Priests, prophets, philosophers and pioneers—these were the earliest teachers and educators the history of humankind has seen. A glimpse at the same history will make you realise that for the most part, these teachers were men. If you were to go looking for inspiring teachers throughout the antiquity, the middle ages, and even in the 1800s, you’d be hard-pressed to find women among their ranks.
Where did all the (female) teachers go?And yet, this does not take away from the undeniable fact that women have been the primary caregivers and teachers to entire families and communities throughout the history of time. It’s just that their role wasn’t considered to be a professional one, like it was in the case of men throughout humankind’s history of teaching and education. Women’s work was limited to the household to a large extent, and even when they could venture out to work, the highly honoured and respected title of ‘teacher’ was reserved for men.
This pattern, however, started to gradually—and painstakingly—change during the 1800s. During the course of the 19th century, teaching and education transformed into women’s work precisely because it was now considered to be a respectable profession for women looking to earn a living. The need for education for women was also more recognised, and of course there had to be a work force that met this demand for female education. Grammar schools to finishing schools and nursing schools, women teachers and educators emerged all over the world.
The most famous teachers in the history of timeToday, women make up the largest segment of teachers and educators across the world. That’s just how far we have come in this field. Along the way, there have been many teachers who have not only made pathbreaking contributions as educators, but also managed to inspire generations of women to go forward and achieve their best. The following are some of the most famous female teachers in the history of time, along with some whose contributions have been immense, and therefore, they deserve more fame than they currently receive.
Florence NightingaleIf you’ve ever been thankful to nurses today for saving your life, treating your loved ones or just guiding you through an illness, you owe a lot of gratitude to ‘The Lady With The Lamp’, as Florence Nightingale was known. This Victorian British nurse and statistician is celebrated as the mother of modern nursing, and not just because she founded the St Thomas’ Hospital and the Nightingale Training School for Nurses in 1860—the first modern school that trained professional nurses. Nightingale’s experiences as a nurse during the Crimean War helped her discover that lack of sanitation in infirmaries and hospitals cause secondary infections, which in turn can be a huge cause of death for those who are wounded or diseased. Her work revolutionised the healthcare sector in the 19th century and is still considered to be a bottom line where quality patient care and sanitation is concerned.
Anne Sullivan – Helen Keller“The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrast between the two lives which it connects,” wrote Helen Keller, about the teacher and lifelong companion who changed her life. The story of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller—perhaps the most famous teacher-student duo since Aristotle and Plato—is so famous that it has inspired books, plays and movies around the world.
In 1887, Sullivan took charge of a young Keller, who had started to lose her eyesight around the age of 19 months. Sullivan was partially blind herself, and had been educated at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. She soon introduced her pupil to her alma mater, from where Keller went on to study at Radcliffe College, Harvard University. Keller was the first deafblind person in the world to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She is equally famed for her lectures and books on a wide range of subjects, including women’s rights, labour rights, the rights of those with disabilities, and even world peace.
Savitribai PhuleCan you ever list female educators without paying homage to the pioneering woman who is credited to be one of the first female teachers of India? Savitribai Phule was illiterate when she got married, and her husband, the renowned social reformer, Jyotirao Phule, was the first open the doors of education for her. She then trained further at the American missionary, Cynthia Farrar’s institution, and at the Normal School in Pune. Once she finished her own education, Phule established one of the first schools for girls in India along with her husband and her friend, Fatima Begum Sheikh. A prolific author, Dalit activist and poet, Phule’s contributions towards women’s education in India have been too immense for words.
Maria MontessoriDoesn’t the very name of Montessori remind you of children and their education? This is because the Montessori method of educating young children was pioneered by the Italian educator, Maria Montessori. Montessori aspired to be an engineer, but ended up studying medicine at the Sapienza University of Rome, from where she graduated in 1896 (yes, she was one of Italy’s first female physicians). She then went on to study children with cognitive delays and learning disabilities, which formed the basis of her pedagogy. Montessori revolutionised the way children, especially those with intellectual disabilities, are educated, so much so that by 1910, Montessori schools were established all across Western Europe and then the world.
Emma Hart Willard
Emma Hart Willard is credited as the founder of Troy Femal Seminary, the first school for young women in the United States, in 1821. Willard was herself educated at local schools and began her teaching career in 1804, which she retired from for a short period of time after getting married. Willard not only opened the first school for women at her home, but also wrote extensively on the differences in the education offered to men and women, making her one of the pioneers of female education and women’s rights to education at the same time. On the other hand, Willard was not a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement because she believed educating women was more important than getting them the right to vote without sufficient access to education. Throughout her life, Willard fought to get women access to the same quality of education that men had.
Catherine FergusonCan an educator be illiterate and still influential? Catherine Ferguson showed through her extraordinary life that they can. Born into slavery in 1779, this American educator was able to purchase her freedom at the age of 16 for $200. Though illiterate, she gathered all the poor and neglected children from her New York neighbourhood, and invited them home for religious instruction every Sunday. Thus, the first Sunday School of New York was founded. She later changed her location to Murray Street, and her philanthropic venture found immense appreciation from people across the city. Her work soon extended to providing religious instruction and moral guidance to adults as well. Though not that well-known outside of the US, Ferguson’s fame deserves to be global.
Katherine DunhamKatherine Dunham was an American dancer, choreographer and anthropologist who revolutionised American dance in the 1930s by creating the Dunham Technique, which includes the nuances of Black dances and rituals in modern dance choreography, movements and productions. Born to an African-American father and French-Canadian mother, Dunham was one of the first African American women to study at the University of Chicago, where she studied anthropology and researched the dances of the African diaspora to pioneer the term ‘dance anthropology’. After submitting her thesis in 1936, Dunham quit academics to start a prolific dancing career by teaming up with the famous theatrical designer, John Pratt. Dunham went on to open a dance school in Chicago in 1944, and the famous Dunham School in New York in 1945, where biggies like Marlon Brando trained. Nicknamed the ‘Matriarch of Black Dance’, Dunham appeared in many movies during her lifetime, where she showcased her unique dancing style.
Christa McAuliffeSharon Christa McAuliffe’s claim to international fame is not just because she was an American teacher after whom schools and scholarships are named—or because she was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 2004. She is known, most popularly, as the woman scheduled to be the first teacher in space after she was selected to participate in the NASA ‘Teacher in Space’ Project. Selected from among over 11,000 applicants, McAuliffe was planning to conduct experiments and teach lessons as a member of the space shuttle, Challenger. However, the shuttle broke apart minutes after launch, killing everybody on board. Despite her tragic and untimely death, McAuliffe is celebrated as a teacher whose potential remained unfortunately untapped.