhood teacher.i love your this session.

  • Alex Bernstein commented on May 3 2013

    My english teacher at the Community College, Donovan Gaytan. I was a student who hated school, got kicked out of high school for ditching too much and truancy, and barely graduated with a GED at an independent school. I had no awareness of education as “education.” for me, education was picking up whatever interested me and mastering it, but with Donovan, a whole other world of thinking and imagination opened up. He challenged me to write in a notebook everyday, even if it was about nothing. He pushed me to read Joan Didion and Henry David Thoreau and William Butler Yeats, not to mention Shakespeare. Within a matter of a year, i had read all of shakespeare, re-read all the books i was supposed to have read in high school, and fell in love with being able to read the most complex of literatures. From there, i started defining myself through my craft, which was thinking. For two years, i took classes with Donovan, and other teachers, on Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Plato, Yeats and the romantics, Ginsberg and Kerouac and the Beats. A world that i was cut-off from became a home. I am at New York University, now, studying Literature and Creative Writing. Donovan didn’t do the work for me, but he sat with me, didn’t give up on me, approached my motivation from various different points of view. He saw his classroom as a group of individuals and not as one, blurry room of bodies. He worked harder at preparing his lesson then we did on the homework. IDK, this videos is too correct, it makes me cry because of how true and real it is, that for the first twenty years of your life, you are lucky to find just one person that cares to see through your eyes for just a second. Well, i did, and it meant the world to me, no, it is my world.

  • Ixone Villafruela commented on May 3 2013

    Larraitz Ariznabarreta, my English College teacher. She is the most passionate and inspiring teacher I’ve ever known. Memorable lessons I learned from her way of teaching and behaving:”the world and it’s possibilities are endless”, “the process of learning never stops”, “never give up-fight for what you want” and “stupid things/people are just plain stupid, don’t waste your time”. Thanks Larraitz!

  • commented on May 3 2013

    Reblogged this on Anna Healy and commented:
    PLN 8
    This blog post begins by talking about Rita Pierson, a lady who is inspirational and discusses how to be a successful teacher in a video by TED. One way that she said you should teach your students is by making personal connections with them. I agree with this statement 100%, mostly because of personal experiences. I can look back to my educational history and pick out the classes in which I learned the most, and something that all of these teachers have in common is that they got to know me on a personal level and make connections with me. Some teachers feel as if it is a 9-3 job and then they are free to do what ever they want, not bringing work home with them. This is not the case especially if you have the desire to be a powerful teacher. In order to allow your students to make you feel as if you care about them and want to see them succeed, it is essential that you get to know them inside and outside of school, care about their interests, and show that you have things in common.
    Rita also inspired her students and gave them the hope that they needed inorder to succeed in school. The saying that she gave them to repeat was “I am somebody. I was somebody when I came and I’ll be a better somebody when I leave. I am powerful and I am strong. I deserve the education that I get here’ … You say it long enough, it starts to be a part of you.” If this saying is coming from your teacher and you are repeating it over and over again, it is human instinct to begin to believe what you are repeating. In order to be successful in school, not only your teacher can have fait in you, you must have it in yourself, and this is a very good way to begin to install this faith and want to do well into your students.
    Another good part about this blog post is that it allows you the opportunity to see what the qualities are that many different people found in their favorite teacher. This is a great resource to look back on when I become a teacher because I can see what it is that students appreciate and respond positively to.

  • Aaron Reedy commented on May 3 2013

    Mr. Gerut, my high school physics teacher remains the model for my work as a teacher and a scientist. He was intellectually engaged in everything around him and had contagious curiosity. He relished making you think and not telling you the answer. He answered almost every question asked of him with a question that would make you think further until you found the answer on your own. He was the real deal teacher.

  • commented on May 3 2013

    Geography teacher. I hate geography. But I sat in the class because of her :). She taught me the passion of doing something we love. She was the softest person I know.

  • Réka Darits commented on May 3 2013

    My literature teacher, who used to spend his lunch-break in the common area of our grade and have debates with anyone who was there about books, writers, the women’s or children’s place in society and other topics. He taught us values, not only literature.

  • Sue Stoffel commented on May 3 2013

    My high school French teacher, Dr. Chambart, who is still there… and looks exactly as she did 40 years ago. Because she understood my ear for languages, and instilled a deep love for French literature, my entire life has been influenced by her and is instrumental to who I am today.