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Celebrate Principals’ Day 2016

Eight great principals and teachers who changed the way we learn

The Atlantic calls the school principal “the most misunderstood person in all of education.” In honor of Principal Appreciation Day, the following are eight principals and education leaders in history worth celebrating.

1. Socrates: The Father of Education

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More than 2,400 years ago, the great philosopher and teacher Socrates was sentenced to death by a court of law for “impiety” and “corrupting” the minds of young Athenians. This rebel with a cause introduced teaching ideas that are paramount in forming the foundation of Western philosophy and the scientific method of inquiry. The Socratic method is a discussion-based pedagogy used to encourage a broad exchange of ideas.

2. One of the First Schoolmasters in America: Ezekiel Cheever
According to The Principal’s Office, a book that offers a fascinating look at the history of education administrators, teachers, and schools, Ezekiel Cheever was one of the earliest versions of a school principal. He came to Boston from England in 1637 and taught for 70 years in schools across New England, beginning with turning his own home into a makeshift school. Word of his superior teaching skills spread, and wealthy citizens courted him to teach at schools they had built for their communities. In 1652, at age 56, Cheever became schoolmaster of the prestigious Boston Latin Grammar School and he remained there until his death in 1708.

3. First Woman Principal: Mary Mason Lyon

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Mary Lyon, born on February 28, 1797, in Buckland, Massachusetts, was at the forefront of women’s education in the U.S. She started teaching school in 1814. In 1828, she began teaching full time at the Ipswich Female Seminary, and resigned in 1834 with the intention of starting her own school. She spent several years touring the country, visiting schools to see how things are done. Finally, in 1837, she returned to Massachusetts and founded Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley.

Lyon served for twelve years as “president” or principal, teacher, and organizer of the domestic work system. She died on March 5, 1849, in South Hadley. She was a strong woman known for infusing students with a sense of intellectual and moral purpose. You could say she was ahead of her time, championing closing the gender gap in education and giving women equal rights!

4. Principal for Equal Rights: Susan Nye Hutchinson


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Hutchinson is one of many brave pioneering teachers who ventured from the progressive North (New York) into the Deep South during the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant religious revival movement during the early 19th century. This era was a precursor to the women’s suffrage movement. Ambitious working women were often shunned, particularly in the conservative South.

Hutchinson kept diaries from 1815 to 1841 about her experiences as a teacher and then, eventually, a founding principal at several schools. Her story, including establishing an independent school in Georgia and defying North Carolina law by teaching slaves to read, is fascinating.

5. Ex-Slave Who Became a Principal: Lily Grandison

Grandison began teaching in secret as a slave, educating her fellow slaves in reading and writing. After the abolition of slavery in 1865, she opened and ran a school for black children in Natchez, Mississippi, charging a monthly fee of one or two dollars. This movement of private, community-run schools for ex-slaves spread across the South. African-American civic and education leaders fought to maintain independent administration of these schools rather than being brought into the fold of the white-run missionary societies that had no respect for black leadership and replaced local black teachers with white missionary women educators.

6. Marie Montessori: Nobel Peace Prize Nominee

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Dr. Marie Montessori was an influential education leader, as well as a physician, in the late 1800s through the early 1900s. She was nominated for a Nobel Prize three times for her innovative philosophy on student-centered education.

Montessori was an advocate for special education classes for mentally disabled children, and in 1900 she opened the Orthophrenic School, a “medico-pedagogical institute” for training teachers to serve mentally disabled children. During her two years as co-director of the school, Montessori developed the methods she would later adapt for teaching mainstream children. These methods are based on physiological, psychological, and anthropological theories.

7. Emma Hart Willard: Women’s Rights Activist

Emma Hart’s father encouraged her education, even though the late 1700s was a time when schooling was limited for women. While men went to university and studied math and science to prepare for careers, women studied home economics. Emma Hart set out to change that, first as a teacher at the academy in Connecticut where she had been a student. After two years of teaching, at age 19, she was running the academy. She started her own school in Vermont, a boarding school for girls where she taught courses in history and science.

Hart spent years seeking funds for a larger institution to educate young women. The Troy Female Seminary, America’s first higher-education institution for women, opened in Troy, New York, in 1821. The school was a huge success and opened the door for funding of other private institutions where women could receive a high-quality education.

8. Pythagoras: The Father of Numbers

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This Greek philosopher and mathematician is best known for inventing the Pythagorean theorem, which as any geometry teacher knows, states that the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Pythagoras spent much of his life as a student of the world, traveling and learning, but was also a teacher in India, and later built an educational institute in Croatia to teach philosophy and basic “moral training.”

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