No matter how long it’s been since you’ve been in school, you remember your favorite teacher – that woman or man who turned a key or lit the flame that propelled you into the future.

By some estimates, there are more than 3.6 million teachers in the United States, though that doesn’t even include homeschooling moms and dads. It’s true many of them hold an oversized place in our hearts, whether from grade school, middle and high school or college.

For many of us, we cross paths with a teacher for a year – 180 days of instruction on average – and sometimes only for a few hours a week, especially in the later years of our schooling.

Yet what is about them that leaves such a strong and lasting impression? Why is it that decades or even half-a-century later we can still see their faces or hear their voices?

Maybe it’s because at first, teachers are an extension of our parents – towering figures standing or sitting in the front of a room, holding court and holding sway, benevolent dictators whom we trust and treasure.

Good teachers put us at ease, make us feel we matter – and in the end, matter to us in ways large and small.

Teachers sow seeds in all sorts of weather. Some blow far away or settle on rocky soil, seemingly gone forever. But sometimes the seeds stick and take root. Germination rates vary – many teachers never live long enough to see the growth or taste the fruit of their labors.

Women and men who step into the classroom don’t do it for the money. They do it because they want to do something that matters. They want to make a difference. Standing up in front of a group of students isn’t for the faint or frail of heart. There are days when it’s emotional or mental combat. On tragic days in some districts, it’s been fatal.

Memorable teachers share with us what they love and even lift the curtain on their own lives. They talk about their hopes and dreams – and in doing so, give wings to ours.

Our favorites are tough – but tender. They’re a little sassy but still straightforward. They complement but don’t compete with parent’s values and convictions. They also don’t apologize for making us work hard or accept excuses when we won’t or don’t.

A terrific teacher recognizes they’re not just trying to educate kids – but teach kids who will eventually grow up to be responsible adults.

Teachers who are curious themselves tend to produce students who ask questions and actually listen to the answers. They follow the clues. They teach them how to think critically and resist the sheep mentality that permeates popular culture.

The very best of teachers also recognize that despite a litany of advanced academic degrees, they don’t know everything. They admit there are many questions and mysteries that all the science and other studies of this world will likely never answer. 

Our favorites teachers taught us how to be successful in this world – but also remind us that ultimate success will come in the next.

Photo from Shutterstock.