“I wanted to attach my own moon of solitude to the strong attraction of a good man’s gravitational pull. I found that man by luck when I walked into Gene Norris’s English class in 1961. Though Gene couldn’t have survived a fistfight with any of the marines I had met, I knew I was in the presence of the exceptional and scrupulous man I’d been searching for my whole life. The certainty of this gentleness was like a clear shot of sunshine to me. I had met a great man, at last.”
We too celebrate the great men and women, the great teachers, we have come to know and draw inspiration from–in picture books, memoirs, historical fiction, humor, and drama. Do you have another favorite literary teacher? Let us know!
And for related blogs and lists from our site, see: Great Books for teachers ( and Parents Who Want to Understand teachers); Teachers, and Inside Perspective; and Case Study: One Great Teacher.
Read-aloud for the Family
The Year Of Miss Agnes by Kirkpatrick Hill
Welcome to the world of the Alaskan bush in the 1940’s. The village of Koyukuk is getting yet another new teacher, this time Miss Agnes Sutterfield, a teacher that relates to the children in a very different way. She packs away the old textbooks ( yes!) and hangs the children’s artwork in the room, teaches creative writing, and reads reads reads to them. The story is told by Fred (Fredericka) who describes life in the village as well as the ways she and the other children grow into their potential. Miss Agnes learns from the children and the village culture as well, making their lives a central part of the curriculum. They all learn sign language together so that Fred’s deaf sister can attend school. Hill has created more than just an appealing cast of characters; she introduces readers to a whole community and makes a long-ago and faraway place seem real and very much alive.
Toddlers and Early Readers
Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry Allard and James Marshall
Kind and sweet-tempered Miss Nelson struggles with her class of children. They are the most unruly classroom in the school! They are mean to each other–and to her. When she doesn’t show up one day, the kids are happy at first. They’ve succeeded in driving their teacher away and they can do anything they want! Ah, but their joy is short-lived. Enter Miss Viola Swamp, meanness personified. Dressed all in black with a hateful expression on her face, she yells at them, makes them do tons of boring work, and is generally quite horrid. The children are desperate to get back their now beloved Miss Nelson. Finally, she returns and finds a very-well-behaved class. But what about that black dress hanging in the closet. . .? Goofy pictures add to the story, and young readers love “figuring out” that Miss Nelson and Viola Swamp are one and the same.
My Teacher’s Secret Life by Stephen Kransky, illustrated by Joann Adinolfi
After school, what do the teachers do? Lots of kids really believe their teachers just live in the school–and here’s a really funny story that builds on that idea. The narrator, one of Mrs. Quirk’s young students, even explains a longstanding mystery: teachers “keep pajamas and inflatable mattresses in their bottom left desk drawer, the one that locks with a key.” Fabulous illustrations lend an almost surreal quality.
Don’t Say Ain’t by Irene Smalls-Hector
This little gem of a book is set in 1950’s Harlem. Young Dana is chosen to attend a new, integrated, “advanced” school, but doesn’t want to leave her friends, or the language patterns of home. In a simple story, young reader appreciate the way even Dana’s teacher “code-switches” in different situations. Though she corrects Dana’s speech in school, on a home visit, she talks with Dana’s Godmother in “spoken soul”: “Honeychile, I ain’t gonna eat more than one piece of your famous peach cobbler.” It’s a challenge for Dana to find her place in two very different worlds, both of which are changing. The story is moving– it’s poignant to think that getting an education is sometimes a choice in leaving a way of life and culture behind. It is not true only for African-Americans but other families including new English-speakers. A fine book for early readers, with depth and insight, sure to spark conversations.
Sahara Special by Esme Raji Codell
Meet fifth-grade teacher Madame Poitier (“Miss Pointy”), who encourages her class to do, to write, to be. . .Miss Poitier reminds her students, quite simply, that “a writer writes.” The book is really about 5th-grader Sahara, a great character–and secretive writer who fills her journal at home, then rips out the pages and stuffs them on the public library shelves behind the 940s for someone to discover someday. However, the teacher plays such a key role in the novel–an off-beat, caring educator who transforms lives by sharing her love of story and words–that she belongs on this teacher flight. Humor, warmth, and engaging characters make this book a must-read. Especially if you are looking for extraordinary teachers in literature.
The Wright 3 by Blue Balliet
Blue Balliet’s tween series continues, featuring famous art and a group of friends working together to solve a mystery. Calder, Petra, and Tommy are working to save Frank Lloyd Wright’s house, sparked by their intrepid teacher Miss Hussey who asks them the question, “Can a house be art?” Studying how the famous Robie House is falling into disrepair and is slated to be divided up and sold, the trio work to save the landmark and decode its secrets. Art, architecture, literature, geography, secret codes. . .Miss Hussey has it right! What a terrific way to explore the interconnectedness of learning.
Frindle by Andrew Clements
Mrs. Granger is a tough 5th-grade language arts teacher, and ten-year-old Nick Allen makes it his challenge to continue to aggravate and annoy her. She loves words and has a passion for vocabulary–but that doesn’t extend to Nick’s creativity when it comes to inventing a new word: frindle. The tension between the two and the learning that results on both sides are at the center of this gentle story of teaching and learning, and the power and passion of words. Another great read-aloud!
Early Adolescents and Young Adults
The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg
The teacher in this novel is Mrs. Olinski, who finds her way with a group of 6th-grade students, navigating the world of competing in an academic bowl. Inter-related short stories of each of the children–and their paraplegic teacher/coach–are written in the engaging style that fans of E.L.Kongisburg expect. Every Saturday, this off-beat group meet at a tea party and we get to know the kids, teacher, and their growing friendships. Reading it as adults, we really appreciated the multi-generational friendships and the abiding respect for a range of different people that comes across. (It’s a Newbery Medal winner, too!)
The Secret School by Avi
Not only is this historical novel great fun, it also focuses on important issues related to the struggles that women and educators in general have faced in the last hundred years. The setting: a one-room school house in rural Colorado in 1925. When the teacher leaves unexpectedly before the end of the school year, the school board decides to just close the school early to save money. But 14-year-old Ida rebels–she is determined to go to high school, but can’t without the exit exams. Ida, with the support of the other 7 children of the school, decides to become the teacher and finish out the school year. As this is a small valley, nothing stays secret for very long and Ida and her classmates must face the music. (No spoilers here…)
Adult (and Young Adult)
Villette by Charlotte Bronte
Did you love Jane Eyre? If so, you have a rare and wonderful treat in store for you: Villette is even better! It’s a kind of coming of age story written from the perspective of a young woman (Lucy Snowe) who builds a life for herself, creating a meaningful circle of friends and a teaching life in the fictional town of Villette, France. Mystery, romance, psychological insights, compelling characters… I enthusiastically agree (Ruth here) with Virginia Woolf and George Eliot that it’s Charlotte Bronte’s best work. It’s also at least partially autobiographical, so the teaching episodes really do ring true. One suggestion–if you don’t read French, you want to look for an edition that translates the French dialogue snippets in footnotes. My signet paperback didn’t and while my college French gave me the gist, I may have missed the full effect of some conversations. (The translations were in the back and I didn’t want to break up my reading by constantly flipping pages.) Luckily, there are a lot of different editions available.