20 Inspiring women who are transforming the way kids learn

by Melissa Kirsch
Oct 1, 2015 at 4:00 p.m. ET


1 /20: Kakenya Ntaiya, Kenya

1/20 :Kakenya Ntaiya, Kenya

When Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya was in eighth grade in Kenya, she was so committed to getting an education that she made a deal with her father, a deal that would exact an incredibly steep price: she would go through with the unimaginably painful Maasai genital mutilation ceremony if he would let her continue on to high school instead of stopping her education to “become a wife,” as was customary in her village. And so she went on to high school, after which she bravely convinced the elders in her village to send her to the States for college — something no girl in her village had ever done before. At Randolph-Macon Women’s College, she learned that what had happened to her was illegal, that she didn’t have to trade a part of her body for education, and that the abuse of women she observed and endured in her village is hardly the norm in the West.

Ntaiya didn’t stop there. After college, she returned to her village and founded the Kakenya Center for Excellence, a school devoted to empowering and protecting girls. Determined that no girl should suffer as she did, parents who send their daughters to the school vow that they will not undergo genetic mutilation or early forced marriage. “I’m probably the only Maasai woman with a Ph.D.,” she recently told the Australian Broadcasting Company. But if Ntaiya has her way, this won’t be the case for long — 100 percent of KCE grads now attend secondary school, with 44 percent attending the most prestigious schools in Kenya.

2 /20: Pearl Arredondo, California

2/20 :Pearl Arredondo, California

Pearl Arredondo never lost track of where she came from; a low-income East Los Angeles neighborhood filled with poverty, gangs and teachers who wrote her off as a lost cause. She was always thinking about how she could make a difference. And so, after college, Arredondo returned to teach at the very middle school she attended. Devoted to making a change, Arredondo started the school’s Multimedia Academy and went on to found the San Fernando Institute for Applied Media, the first middle school-level pilot school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In 2014, she received the Inspirational Teacher Award from the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, was named California Woman of the Year and was honored at the Ford's Theatre's Annual Gala for being an inspirational teacher. 

"I teach because my life trajectory was chnaged by teachers at a very young age. It took one teacher to say I would never make it and another to say I would," she told SheKnows. "What I love about teaching is that every day is a new opportunity to start fresh. It provides a backdrop for continuous progress, no matter how slow."

Her own inspirational teacher came in middle school. "As a fifth grade student in Ms. Hirschkoff's class, I learned that I could be unstoppable. She challenged me to look beyond my circumstances and pursue education as a means of upward mobility."


3 /20: Shukla Bose, Bangalore, India

3/20 :Shukla Bose, Bangalore, India

Shukla Bose seemed like an unlikely educational reformer — she had no background in teaching or academia — rather, she’d spent 26 years in the corporate world. But she saw a need and wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, so in 2003 she left her career in hospitality and started the Parikrma Humanity Foundation with the goal of giving an “end-to-end education” — from kindergarten through college—to at least one child from each family living in the slums around Bangalore, India. That’s no small task given there are 800 slums in this city of 2 million people. And Bose doesn’t just focus on the classroom — she believes that a comprehensive education should go way beyond that — so the school also takes care of students’ nutrition, healthcare and families, ensuring that the incredible attention the students experience at Parikrma extend to their lives at home.

Her model is working. Students at Parikrma are doing as well as those at some of India’s best schools, and, amazingly, all the school’s graduates are either in college or vocational school, or are working to earn money for their families. So, with 1,600 students attending Parikrma’s four schools and a junior college, Bose can have no doubts that she truly has made a difference.

4 /20: Shella Condino, Virginia

4/20 :Shella Condino, Virginia

Shella Condino’s journey from the Philippines to Presidio, Texas, wasn’t by design — she ended up teaching physics and chemistry in the impoverished Mexico border town because there were no American teachers who would take the job. But Condino isn’t just a teacher — she’s also the founder of the Presidio Rocket Club, a group of lucky students that, in part thanks to Condino’s efforts, has won national rocketry competitions and collaborated with NASA scientists and engineers.

It’s all the more amazing that the Presidio Rocket Club is as successful as it is when you consider that the median household income in Presidio is under $20,000, and more than 40 percent of families there are below the poverty line, so money for supplies and travel has been scarce, necessitating bake sales and grants to keep the club running. In addition, for more than 90 percent of students in Presidio, English is their second language, and Condino doesn’t speak Spanish, so everyday communication can be challenging — never mind the highly technical communication required in a rocketry club. But Condino’s hard work is seeing results: almost all of Condino’s students are pursuing STEM careers in college, which is pretty impressive. Rocket science, indeed.

5 /20: Judy Sorrell, Virginia

5/20 :Judy Sorrell, Virginia

Judy Sorrell became aware of discrimination against people with disabilities at a young age. When she was in fifth grade, even though they were on the same school campus, she wasn’t allowed to talk to or see her cousin all day because her cousin had Down syndrome, and this lit a fire under her. She spent 34 years working to reform special education in Virginia as director of the Shenandoah Valley Regional Program for Special Education, which she founded in 1980. It wasn’t easy coordinating special education services for students with low-incidence disabilities, however. She had to answer to six school districts with no staff save a secretary, but still managed to grow her budget from $1.5 million to $10 million. And when she saw how dismal the services were for students with autism, Sorrell kicked her efforts into high gear, partnering with Commonwealth Autism Services, an organization that trains teachers and therapists in autism therapy, to completely overhaul her districts’ autism programs.

Her partnership with Commonwealth Autism was so successful that she joined their ranks as Director of Community Engagement. Now, she helps administrators, like she once was, reform their schools’ methods for addressing the needs of students with autism. Sorrell’s work in rural Virginia is an example for school districts everywhere — here’s hoping other states follow suit.

6 /20: Eliza Minnucci, Vermont

6/20 :Eliza Minnucci, Vermont

Eliza Minnucci first developed a fascination for the natural world in 2005 when she was teaching in the local Head Start classroom in a tiny native Alaskan village north of the Arctic Circle. Her students' families gave her an advanced education in outdoorsmanship, teaching her how to dress geese and live off the grid without water in temperatures of 60 degrees below zero. Fast forward to 2013, when Minnucci was working as a kindergarten teacher in Vermont and saw a documentary about outdoor "forest schools" in Switzerland and got the idea to take her students to spend one full day a week outside, rain or shine. Once a week, her students trade popsicle-stick-house creation for latrine-building, nap time for sitting and observing nature, and recess for running wild in the woods, all in the great outdoors.

The goal of this outdoor exploration is to teach kids independence, to get them away from their screens and give them opportunities to make real-life decisions that will help them succeed as grown-ups. "I like giving them the opportunity to be in a really complex place where they need to think about how to build a dam with a peer and at the same time, think about staying dry and staying warm," says Minnucci. "I do this work to pass strength, independence, curiosity and confidence to our children." Forest Kindergarten is now in its third year, and Minnucci is even co-leading a grad-level course to support educators in starting similar programs. We have only one question: Where were Forest Fridays when we were in kindergarten?

7 /20: Lena Solow, New York

7/20 :Lena Solow, New York

If you had sex education in school growing up, chances are you learned about getting your period, STDs and little else. Bronx, New York-based Lena Solow's sex ed classes are a lot more informative. She goes over the birds and the bees, but she and her team of high school-age peer educators also tackle sexting, LGBT tolerance, contraceptives and — this is one of Solow's most important goals — sexual pleasure. She firmly believes sex isn't just about making babies, and sex-positivity plays a big role in her curriculum.

In schools where seventh-grade boys are asking explicit questions about porn, Solow comes in serving up frank, honest, informative sex ed that meets kids where they are. And it can't hurt when it comes to connecting with kids that she's pretty cool — in its profile of her as one of 50 Great Teachers, NPR called her "the Joan Jett of sex educators." That's a far cry from the fish-out-of-water gym teachers who taught sex ed classes at our middle schools.

8 /20: Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, Connecticut

8/20 :Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, Connecticut

When a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, like so many other teachers that day, sprung into action. To protect her students, she crammed all 15 first-graders, and herself, into a tiny bathroom off her classroom. In the bathroom, the courageous teacher kept the scared kids calm as shots rang out. "If one of them started to cry, we all would have cried," she told Glamour magazine.

But Roig-DeBellis' heroism didn't stop that day. In the weeks that followed, as her Sandy Hook students received gifts of books and teddy bears from all over the world, she realized that there was an opportunity here. She started Classes 4 Classes, a nonprofit devoted to encouraging kindness in the classroom. Elementary school classes sponsor gifts for other classes, like iPads and interactive whiteboards, and the recipient classes pledge to pay the kindness forward to yet another class. Founded on Roig-DeBellis' belief that it shouldn't take a tragedy for students to learn the value of giving back, she made sure Classes 4 Classes offers a "curriculum in kindness" that teachers can employ in their classrooms as well. And she continues to be an inspiration to her students and the rest of the country: In 2013, she ran the New York City Marathon in honor of the Sandy Hook victims: "A mile for each of the 26 lives we lost," she said, "and 0.2 for me."

9 /20: Kyle Schwartz, Colorado

9/20 :Kyle Schwartz, Colorado

Ninety percent of the students in Kyle Schwartz's third-grade class at Doull Elementary School in Denver live below the poverty line. In an effort to figure out how she could best support them, Schwartz asked her students to write down something they wished she knew about them. The results were incredibly moving, and sometimes heartbreaking: "I wish my teacher knew sometimes my reading log is not signed because my mom is not around a lot," wrote one student. "I wish my teacher knew I don't have pencils at home to do my homework," wrote another.

This was a "reality check" for Schwartz, and she realized she had to share what she was learning. Using the hashtag #IWishMyTeacherKnew, she began to post the students' responses on Twitter. The result was a social media movement, with countless users employing the hashtag to tweet what they wish their teachers knew about them, and other teachers tweeting the incredible responses they received using Schwartz's experiment in their own classrooms: "Tried #iwishmyteacherknew with my year 10s today. Breathtaking results. Thanks @kylemschwartz for the inspiration," wrote @chrisedwardsuk. "@kylemschwartz I opened up to my 8th grdrs about my past before I started the #iwishmyteacherknew exercise, their responses had me in tears," @MrZercher wrote. Schwartz's simple use of social media has influenced so many students and educators in such a profound way — and she's still at it. Her campaigns to raise money to buy her students books and expand her curricula have been hugely successful, attracting hundreds of supporters on DonorsChoose. Here's to technology in the classroom, and changing the world one tweet at a time.

10 /20: Jackie Chism, Florida

10/20 :Jackie Chism, Florida

After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, Jackie Chism, then a middle-school teacher in Orlando, knew she had to do something about the video games and movies that were desensitizing her students to violence. So, inspired by programs that buy back guns, she came up with Peace Buy Peace, wherein she bought students' violent video games for twice what Best Buy would pay them.

Chism was so dedicated to teaching her students how violent media can affect actions that she started the buyback program using her own money, and then began attracting donations and was able to amass around 200 games. Since starting the program, Chism has relocated to Chicago, where she's working on a documentary about violence in the media, organizing Peace Buy Peace workshops and continuing to study media psychology so she can hone her anti-violence message and continue to help students remove violent entertainment from their lives, piece by piece.

11 /20: Paula Franzese, New Jersey

11/20 :Paula Franzese, New Jersey

Named one of the 26 best law professors in the country, Seton Hall professor Paula Franzese is one of the country's leading experts in property law and governmental ethics. She's a published author and has enacted ethics reform initiatives on behalf of three governors in New Jersey. But we are highlighting her for a different kind of work. Franzese somehow finds time to volunteer-teach middle school students once a week at the Saint Catherine of Siena School (which both of her children attended).

The innovative extracurricular program in which Franzese has taught for the past 16 years aims to give kids "life skills" that they wouldn't otherwise get in the classroom. "We talk about integrity, we talk about virtue, and social justice, and social media," Franzese told NJ.com of her class. And her students seem to think civics is just as important as Franzese does: Her class is always the most popular of the life skills electives at Saint Catherine, with a waiting list for admission. In her own words, she explains her motivation to us, "The law is the most powerful instrument. As lawyers, we are uniquely able to use the law to be agents of change, champions of the underdog, voices for those yet to find their own and givers of hope. Love is always the motive, and in the right hands the law can be love made visible."

12 /20: Linda Mazon Gutierrez, Arizona

12/20 :Linda Mazon Gutierrez, Arizona

As president and CEO of the nonprofit Hispanic Womens Corporation, Linda Mazon Gutierrez focuses on "scholarship, leadership and professional development" for women and for middle- and high-school students and hosts the largest gathering of Latinas in the country each year. Their program is one of development, meant to help girls and women achieve their academic and professional dreams. Since 2006, HWC has partnered with Maricopa Community Colleges Foundation in Arizona to give college scholarships to students in their Achieving a College Education program. The ACE program offers guidance and college-level courses to high school students in more than 100 high schools who might not otherwise consider college. Giving back to the community in which she lives has always been important to Gutierrez — before she took over the helm of the HWC, she worked in Arizona state government for 25 years.

13 /20: Alicia Hansen, New York

13/20 :Alicia Hansen, New York

Alicia Hansen has always been a pioneer in digital photography: She co-produced the first all-digital story for National Geographic, setting a new digital standard for the magazine's photography. But the most innovative of Hansen's creations may be NYC SALT, the after-school program she founded in 2005. The dedicated professional photographers who teach in the program use photography to teach more than 100 students a year about digital technologies, give them access to professional networks and help set them up for success in college and beyond.  

Students in NYC SALT not only receive instruction in digital photography and photo editing, but they also get college prep assistance, mentorship and the opportunity to attend a weeklong photography summer camp at Syracuse University. "Every single kid has gifts and talents that are unique to them, and what I love is helping them find where they fit," says Hansen. And NYC SALT is doing a pretty fantastic job following through on its mission: One-hundred percent of the program's participants graduate from high school and enroll in college — 82 percent of those students are the first in their families to go to college. And the students' connection to NYC SALT doesn't stop there — many come back to hang out in the program's lab during vacations, and even go on to mentor current SALT students, giving back to the community just as Hansen did when she created the program a decade ago.

14 /20: Kristen Swanson, Pennsylvania

14/20 :Kristen Swanson, Pennsylvania

When we think about learning, we might picture a teacher and a classroom of kids. But Philadelphian Kristen Swanson realized that to best serve their students, teachers need innovative professional learning opportunities, too. So in 2010, she co-founded the EdCamp Movement, a collective that organizes daylong conferences for teachers around the world.

The goal of EdCamp is to "help educators discover new ways of learning and teaching, reigniting their passion in the classroom and passing it on to students across the globe." And its mission is being realized: The EdCamp model to date has touched more than 50,000 teachers and their students in more than 140 cities in the U.S. and abroad. As if that's not impressive enough, when Kristen's not working with EdCamp, she leads professional learning at BrightBytes, an educational research company. Swanson tells us, "The person doing the work is doing the learning," which perfectly represents what she's started here.

15 /20: Robin Gramling, South Carolina

15/20 :Robin Gramling, South Carolina

At the First Baptist School in Charleston, South Carolina, teachers bring a Christian perspective to their teaching, so 10th-grade English teacher Robin Gramling starts her classes with the Parable of Talents from the Bible, in which three servants are each given a sum of money and must decide what to do with it. Then Gramling passes out $100 bills to each of her students and tells them that they must find a way to double their money by the end of the school year to donate it to charities of their choosing.

In the four years that Gramling has been conducting this exercise, students have conducted bake sales and the like to raise and donate more than $50,000 to local and national nonprofits. Gramling's creative curriculum includes finding the intersections between current events and classic literature, educating her mostly well-to-do students about the wisdom in focusing on giving over amassing wealth. "Everything you have is grace and a gift," Gramling told The Post and Courier." "... If you spread it out, the better off you are, and so is everyone else."

16 /20: Ileana Jiménez, New York

16/20 :Ileana Jiménez, New York

Known online as the "Feminist Teacher," Ileana Jiménez's work focuses on race, class, gender and sexuality. If the conversation is about social justice education, you can usually find her at the table, whether she's discussing teaching feminism to high school students on The Melissa Harris-Perry show, interviewing Rachel Maddow at Smith College or Skyping with Icelandic educators to discuss feminism and intersectionality in K-12 classrooms.

In Jiménez’s classes, students take part in creative projects such as writing a feminist blog and coming up with smart ways to address street harassment — one student designed a class on white privilege, and another created a game to teach children about women in politics. Jiménez sees addressing social injustice as essential in primary education, and as an issue that extends far outside the classroom. When asked why she teaches feminism in schools, Jiménez told NBC News, "I think if we were to teach feminism to students K-12 we would not have such high instances of gender-based violence. If we addressed these issues from a very young age, we wouldn't have such a world full of racism and sexism."

17 /20: Kelly Wickham Hurst, Illinois

17/20 :Kelly Wickham Hurst, Illinois

Kelly Wickham Hurst is known to her legions of fans online as Mocha Momma, the witty and influential blogger who writes primarily about education and race with a generous dose of personal narrative (she recently chronicled her wedding preparations.) By day, Hurst brings her passionate advocacy for "conscious, stimulating explorations of media and technologies" to her job as the Guidance Dean at Lincoln Magnet School, a tech-focused middle school in Springfield, Illinois.

As a teen mom, Hurst experienced firsthand the sexist ways that women can be dismissed and shamed by society. The confidence that had been her hallmark since childhood receded, her self-esteem faltered as people she loved dismissed her as "a screw-up who had ruined her future." But Hurst persevered, finishing college, working as an English teacher, and then going on to get a master's degree and a job as a principal. Now, she tells her story in multiple mediums: on her blog, on other sites like Teaching Tolerance, on NPR and at conferences and speaking events around the world.

18 /20: Lisha Lercari, New York

18/20 :Lisha Lercari, New York

1. I love music because

2. it makes me smart

3. it makes me sing

4. it makes me brave

These are just a few of the 10 reasons Trevor Jackson, a second-grader in East Harlem, New York, loves music. He's a student at one of more than 240 public schools in the United States and abroad that have used Music and the Brain as part of their curriculum since Lisha Lercari created the program in 1997. Inspired by research that linked cognitive functioning to music in children, Lercari and a team of scientists, businesspeople and administrators designed the Music and the Brain curriculum, which employs a song of the day to train students in such skills as ear training, song analysis, singing and movement exercises so they can then play the song on keyboard. That's right — in addition to teacher training and an extensive curriculum, MATB also supplies 15 to 30 keyboards for music classes.

Lercari, who studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and received a BA and MA from Manhattan School of Music, is working hard to get MATB in more schools, a tall order in the face of budget cuts. "We are finding that our kids read more quickly and listen more, regardless of which teacher is using the program. That kind of focus helps them in all areas of learning," she told Take Part in 2014. And the testimonials from grateful teachers and parents bear out MATB's findings. As one principal raved, "There is nothing more beautiful than hearing Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' played by five-year-olds!"  

19 /20: Kirsten Ecker, New York

19/20 :Kirsten Ecker, New York

When math teacher Kirsten Ecker saw a job listing calling for a "Teacher/Super Star" at the Match High School, a charter school in Boston serving the inner city population, she jumped at it. For four years, she taught geometry, pre-calculus and AP calculus, and she did indeed prove to be a superstar, winning two awards for the gains her students made on standardized tests.

So, when her boss at Match invited her to be the founding curriculum director at Match Tutors, Ecker signed up. In the first year, Match Tutors sent 50 tutors into two failing schools in Lawrence, Massachusetts, armed with lessons, assessments and best teaching practices all established by Ecker. The results were astounding: The Student Growth Percentile went from 23 percent to 75 percent after just one year. In 2015, she went on to work at Match's new incarnation, SAGA Innovations, which serves 680 students in New York City with high-dosage 1-on-2 math tutoring. Ecker believes students won't learn if you do all the heavy lifting for them: "When teaching, my goal is always to look like I'm the laziest person in the class," says Ecker. "Because [then] the students have to do all the work." Her students would do well to learn from her — she seems to have no problem with hard work herself. "I'm not just a teacher from 9-5," she says. "This is not a job. This is a mission."

20 /20: Caroline G. Blackwell, Washington D.C.

20/20 :Caroline G. Blackwell, Washington D.C.

Caroline G. Blackwell believes it is the birthright of every child to know and feel a true sense of belonging — and she's devoted her career to making sure our children find this for themselves. She is currently the vice president for equity and justice at the National Association of Independent Schools, working to develop and support independent school communities that are diverse, equitable and inclusive — and help ensure they stay that way. Before this position, Blackwell was a senior administrator at the University School of Nashville and Executive Director of the Metro Nashville (Tennessee) Human Relations Commission where she was instrumental in Nashville being recognized in the international Compassionate Cities movement.

When she’s not working to expand diversity and equity in schools, Blackwell regularly conducts workshops on such topics as culturally learned approaches to conflict, the skills of dialogue, nonviolent communication and the use of play to engage creatively with difference. Her pioneering work is featured in several books, and she collaborated with a long-time friend and colleague to co-author a book on a long-term systemic change model for schools entitled True Partners, expected to be published next year. When asked what fuels her passion she answered, "I know what it feels like to stand outside the shelter of safety and security; and conversely, I know the agency and joy that flows from the cradle of belonging. The latter is a gift and it’s the power I seek to engender through my life and work."