Relentless student and fearless teacher, Anne Sullivan

Photo via the Library of Congress

Too often, I think children are required to write before they have anything to say. Teach them to think, read and talk without self-repression, and they will write because they cannot help it.

– Anne Sullivan Macy

Empathy before Education

The story of Hellen Keller and Anne Sullivan is well known, but one that usually focuses on the obstacles Hellen Keller had to overcome to learn. But Anne Sullivan, her teacher, had overcome enormous pain and challenges in her own life and remained fearlessly, relentlessly curious despite them all. Her pain helped her empathize with Hellen’s pain, and that deep understanding made the so-called “impossible feat” of teaching Keller possible.

To teach, a teacher must first empathize with the student. If a student is starving,  geometry is not going to satisfy their hunger. The greatest teachers in the world do not just share knowledge, they seek to understand their students’ pain and challenges first and mend their broken bits, so they can think about learning something new.

Anne Sullivan was one of these great teachers. Born April 14, 1866, in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts, she contracted trachoma when she was only 5 years old, leaving her blind in one eye. Her mother passed away shortly thereafter, and she was sent to live at a state poorhouse. Relentlessly curious, she would persuade strangers to read books out loud to her at the public library. Even still, when she was finally able to start public school she tested far behind the other children of her same age…but just a few years later, graduated valedictorian of her class.

The Teacher and The Student

In 1887, she accepted the position as Helen Keller’s teacher, even though previous teachers had claimed Helen as “impossible to teach”, because of the childhood illness that left her blind, deaf, and mute. Sullivan refused to have anything less than high expectations for Helen, just as she had refused to let her own life’s challenges break her will to continue learning. She taught Helen the world by signing words into the palm of her hand, and her first breakthrough happened when Helen spelled the word water into Sullivan’s hand after feeling it being poured onto her skin. 

At Packback, we work to wake up students’ fearless, relentless curiosity. Sullivan’s fearless and relentless curiosity to teach Helen Keller proved that it was possible to teach a student who has even such severe barriers to learning. She accomplished what few people believed was possible. Sullivan not only enabled Helen Keller to learn while she was literally holding her hand, she enabled her to become a lifelong learner on her own.

It brings into question so much of the discussion around the role of professors and higher education institutions today; we wonder why students aren’t engaged. We wonder why students don’t show up to class. The disconnect between what students’ lives are like today and where the higher ed space currently is, has created a disconnect and barrier to learning as real as Keller’s physiological barriers.

Before we can “teach”, we first have to understand.

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