MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Many of us have memories of a favorite teacher. But the impact one Minneapolis teacher had over her long career is absolutely astounding.

Sara Sexton was an English teacher at Southwest High School in Minneapolis for 40 years. She retired in 2005.

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After her death last month, many of Sara’s former students found themselves sharing just how much of an impact she had on them, long after they graduated.

In this week’s Life Story, we discovered why some say Sara was born to teach.

“The nice thing about Sara is that she had a smile that welcomed the entire room,” said Larry Risser, a retired teacher who worked with her.

Students at Southwest got to know that smile very well over the four decades she taught English there.

She was known for challenging her kids and helping them find their paths in life.

Sara Sexton (credit: CBS)

“She respected and loved her students and believed in them,” said former student Sandy Rubenstein. “But she made you believe in yourself. A lot of teenagers are very gifted and talented or whatever, but they don’t have that innate confidence.”

Sara and fellow teacher Ed Andersen helped launch the International Baccalaureate program at Southwest in the late 1980s. He says she had a gift for helping students excel — and she also helped her colleagues grow.

“This idea of high expectations of the student, not just filling in the blanks. You have to do something with the knowledge. Perform and create,” Ed said. “Whenever I was writing a scientific paper, I would have Sara read it before I turned it in. She would make grammatical things … ‘I think you ought to rewrite that paragraph.’ She was very good at that.”

Sara was featured in an NBC News report about the emotional needs of teenagers in 1990.

“One of the rules that we have in Room 201 is whatever you bring in here stays in here, unless I get your permission to let it go further,” she said in the interview.

And she described what she felt were the warning signs of a student having personal problems.

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“Most of these kids are very talkative kids, so silence is one,” Sara said. “If I can’t get them to talk, if they are not responding in class. If I see that they’re not with the normal friendship circle that I’m used to seeing them with, then something is wrong. What I usually do at that point is call them in.”

She was the teacher you could talk to about anything.

“One comment that one of the students made, Richard Dixon said, ‘I honestly believe that she loved what she did every day.’ And I heard it from Sara’s own mouth. ‘I loved what I did every day.’ So there is a perfect alignment,” Risser said.

Sara was extremely proud of her sister, who is an opera singer in Paris. But she also saw her students and friends as family.

Sara Sexton in the 1960s (credit: CBS)

“An important thing for me to say about her is that she had a great capacity for love, and I think that is really at the core of who she was,” said Liz Talley, Sara’s cousin.

She also had a passion for flashy sports cars.

“She did things with style. She was just outstanding, good company,” Risser said.

Sara Sexton died on June 8. She was 79 years old.

Though she requested no funeral, some of her other former students have put together what they call The Sexton Project, a way to memorialize their beloved teacher.

They are asking for memories and stories from former students and colleagues to be emailed to sextonproject@gmail.com.

They plan to collect them all online and share them with her family and close friends.

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