Women's History Month: How Anne Sullivan Impacted Education

Women's History Month: How Anne Sullivan Impacted Education
The Editorial Team February 16, 2013

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For Anne Sullivan, education was a way to escape blindness and grief. It was her background and schooling that provided the tools she needed to engage one of history’s most famous students. Perhaps no woman, no teacher, has ever done a better job of reaching a pupil than Anne Sullivan. Because of her skills and determination, Anne Sullivan and her student Helen Keller are forever linked in history.

Being able to reach a deaf and blind six-year-old girl when she herself was only 20 was just the start of Sullivan’s impact on education. Let’s take a look back on Anne Sullivan’s life, her relationship with Helen Keller, and her lasting impact on education.

Anne Sullivan’s early life

Sullivan’s educational influence is even more remarkable when one takes a look at her early life. Anne Sullivan was born to Irish immigrants in 1866 in Massachusetts. Her parents were poor, her father an abusive alcoholic. She was nearly blind by the age of 7 due to untreated trachoma, and her mother died when she was 8. Anne’s father abandoned her and her younger brother two years later and they were sent to a state institution, where her brother died shortly afterwards. It was here Sullivan spent the next four years, hot tempered, bitter, uneducated, and still blind after two unsuccessful eye operations.

At 14, after pleading with a visiting state official, she was allowed to leave the confines of the state institution and enter the Perkins School for the Blind, in Boston, where she eagerly learned to read, write and use the manual alphabet. After a few more eye operations, Sullivan’s eyesight improved, and she graduated from Perkins as class valedictorian in 1886.

Sullivan and Helen Keller

Shortly after graduation, 20-year-old Anne Sullivan accepted an offer from the Keller family of Tuscumbia, Ala., to tutor their daughter. The girl was 6 years old, blind, deaf, and mute. Her name was Helen.

Helen, like a younger Anne, was headstrong and rebellious. It didn’t take long however, for Sullivan to gain the confidence of the child, and soon she was teaching Helen manual words by associating them with the everyday things around them. Over the next 13 years, Sullivan would be Keller’s teacher, mentor, and friend.

In 1900, Anne Sullivan returned to Massachusetts, this time to enroll her student into Radcliffe College. Sullivan and Keller attended classes together, with Sullivan spelling into Keller’s hand each lecture and assignment.

Sullivan married John Albert Macy in 1905 and although the two separated a few years later, they were never divorced. In the years that ensued, Sullivan would spend time with Keller and her secretary Polly Thomson. The three gave lectures and even appeared in vaudeville. In 1924, Sullivan and Keller began to devote time to the American Foundation for the Blind.

Anne Sullivan Macy died at the age of 70 at her home in Forest Hills, N.Y.

Sullivan’s impact on education

Prior to Anne Sullivan, no one had been able to successfully teach a blind, deaf and mute child. It was perhaps Sullivan’s own difficult childhood that provided the impetus and patience for the trial and error necessary.

Sullivan’ determination perhaps sets the ultimate standard for teachers. Even with Keller’s disabilities, Sullivan refused to give up, and continually set high goals for her student. She was not only a pioneer in teaching the deaf and blind, but to this day is an example for all teachers trying to reach difficult and challenging students.

She serves as a beacon for those in the teaching profession who everyday are faced with the task of reaching students from a less than perfect background. She stands as a model for those who may question their ability to teach, and for students who may doubt their own ability to learn.

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