The Inspirational Teachers Who Have Changed Our Lives
We’ll say it once, and we’ll say it loud: Teachers are a special breed of human. It takes something strong to simultaneously teach the brains, inspire the souls, discipline the manners, and strengthen the values of a classroom full of students. Oh, and to do it all while staying sane and put-together to boot? Forget about it. But teachers do it every day, in every town across the country.
We all have our past teachers that stand out as “not just any other.” They’re the ones that inspire us to climb insurmountable mountains, remind us that there is always more out there to learn, and leave us feeling worthy and capable of kicking some butt one day. In honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week, the editors at Southern Living decided we could each pay a teacher back for doing just that. These teachers are definitely of the special breed, and we’re telling how, where, and when each made a difference in the lives of students throughout the South and beyond. Here’s to you, teachers!
Editor's Note: Feel free to give your favorite teacher a shout in the comments!
Charleston, South Carolina
“If you were a lucky Ashley Hall girl, you landed in one of Penn Hagood’s classes. I found myself in three. 'Girls with the will have the ability' was the motto at my all-girls school, and Mrs. Hagood taught with the assurance that this was irrefutably true. She expected a lot from giggly high-schoolers, and I’ve realized since that her high expectations for us were also her gift to us. If we didn’t prove to ourselves we were capable, who would?”
–Betsy Cribb, Style Editor
Memphis Oral School for the Deaf
“There’s nothing like witnessing a hearing-impaired adult thank my mom for shaping his or her childhood. After decades of teaching at the Memphis Oral School for the Deaf, Holly Strasberg has touched the lives of countless toddlers, taking on the task of teaching them how to speak and listen after their cochlear implants are turned on. While every new word uttered is astounding, it’s anything but an easy feat. Her spirit and patience for a room packed with 3-year-olds is a passion that runs generations deep—her mother and sisters have all worked in deaf education—but her creativity and energy are all her own.”
–Katie Strasberg Rousso, Digital Editor
Debbie Newsome Allen
"For someone whom school came pretty easy—I can only thank good memorization skills for that—the first class that I remember giving me a jolt of anxiety, a moment of I-could-do-very-badly-in-here panic, was Mrs. Allen’s AP English Language and Composition course. Because, to me, writing isn’t like memorizing math equations or remembering how many wives Henry VIII beheaded; it’s much harder, in the best way. And Debbie Newsome Allen—whom we called ‘NewNew’—wasn’t in the business of teaching us to just be ‘good enough.’ One part writing coach, one part sassy diva, she pushed me to write until I got better, and then better still. Until I was showing up at college orientation and couldn’t imagine majoring in anything else but, duh, journalism.
Just before high school graduation, I remember she pulled the ultimate teacher move and gifted me Dr. Suess’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! And now, years later, still writing, still knowing to never settle for ‘good enough,’ I think of that first writing class. Oh, the places we go. But, more importantly: Oh, the people that help us get there."
–Kaitlyn Yarborough, Editorial Assistant
Lewis Vincent Elementary School
Denham Springs, Louisiana
“Mrs. Clydette Rispone was my second grade English teacher in 2002; she taught me the difference between a noun and a verb and how to write a compound sentence. But what I learned outside of her classroom changed me forever. In 2012, she was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. It’s a brutal illness that eventually causes total muscle failure. Yet through it all, Mrs. Rispone never wavered in her positivity, encouragement, and kindness. Here’s the greatest lesson she ever taught me: We can choose to treat people with love and compassion even in the midst of life’s greatest trials. That truth is something I build my life on still today.”
–Jorie Nicole McDonald, Video Editorial Assistant
Mary Elizabeth Sammis
Prince of Peace Catholic School
“I don’t remember my middle school science classes. Part of the issue came from the fact that I convinced myself science and math just weren’t my forte. I was a writer and a reader and was inclined to leave it at that. Fast forward 20 years and my sister now finds herself at the helm of her very own middle school science lab. Every day, she inspires and convinces a classroom full of bubbly girls that science is, in fact, for everyone. Those girls are lucky ducks to have my sister as a teacher—and I’m so grateful to be able to witness the impact she makes in their lives.”
–Patricia Shannon, Beauty & Digital Editor
“My mom taught over 1,000 students in her 34-year career, and I was lucky to be one of them. She brought the classroom to life by exploring Washington D.C., Mount Vernon, Monticello, Williamsburg, zoos, aquariums, and museums. She taught her students to think for themselves and to ask questions and won numerous accolades during her tenure. Her former students are now lawyers, doctors, engineers, nurses, teachers, preachers, judges, scientists, accountants, and the Office Manager at Southern Living magazine.”
–Nellah McGough, Office Manager
A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts
West Palm Beach, Florida
“I was lucky to have wonderful teachers throughout my life, but one person stands out the most: Ms. Hubbard, my high school journalism teacher. She didn’t just teach me (and hundreds of other students) how to report a story or write a good caption, she was—and still is—an example of how to treat everyone with compassion. She accepts people as they are, and always reminded me that our differences should be celebrated.”
–Lisa Cericola, Senior Food Editor
(Pictured: Sherri Hubbard, left, and her daughter Nikki)
Savannah Country Day School
“Her infectious laugh, her gigantic smile, and her joyful attitude. These are just a few of the things that made Miss Stafford a wonderful teacher. From the first day of kindergarten to high-school graduation and beyond, Miss Stafford has always been a guiding light to me and all her students. On the day I graduated high school, she gave me the book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! with the following note inside:
‘As you begin your next journey, always remember these important things that you learned in kindergarten: Don’t hit people, clean-up your own mess, say you’re sorry if you hurt someone’s feelings, warm cookies and milk are good for you, when you go out in the world hold hands and stick together, and always take time to draw, paint, and sing and dance a little each day!’”
–Rachel Ellis, Assistant Managing Editor
Homer Drive Elementary
“I wasn’t lucky enough to grow up in the South, but I recently had the honor of sharing the story of Belinda George, an inspiring Texas educator doing incredible things.
George is a first-year principal at Homer Drive Elementary in Beaumont and one day a week she puts on her PJs and reads a bedtime story to her students from her living room. Every week, countless students and their families tune in to George’s 'Tucked-in Tuesdays' via Facebook. Her goal? To keep the relationship strong between home and school, and to instill in her students, most of which come from 'economically disadvantaged' homes, a love for reading. George is a true hero in my book.”
–Meghan Overdeep, Staff Writer
Vincent Elementary School
“Fannie Hinds was my first-grade teacher in Vincent, Alabama, and she was a legend. Her classroom had both a rocking chair (for reading us stories and rocking us when we were sick) and a praying rail (for those times when we had truly vexed her and she would say, ‘I’ve done all I can—go give it to the Lord’). She taught us to read and count and print, and she pulled our teeth when they were loose enough. Till the day she died, she referred to all of her former students as 'my babies.’ I loved her dearly—like every six-year old who was lucky enough to land in her class.”
–Valerie Fraser Luesse, Senior Travel Editor
Lausanne Collegiate School
“Mr. Barry Gilmore was my creative writing teacher throughout high school. He saw a talent in me that I wasn’t aware I had yet. His encouragement was the spark that ignited who I became professionally. He told me often that the only thing standing in my way of becoming a writer was me. 'Go write!' Giving him a copy of my first book was one of my proudest moments.”
–Rebecca Angel Baer, News Editor
Dr. Mary Flowers Braswell
The University of Alabama at Birmingham
“Everyone deserves to have someone in his or her life that will look them dead in the eye and say, ‘You are smart!’ No hidden agendas, nothing to gain, just stating what they believe to be true. Other than my family members, that person for me was Dr. Mary Flowers Braswell, professor emerita of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I had aimlessly piddled through college as a young adult and went back a few years later to finish my degree. While I was serious about focusing on the subjects I had loved since middle school—Beowulf, Arthurian Legends, Chaucer—I worked full-time, had small children at home, and was plagued with self-doubt as to whether or not I could succeed in upper level collegiate classes.
The first class I registered for was taught by Dr. Braswell, who I would learn is a well-respected professor, author, and speaker in her field of medieval literature. Instead of being intimidated by her, I grew to admire and appreciate her hypnotic energy, vast knowledge, and deep passion for medieval literature. Her devotion for the subject matter validated my own interest and, after grading my first research paper, she handed it back to me, crossed her arms, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘you are smart!’ I had been ‘confirmed’ by someone I admired and respected. I have never forgotten the strength I felt and the lesson I learned that day. Let your desire to attain a goal be greater than your fear of stepping out, and never fail to be that confirming and encouraging voice to someone else.”
–Patricia S. York, Assistant Food Editor
Dr. Kathy Zanone
St. Agnes Academy
“I have had a lot of great teachers, but one stands out the most for setting me off on this wordsy life track. Dr. Kathy Zanone, my eleventh and twelfth grade English teacher. Back in 1999, she was wrapping up her dissertation and I knew her as Miss Grafton, the teacher that most St. Agnes upperclassman were a slightly afraid of but still hoped to get. She was hard and also pretty hip (not to be overlooked by a uniform-wearing pack of Catholic school girls). Class really started in May when you got your syllabus (just the word sounded so adult!) with a stack of thick books to finish by August.
The first few weeks were non-stop, with 5 word-only question quizzes and a dive into the The Sound and the Fury (continuing the 5-word quiz that started each and every class). Bit by bit, Faulkner’s winding stream of consciousness came together via actual back-and-forth discussions where every thought or opinion seemed to matter. We finished the book with a day trip to Rowan Oak where Yoknapatawpha County took shape in my mind and I took home the lasting lesson that creating a strong sense of place is paramount to good writing. Dr. Zanone was super tough, loved her books, and taught us how to do the same. In hindsight, it felt more like a book club than school.”
–Zoe Gowen, Senior Homes Editor
Dr. Damion Womack
The Montgomery Academy
“Not many students can say they had the same teacher for eight years, but I was lucky enough to be in Dr. Womack’s choruses from fifth grade through twelfth. An accomplished conductor, Dr. Womack has always encouraged his students (whom he refers to as 'young people') to become not only better singers but also better people outside the classroom. Our Montgomery, Alabama-based chorus traveled across the country for showcases and competitions, which helped turn our group into a tight-knit family. Dr. Womack’s lessons extend beyond singing and sight reading; he teaches his choirs how music has the power of bringing people together—whether you’re on stage performing or in the audience listening.”
–Grace Haynes, Assistant Home & Garden Editor
UMS-Wright Preparatory School
“My answer to the question, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' changed often over the years. By the time I was in high school, when you’re “supposed to” have a vague shape of an answer to that question, I didn’t. But one teacher took my narrow view of how my future might go and she didn’t just widen the lens, she replaced it.
For an arts requirement I needed to graduate my senior year, I decided to take a new creative writing class taught by Pier Harden, a talented artist and writer who taught at the school. Through her calm, wise guidance, I finally figured out what I wanted to do. I had the skills all along. Ms. Hardin just helped me realize that, yes, I could actually turn them into a career. It wasn’t long after that I was set to arrive at college orientation, where it was official—I’d major in journalism and minor in, wait for it—creative writing.”
–Mary Shannon Wells, Editorial Assistant
Dr. Bran Potter
Sewanee: The University of the South
“I took Geology 101 with Dr. Bran Potter during my freshman year at Sewanee: The University of the South, and that experience was totally unforgettable. Learning about Earth, geologic time, and the metamorphoses of rocks and landscapes deepened my inquiry not only in science courses, but across the disciplines. Years later, I still remember so much of what I learned in Dr. Potter’s class, which didn’t always take place indoors. More often than not, we laced up our hiking boots and learned about the Earth while actively exploring it. Equally unforgettable were class trips like this one to the Appalachians, where I snapped a photo of Dr. Potter leading class over a vista somewhere in East Tennessee."
–Caroline Rogers, Assistant Editor
Rachel Sims Higginbotham
Hewitt-Trussville Middle School
“Growing up, I always thought I would become a teacher, but the tables were turned when my twin sister decided to become the teacher instead. As an 8th grade science teacher at Hewitt-Trussville Middle School, Mrs. Higginbotham shares her love for science with her students and is genuinely concerned about their well-being, not just in the classroom but in all areas of their life. She also invests in the lives of students as a cross-country and track coach for Hewitt-Trussville High School. I am glad to know that her students now have the opportunity to learn from her, just as I have been able to through the years.”
–Jenna Sims, Assistant Editor
Dr. James Lough
Savannah College of Art & Design
“If I hadn’t taken Dr. Lough’s business writing class my first semester of graduate school, I don’t know what I would be doing right now. I had enrolled in an entirely different program from my undergraduate major in journalism, but Dr. Lough knew that I was supposed to keep writing, and didn’t let me forget it. Because of the opportunities that came up during his class, I ended up reporting pieces from oyster harvesting boats, restaurant kitchens, and farm fields. And because of that, I was able to land a job that lets me continue to tell those stories. I’m so lucky I ended up being one of his students.”
–Hannah Hayes, Travel & Culture Editor
Dr. Richard Overfelt
Truman State University
“This winsome professor at Missouri’s Truman State University knows the importance of infusing the classroom with some fun. The Kirksville octogenarian shows up for the first day of classes with his grad students in a clown costume, a potent reminder to never take yourself too seriously. ‘I want [teachers] to have fun,’ he told NBC Nightly News. ‘I want them to be able to spread the joy of learners.’ Read more on Dr. Overfelt here.”
–Perri Ormont Blumberg, Staff Writer
Lausanne Collegiate School
“Mrs. Robbie Page was my second-grade teacher, and even then, I knew she was extra special. Mrs. Page didn’t have kids of her own but always referred to us as, 'my babies!' She was a contagiously positive and enthusiastic force in the classroom, and I will never forget the day she arrived in full costume as Viola Swamp from the book Miss Nelson is Missing. She stayed in character all day long!”
–Rebecca Angel Baer, News Editor
University of Richmond
“From the moment I knew I was going to major in journalism at University of Richmond, there was one class I dreaded taking: Professor Spear’s Copyediting. I had heard about his famous list of 'F-words.' If you forgot to remove one of these forbidden terms from the articles we edited each week you would automatically receive an 'F' on the assignment. I started my spring semester sophomore year terrified of what might happen to my GPA.
By March, I found new confidence in my writing and editing skills. Professor Spear set high expectations for the class, but he made sure we had a great time meeting them together. My classmates and I quickly learned that office hours were a time to not only catch up on our assignments but hear stories of his international career as a newspaper journalist. Professor Spear taught me firsthand just how important it is to love what you do for a living.”
–Brennan Long, Social Media Editor