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In today’s world, the schoolteachers who are appreciated by society are—we hope—those who inspire children to learn and whose classrooms will long be remembered by their students as the places where education came alive. In 1953, those things were important too. But, judging by this LIFE story from that February, skill wasn’t all.
Nell Owen taught speech class to first- through sixth-graders in Dallas, and she was—according to a contest to which her students submitted her picture—the “prettiest teacher in the U.S.” The contest, as LIFE explained, was sponsored by the hit CBS radio (and later television) program Our Miss Brooks, which starred Eve Arden as a high-school teacher. The prize was a trip to meet Arden in Hollywood. Though the show was a comedy, its subject matter wasn’t all frivolous: the first episode starts with Miss Brooks’ enthusiasm for her work and another episode depicted Miss Brooks confronting the lack of resources for heating fuel at her school.
That juxtaposition of lightheartedness and serious education matters would also prove appropriate for a contest won by Owen. While the ranking of elementary-school teachers by their looks seems quite retrograde these days, her career was about more than her face. The principal of her school told LIFE that he had worried she would be “another discipline case” whom “those kiddos will take…by storm.” After a year of teaching, at only 21 years old, Owen had been dubbed “durable as she is fetching.”
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.