02/13/2012 12:33 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

Great Teachers Inspire Big Feelings in Few Words

According to legend, Ernest Hemingway was challenged by some friends at a bar to write a short story in ten words or less. He scribbled on a napkin: "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn," and called it his greatest work. Sometimes, even six words can convey a powerful meaning.

It was with this story in mind that StudentsFirst launched a "Six Word Essay Contest" on what it means to be a great teacher. We wanted to celebrate the incredibly important work that teachers do day in and day out -- efforts that we know impact both the lives of individual students and the future of our country, preparing our youth today to be the leaders and citizens of tomorrow.

In fact, a recent groundbreaking study by Harvard and Columbia economists provided concrete evidence for what we instinctually know to be true. The study followed the lives of 2.5 million kids over two decades and showed that effective teachers have a far more wide-ranging and long-lasting effect on their students' lives than many of us realized. The teachers impacted the college-going and teen-pregnancy rates of their students, as well as their earnings potential upon graduation.

When you stop and really think about the impact teachers have on children, it's really not surprising how many people responded to our contest. Nearly 28,000 six-word essays were submitted on what it means to be a great teacher.

People were so passionate about expressing their respect for and gratitude toward teachers. And it's very clear the authors were describing qualities about real people who touched their lives in real ways. In some cases, you could almost picture the teacher-muse who inspired the words.

Consider Cullen A.'s from Indiana: "I remember her fifty years later," or Margaret Z.'s from Minnesota: "Believes I'm a superhero in disguise." Wouldn't you like to know, and have had, the teachers who inspired those words?

Even a few household names got involved, crediting much of their success to great teachers in their lives. Basketball great Dwayne Wade wrote poignantly: "She never gave up on me." Singer Patti LaBelle described what she learned from a great teacher: "You are bigger than your surroundings..."

Sadly, though, too often, our teachers are underappreciated and undervalued for the critical work they do. We see this in how they are recognized (not as well or as often as they should be) and rewarded (with salaries that are too low) for the vital work they do.

Jackie K from Texas put it so beautifully in her essay on what it means to be a great teacher:
"Spark interest. Ignite curiosity. Fuel dreams."

If you'd like to read more six-word essays and vote for your favorite one, you can do so here.