Distinguished Secondary Teacher Award Recipients

2015 Recipients

Elizabeth Bennett

At Illinois’ Buffalo Grove High School, orchestra teacher Elizabeth Bennett has earned the nickname “Mom” as a term of endearment. Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences nominator Samantha Bulmash, who nominated Bennett for the award, said, “She has become ‘Mom’ to hundreds of students. It takes an exceptional type of person to earn such an affectionate nickname from ‘angsty’ teenagers, and she earned it without even realizing it.” A teacher at Buffalo Grove for nearly seven years, Bennett was the recipient of the 2008 Illinois Emerging Teacher Leader Award and the 2014 recipient of the University of Chicago’s Educator of the Year Award. Bulmash said Bennett manages to achieve that perfect balance between education and pleasure, strictness and friendliness, precision and creativity. “Everything about Mrs. Bennett demonstrates her love for music: her speech, her stories, her behavior, even her clothing -- she is extremely proud of her ‘Bach socks,’” Bulmash said. “She implemented an orchestra service hour requirement so that we can give back to our community and bring the joy of music to younger students or other community members.” Bennett embraces the “Mom” nickname -- especially now. “After becoming a ‘real’ mom, I’ve learned that this craft of teaching is very special and a gift not to be taken for granted,” Bennett said. “Each day there are parents who entrust their children to me, to mold their young minds and help them discover the world around them and how to not only survive in it, but thrive.” Bennett earned her bachelor’s degree from Northwestern and her master’s degree from Concordia University in Wisconsin.

Donald Bott

Getting through school always came easily to Medill School of Journalism senior Lissette Rodriguez until she encountered high school journalism teacher Donald Bott, who never failed to challenge her. “Mr. Bott saw greater potential in this first-generation, low-income, Mexican-American girl,” Rodriguez said. “And I’m not the only one he saw potential in. He has seen and continues to see promise in every single one of his students over his nearly 30 years of teaching.” Bott made certain Rodriguez knew the ins and outs of applying to college and called her parents to go over the application process. As a teacher at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School in Stockton, California, where four out of five students qualify for the federal free lunch program, Bott crafts lessons that show compassion for students while continuing to push them to be great. Over the course of his teaching career, he has discovered the reciprocal nature of teaching. “Yes, I, the credentialed teacher, have a great deal to offer, but students also bring a rich treasure to the classroom,” Bott said. “This principle has helped me develop my craft as an educator.” Bott has been recognized with several awards over the years, including the San Joaquin County Teacher of the Year and most recently with the Diversity Award from the Journalism Education Association. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and his master’s degree from Sacramento State University.

Wesley Kirpach

In Wesley Kirpach’s classroom, curiosity is sparked before the high school teacher even sets foot in the room, says Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences senior Laura Stoughton, who nominated the Plano West Senior High School biology teacher. Stoughton describes skulls and skeletons that sit atop wooden cabinets in the class and award-winning wildlife photographs, taken by Kirpach, taped to the doors. Stoughton says Kirpach’s undeniable passion for biology infects even the most reluctant student, creating an environment in which his students not only learn about science, but also participate in it. “He has the ability to make complex, abstract processes comprehensible and concrete,” Stoughton said. “Any student of Mr. Kirpach’s knows that his favorite props -- a set of squishy Lego blocks and bendable foam tubes -- could morph into proteins, glucose molecules or DNA, as that day’s lesson required.” Kirpach said his greatest influence was his own high school biology teacher, who instilled in him a love of biology, science and learning. “I take every opportunity possible to put the science into the hands of the students and let them experience biology first hand,” Kirpach said. “Discovery is fundamental. It is the most exciting and engaging aspect of science.” His goal is to “instill a curiosity in his students, so that they are prepared to be competent navigators in their own adventure.” Kirpach earned a bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University and has received numerous honors, including Excellence in Teaching, Teacher of the Year Award Plano and Plano West Teacher of the Year awards.

Valerie Schrag

School of Communication senior Brittany Ray does not believe she would even be graduating from Northwestern in June if not for her high school history teacher Valerie Schrag. More than a “great teacher,” Schrag, who teaches African-American history as well as AP U.S. history and modern world history at Lawrence High School in Lawrence, Kansas, mentored Ray through the college application process and encouraged her to apply to Northwestern. “My freshman year at Northwestern was marred by extreme homesickness, and as I’d always done, I turned to Ms. Schrag for advice and guidance,” Ray said. “I felt out of my element and unsure if I had made the right decision. However, she continued to encourage me and reassure me that it would get better -- once again, she was right.” Schrag said as a high school teacher, she helps students navigate not only their academic progress but also their journeys toward fulfilling adult lives, adding that she’s come to understand that all victories are worthy of acknowledgement, not just those that are widely recognized by others. “It is important to congratulate the student who earned a ‘5’ on the national AP U.S. history exam, but it is equally as important to celebrate with the student who faced his fears and simply sat for the exam or enrolled in the course in the first place,” Schrag said. “She epitomizes what the secondary school teacher award represents, and I have waited four years to nominate her,” Ray said. Schrag earned a bachelor’s degree from Bethel College in Newton, Kansas, and a master’s degree from the University of Kansas.

Sameer Shah

School of Education and Social Policy senior Samantha Paige Yi begged her high school counselor to allow her to take an extra English class her senior year. However, she needed four years of math to apply for early decision at Northwestern. Yi said she can still remember the first day she walked into her calculus class at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and was greeted by the most enthusiastic teacher she had ever encountered -- Sameer Shah. “What really got me was when he talked about how beautiful calculus could be,” Yi said. “Mr. Shah never hesitated to point out the overlap between subjects -- math and music, science and English.” Shah said that friends and colleagues say he’s “unnaturally obsessed with teaching.” “For me, it’s a badge of honor,” Shah said, adding that at the heart of it all, he holds his students to a high standard. “I always meet them where they’re at -- altering my curricula based on the understandings I see -- but I make sure they lead me to deep mathematical understandings, rather than the other way around,” he said. Bruce Dennis, head of school at Packer, says the depth of Shah’s intellect led the school to take a chance on the then first-year teacher -- something they rarely do. “As a reward for our risk-taking, Sam has affirmed the wisdom of our decision to hire him each and every day over the past eight years,” Dennis said. Shah earned his bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his master’s degree from University of California, Los Angeles.

2014 Recipients

Howard Hill

At Illinois’ Highland Park High School, Howard Hill is sometimes called a “salesman of science.” Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences graduate Kathryn Halpern, who nominated her former environmental science teacher for the award, says that Hill not only has ignited an interest in environmental science in hundreds of high school students but also equipped them to live more ecologically friendly and sustainable lives. A teacher at Highland Park for 14 years, Hill won a 2012 Presidential Award for Innovation in Environmental Innovation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and The White House Council for Environmental Quality. From the very first day of class, his students find themselves doing field research out-of-doors in their efforts to conduct real-world environmental research. To explore the ways in which their school can reduce its carbon footprint, Hill’s students designed and built a biodiesel laboratory that converts used vegetable oil from the school’s cafeteria into biodiesel fuel that powers a generator. In turn, the generator powers the school’s athletic concession stands. While teaching his students about alternative energy, Hill encouraged them to explore the feasibility of a wind turbine at the school. Today a wind turbine provides additional green power. Hill earned his bachelor’s of science degree from the University of Guelph and a master’s from Northeastern Illinois University. His goal is to make his students realize that they can make positive and innovative contributions to issues of sustainability and environmental quality. According to his former student, he is successfully doing just that.

Catherine Irving

As a senior at Chicago’s Northside College Prepatory High School, Bridget Illing -- a graduate of the School of Communication -- took an elective with world studies and European history teacher Catherine Irving. To better understand the nation’s increasing rates of obesity and decreasing health levels, Irving took Illing and nine other students to her hometown of Huntington, West Virginia, which an annual Gallup index of well-being ranks as the nation’s “fattest city.” Meeting with people from different disciplines, they learned how economic forces influence local culture. To study the history of Haiti, her students read “Breath, Eyes, Memory, ” a 1994 novel about a young girl who moves from an impoverished village in Haiti to New York. They later Skyped with the book’s author, Edwidge Danticat, and talked about the ways that history influences current events: “Ms. Irving has a teaching style that is so enthusiastic and creative, there is no way to find anything about history uninteresting,” says Illing. “Each new lesson is like learning a great piece of gossip about who did what to whom.” Irving, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Miami University of Ohio and a master’s degree in teaching arts from Marshall University in West Virginia, says her goal is to engage all students. “As social science teachers, we are able to use content to encourage future decision-making. I take this privilege very seriously,” says the 18-year veteran of teaching.

David Knight

David Knight’s philosophy of teaching has evolved over the course of 24 years at University High School in Irvine, California. According to Weinberg College of Arts and Science nominator Jane Wang, her biology teacher’s strong points include the ability to “bring back the childlike wonder and fascination” of learning. In his application, Knight describes the degree to which he connects with his students as they experience not only joy and success and undergo tragedy and difficult circumstances. “Through my students’ eyes, I have seen the grief of divorce, the joy of being accepted to college” and just about everything in between. He says he not only has the “responsibility of teaching science to his students, but the obligation to model integrity and fairness, responsibility and absolutes.” Knight is most gratified when former students tell him that his were the hardest but also most rewarding high school classes they took. “For good or bad, I can influence these minds with both my words and my actions,” he wrote in his award application. “Not only am I teacher of science, I (also) am a molder of character.” Knight earned his bachelor’s degree in science education from Oregon State University and his master’s degree in environmental studies from California State University-Fullerton. A teacher at University High School since 1990, he has taken many interested students on field trips to Central and South America to study tropical ecosystems. Northwestern’s Wang was among them.

Mattie Olsen

Weinberg graduate Samuel Tvrdik says that there were numerous outstanding teachers at Creighton Preparatory School In Omaha, Nebraska. But none did as much to restore his self-confidence at a difficult time in his life as his theology teacher Mattie Olsen, did, he says. “Olsen’s intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm were palpable in every class,” Tvrdik says. “Her world religions class broke free from the rhetoric that I was used to, allowing me to glimpse the world from the varying perspectives of persons of other faiths.” He warmly recalls classes spent cooking meals associated with different religious holidays, writing reports on Al Jazeera articles and a video project on the various interpretations of God. As the recipient of a Fulbright-Hays Seminars Abroad award from the U.S. Department of Education, Olsen went to Egypt for five weeks to develop a curriculum related to the study of Islam. What set her apart from Tvrdik’s other teachers was her attention to his emotional well-being. “She recognized that I was having difficulty and actually worked to improve my life,” Tvrdik says. He indicates that his own Northwestern success is in part the result of his caring teacher. “I am grateful for being able to compassionately walk beside students who embrace their faith as well as those who struggle with belief,” says Olsen, who earned a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University before earning master’s degrees in Christian spirituality and in secondary education from Creighton University. “Mattie is an educator who embodies the ideas of Jesuit education,” says Sean Joyce Whipp, theology department chair at Creighton Prep. “She demonstrates deliberate care for each of her students by the particular way that she teaches and interacts with them.”

2013 Recipients

Phillip Baker

Phillip Baker is a 20-year veteran of business and engineering management turned National Board-certified science teacher. Baker currently is a chemistry and physics teacher at Huntsville High School in Huntsville, Ark. He was nominated for the Distinguished Secondary Teacher Award by McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science senior Tristan Sokol. Sokol writes that “Mr. Baker taught us not only about chemical potential but about the great potential each and every student had. His impact on my life is the direct cause for me and my classmates going to top-tier universities across the country, from a town that had only seen a handful of students ever travel outside the state.” Baker has been integral in developing and implementing rigorous curricula into the Huntsville High School science department to increase the likelihood of student success. He received his B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Arkansas, completed the executive program at the University of Michigan Business School and achieved National Board Certification in 2010.  

Christopher Esposito

Christopher Esposito, a social studies teacher from South High School in Downers Grove, Ill., graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2001. He began his career as a social studies teacher believing that “all students can learn, and it is the role of the teacher to make sure all are engaged in the process.” In the 12 years since, Esposito has earned a master's degree in educational administration from Northern Illinois University and a Ph.D. in curriculum studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and, in 2011, he became the social studies department chair at South High School in Downers Grove. He still follows the same basic principle that guided the operation of his classroom when he started his career, saying “my students now have a teacher who not only sees the importance of educating every individual as an individual but also as an important, functioning member of the society. They have a teacher who understands educating as a joint and collective process, where power is shared, and the goal is the creation of a better society.” Confirming his mission, nominator Laura Ledvora, a Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences senior, said “from the class environment, class discussions and the assigned readings, I learned to question myself, to question the world and to determine what I truly believe. This history class provided the environment, the encouragement, the knowledge and the reasoning skills necessary to turn me into a thinking human being. I would not be the same person I am today had I not been enrolled in this class.” 

Kelly O'Keefe-Boettcher

Kelly O'Keefe-Boettcher is an American Authors and International Baccalaureate English teacher from Rufus King High School in Milwaukee, Wis., who can make a teenager feel like her classroom is the best place to be every day for 52 minutes, according to nominator Jessica Holden. Graduating from the School of Education and Social Policy in June, Holden nominated  O'Keefe-Boettcher because "there will always be a young, confused, unloved, ignored, hidden beauty and talent of a student that Ms. O'Keefe has the power to make whole again." She challenges her students to read and write critically while showing her caring and respectful attitude towards everyone she is in contact with throughout her day.  O'Keefe-Boettcher received her B.A. and M.A degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1987 and 2002, respectively, and her teaching license from Alverno College in 1998.

David Quinn

David Quinn is a teacher of English and the theory of knowledge at Edmonds-Woodway High School in Edmonds, Wash. He was nominated for the award by McCormick engineering senior Taiyo Sogawa who credits Quinn with teaching him to think critically, a skill which he is able to apply to his work in computer engineering. Quinn, who takes a student-centered approach to teaching, also served as a mentor for Sogawa in and out of the classroom. He rarely stands at the front of the classroom, reflecting a style that allows students to guide the learning. Quinn asks, “Why are my questions about a text more important than my students’ questions?” Sogawa indicates “Mr. Quinn did not simply tell me to follow my dreams; he was and is a living example of someone who has found his passion and refused to let the normal expectations of who teaches high school stand in his way.” Before becoming a teacher, Quinn was an actor, whose credits include hosting the Primetime Emmy-nominated science series "3-2-1 Contact" and winning a Peabody Award as the host of "I Have AIDS, A Teenager’s Story" (a chronicle of Ryan White). He has made regular appearances in national commercials and was a child actor on "Sesame Street." While teaching, Quinn co-founded Allrecipes.com, now the No. 1 food website in the world, and served as its chairman until 2006. Since joining Edmonds-Woodway High School, Quinn has become the coordinator of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program and increased full-IB diploma registration by 100 percent since 2011.

Julianne Schrick

Julianne Schrick is a nationally board-certified high school mathematics teacher with more than 25 years of experience. She has been teaching at Redwood High School in Larkspur, Calif., since 1995. Her teaching philosophy is based on instilling in students, regardless of their backgrounds or aptitudes, a belief that they can take on hard challenges and succeed. This belief is exemplified by the four students who collaborated on her nomination: Danielle Littman and Rachel Abrahams, both in the School of Communications, and Jonathan Kaplan and Daniel Kaplan, both in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. They wrote that Schrick would “believe in us until we believed in each other and until we believed in ourselves.” Over the last six years, more than 80 percent off her AP Calculus BC students have received a score of 5. Schrick received her B.A. in mathematics and M.S. in education from Dominican College of San Rafael. 

2012 Recipients

DSTA winners 2012

Winners of the 2012 Distinguished Secondary Teacher Award with President Schapiro, Special Assistant to the President Eugene Lowe, and Commencement Speaker Paul Farmer.

Greg Devine
Greg Devine is an Advanced Placement (AP) physics teacher at Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J., who also serves as an advisor to the Engineering and Design Club and director of the school’s wind and brass ensembles. He was nominated by McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science senior Luke Francis Hemenetz. “Greg Devine sparks a passion for learning in his students and his students respond in kind,” says Delbarton School Headmaster Brother Paul Diveny of the physics teacher. “With a true passion for teaching and self-renewal, Greg is a life-long learner himself, and this is what he models to his students.”

Rafael Arechabaleta

Rafeal Arechabelata an honors and AP physics teacher at University School of Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., was nominated by five Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences seniors. Michael Dornbusch, Jonathan Schwartz, Matthew Adam Bartnovsky, Mitchell Drew and Kelly Flowers each expressed admiration for their Cuba-born teacher who received his undergraduate degree in the former Soviet Union. Of his own teaching philosophy, Arechabaleta says: “Education provides students the latitude to form their own opinions and to challenge themselves and society around them. Having been educated in Communist Cuba where free thought was discouraged and educational resources were limited, I truly appreciate educational freedom and strive to provide my students the opportunity to design their own curriculum.” He is the second teacher from University School of Nova Southeastern University to be awarded the Distinguished Secondary Teaching Award.

John F. Belcaster

John Belcaster is a Northwestern University alumnus who, prior to teaching, worked alongside now President Barack Obama at the Chicago law firm of Miner, Barnhill & Galland and teaches honors American and world history at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School in Chicago. He previously taught AP economics and history at Chicago’s Northside College Preparatory High School, where he taught Weinberg senior Patricia Radkowski, who nominated him for the award.  She describes Belcaster as “passionate about his position and his students and incredibly educated.” Tim Devine, principal of Walter Payton College Prep, praises him as “unparalleled at creating a student-centered environment.”

Amanda Bright

Amanda Bright teaches journalism and composition at Mattoon High School in Mattoon, Ill., where she developed the journalism curriculum. She is student advisor to the high school’s award-winning newspaper. Medill senior Sarah Eberspacher credits her former teacher with inspiring her to pursue journalism in college. In describing her teaching method, Bright notes: “The moment I become static and unresponsive to the changes in my students and our culture, I will lose all effectiveness.” Eberspacher says her former teacher has no cause to worry: “When I left Mattoon High School, the notion of studying journalism in college was relatively nonexistent. Just four years later, there are three or four students heading off each year with plans to become the next Al Neuharth, Bob Costas or Anna Quindlen. The woman behind that is Mrs. Bright.”

Christine Jawork

Christine Jawork teaches African and Asian studies at Harriton Senior High School in Rosemont, Pa., where she also directs the Students Building Community Team and coaches the Mock Trial Team and World Affairs Club. Lauren Marcuson, her school prinicipal, describes Jawork as “an advocate for her students.” Jawork says her primary goal as an educator “is to help students re-discover their own passion for knowledge, which, by high school, has often long been in latency.” Weinberg senior Benjamin Goldberg nominated his former teacher and says that she “forced her students to confront unchallenged assumption and to think critically about history and the study of culture. She taught with an incredible energy and charisma, bringing her whole self into the classroom and inspiring us to learn. I looked forward to her class every day.”

2011 Recipients

DSTA Winners 2011

Winners of the 2011 Distinguished Secondary Teacher Award with President Schapiro, Special Assistant to the President Eugene Lowe, and Commencement Speaker Stephen Colbert.

Theresa Fischer

Theresa Fischer teaches AP Economics and American Government and Politics at Ridgefield High School in Ridgefield, Conn., and is the advisor for Model UN. “During my time at Northwestern as an economics major, I have found that Ms. Fischer’s AP Economics class prepared me very well for collegiate academics,” said Nicole Marie Ablondi, a senior in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “AP economics and Model UN were without doubt some of the most challenging and most rewarding of all my high school experiences,” she said. “At the end of my high school career, I learned more than how to find the deadweight loss on a graph or research a topic for a debate -- I learned how to believe in myself and what I could accomplish. Fischer is widely acclaimed for loving what she does and truly caring about her students,” Ablondi said. 

John Holloran

John Holloran began his tenure at Oregon Episcopal School (OES) by introducing himself and his partner with a skit, in which they pretended to be on cell phones, bantering, for example, about their transition from schools in New York. Then Holloran, who teaches history, hesitantly asked, ‘Do you think they know we’re gay?’ said Monica Josselyn Scheer, a senior in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. An eruption of laughter followed. “I can remember so many meaningful moments with John,” she said, stressing the importance he placed on listening. At the start of each class he would ask what the students wanted to learn that day. “He often would reference something that had happened in chapel or a conversation he had with a colleague to make his lessons relevant to our interests,” she said. “He taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned -- that listening is the most important thing you can do for someone.”

Edwardo Johnson

Johnson previously taught high school in Jamaica, where he is originally from, in the Bahamas before joining the faculty of  University School of Nova Southeastern University (Upper School)  in Davie, Florida , where he serves as Curriculum Coordinator for World Languages.  One of his nominators, Alex Leibowich, who will graduate from the School of Communication, was a student in his Spanish class. “I learned more about myself, about the people around me and about the human experience as a whole, than any language could have ever taught me,” he said. What Johnson taught, “could not be translated into Spanish or any language for that matter; it’s something you had to experience.” Beyond that, Leibowich said, “He taught us how to be proud of life – to appreciate it for everything that it is and everything that it will be, no matter what obstacles we face.” (Johnson also was nominated by Carl Michael Blumenfeld, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.)

Georgia Stohr

Stohr heads up the freshman honors program in the English department and is an adviser for the yearbook at LaSalle-Peru Township High School in LaSalle, Ill. “Ms. Stohr teaches her students much more than Greek mythology or Adobe InDesign,”said Samantha Rose Reed, a senior in the School of Education and Social Policy. “With honesty and respect, she coaches them through some of the most difficult and formative years of their lives.” The countless hours Stohr worked before and after class, particularly in her advocacy for the yearbook, also was noted by Reed. Each year she takes the yearbook staff to camp in the summer, prepares them for journalism competitions and submits their work for scholastic recognition. “I still have coffee with Georgia Stohr or visit her classroom whenever I go home for a few days….she has become as much my friend as my teacher,” Reed said.