Great Educators in History (II): Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller

Being a great educator is not only about mastering the discipline of teaching but also about having the ability to adapt the craft according to the needs of the learner. This week in our series, Great Educators in History, we present Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller, two women who redefined the boundaries of both teaching and learning – two lives that are so inspiring, they make it hard to believe that any obstacle is too large to overcome.

Caption: By Family member of Thaxter P. Spencer, now part of the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. (New England Historic Genealogical Society) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsAnne Sullivan finds a new student

Born in 1866 in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts, USA, Anne Sullivan experienced near blindness early in life. Although she never fully lost her eyesight until shortly before her death, her educational career was focused on schooling for the blind. After graduating from the Perkins Institution for the Blind in 1886, she soon found herself the governess of a particularly challenging pupil. Helen Keller was just over 6 years old when she fell under the instruction of Anne Sullivan, and she had suffered from extreme isolation due to being both deaf and blind. Anne, presented with the task of tempering a child whose only contact to the world was through touch and who expressed her frustration through frequent tantrums, writes, “The greatest problem I shall have to solve is how to discipline and control her without breaking her spirit” (Gardner: 15). As headstrong as Helen, Anne would struggle with her for hours at a time, even locking themselves into a room together until they reached an agreement. Within the first year, she won the trust and heart of young Helen, the next big step being to establish a means of communication and engagement with the outside world.

It was in the summer of 1887 when Anne unlocked the world to Helen. While outside touching a water pump, Anne spelled out “w-a-t-e-r” into Helen’s hand repeatedly until her face lit up with understanding. A few months later, Helen had learned how to write, read braille and knew over 600 words. From touching objects and associating them with words, to learning to lip-read by touching lips, to reading text that was raised on the page, the world had opened up to her. By the age of 14, Helen entered high school, first attending the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York City and then the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in Massachusetts.

Helen Keller becomes a leader

It became clear from the start of Anne Sullivan’s work with Helen Keller that Helen was extremely intelligent. Helen’s thirst and ability to learn could not be quenched. Helen worked to finish her high school degree with the dream of attending college. Anne would spell out entire books not available in braille into Helen’s hand as well as transcribe full lectures into her palm. Helen’s life story and intelligence would soon earn her fame. In 1903, Helen published The Story of My Life and went on to graduate with honours from Radcliffe a year later. She was touring the world giving lectures by 1913 and published a number of books over the following four decades.

By the late 1930s, Helen had helped establish commissions for the blind across the US. Anne remained a close companion to Helen until she passed away in 1936, even often joining her on tours. Helen Keller lived until 1968. By the time of her death, she had worked to improve the treatment of the deaf and blind, particularly fighting for the end of committing people with disabilities to asylums.

Their impact today

To look at the lives of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller, it is hard to imagine that being blind or deaf, let alone both, could ever have been considered a disability. They proved that learning is a matter of resources and reimagining how one communicates with the world. Their influence on education today is twofold. For one, they helped establish educational institutions for the deaf and blind and attacked the social taboos attached to impairments of the senses. Secondly, they showed that learning and teaching is only as limited as the method. If you are open to the needs of the students and finding a way to facilitate communication and understanding, educational methods are limitless and learning abilities unfixed.

If you find their story inspiring, we would like to recommend two courses to you. If you are a German speaker check out the course, Meine Schule transformieren – ein Reiseführer (Transforming My School – a Travel Guide). Here you will learn to unlock the potential and transform your school for better learning environment. We also recommend The DO School Start-Up Lab, which teaches you to be a successful social entrepreneur for your own start-up that could make the world a better place.

Go to courses


  • Anne Sullivan Macy. 2013. Encyclopaedia Britannica website. Available from: [Accessed 10 Feb 2014]
  • Gardner, Howard. 2006. Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons. Basic Books.
  • Helen Keller. 2013. Encyclopaedia Britannica website. Available from: [Accessed 11 Feb 2014]
  • Nielsen, Kim E. 2009. Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller. Beacon Press: Boston, MA, USA.

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