Above: Winners of the 2018 Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award with President Schapiro and Special Assistant to the President Eugene Lowe.
Above: Winners of the 2012 Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award with President Schapiro, Special Assistant to the President Eugene Lowe, and Commencement Speaker Paul Farmer.
Above: Winners of the 2011 Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award with President Schapiro, Special Assistant to the President Eugene Lowe, and Commencement Speaker Stephen Colbert.
Wheeling High School, Wheeling, Illinois
For Taran Lichtenberger, high school honors biology was the first class where she began to understand science as a field of research and investigation. The curiosity the class sparked for her was in large part due to her teacher Katherine Konyar.
“Mrs. Konyar found a way to integrate a real-world research experience into the classroom,” said Lichtenberger, a senior in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.
She recalls her class conducting a research project on the value of biomarkers and later presenting to other schools and representatives at Abbott Laboratories.
“This was my first exposure to scientific research, and I am pursuing a career in research because of that experience,” Lichtenberger said.
A teacher for more than 30 years, Konyar said her biology class is a conduit for helping students grow.
“My job is to help students to discover who they are and not who I or their parents want them to be,” Konyar said. “I am there to cheer students on, to pick them up when they fall and to encourage them to try again without giving up.”
In addition to teaching every day, Konyar works with the iBIO Institute EDUCATE Center’s Stellar Girls program, exposing girls in her community to science at an early age.
“Mrs. Konyar’s work inside and outside the classroom demonstrates not only her excellent teaching ability, but her desire to encourage learning,” Lichtenberger said. “Her efforts make her sincerely deserving of Northwestern’s Distinguished Secondary Teaching Award.”
Niles North High School, Skokie, Illinois
Emily Moy has fond memories of her honors chemistry teacher dancing around the class as students sang the song he made up to help them learn about the ionic charges on the periodic table. Sometimes the song still gets stuck in her head. She still applies the basics taught by her teacher John Kretsos to the STEM courses she takes today.
Kretsos coached Moy’s Science Olympiad team and helped her build a skill set beyond chemistry, giving her a strong foundation for her current engineering studies. He was always supportive and caring.
“He was always more than happy to stay after Science Olympiad practice to discuss everything from life beyond high school to his rock band to talking me out of getting a bad tattoo,” said Moy, a senior at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. “Even as I faced adversity in college, he was there for me.”
Kretsos said teaching has been an ideal combination of his love for science and human interaction.
“I have always seen the personal relationships between my students and me as the most important factor in maximizing their learning academically and their growth as young people struggling to find their voice and their place in the world,” Kretsos said. “I am deeply humbled to be considered for this recognition — more for the profession than for myself and most because it comes from students with whom I have been so fortunate to work.”
Metea Valley High School, Aurora, Illinois
It’s been a few years since Drew Bronson’s high school orchestra days, but he still plays his violin regularly. Once a self-proclaimed “hater of orchestral music,” Bronson said the influence of his teacher Mark Liu encouraged him to keep music a part of his life forever.
In fact, Bronson, a senior at Northwestern’s McCormick School, said music makes him a more creative engineer.
“Throughout my time at Northwestern, music has been my solace, my companion and my joy,” Bronson said. “Mr. Liu is responsible for almost all of it.”
Liu, who received his master’s degree in music from Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music in 2006, said teachers must not only believe strongly in what they teach, but even more strongly in the people they teach.
“Each student comes to our charge with his or her own story and unimaginable potential,” Liu said. “With patience, passion and persistence, we can help them blossom and unleash that potential.”
As a ringer for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and armed with a Ph.D. in music education, Liu could teach at the college level or pursue a full-time career in music performance, Bronson said.
Liu said his students often ask him why he enjoys teaching so much.
“My answer to them is always, ‘How cool is it that I get to work with future educators, doctors, engineers, scientists, CEO, artists and Nobel Prize winners.’”
As educators, Liu added, “We are in the business of possibility.”
Shaker Heights High School, Shaker Heights, Ohio
Shane McKeon, a senior at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, recalls his high school journalism instructor telling his class on the first day of “Journalism 101” to “Grab a pencil and some paper. Go out into the halls, and don’t come back until you’ve found five stories.”
“That’s basically what I do now,” McKeon said. “It’s what I want to do for the rest of my days.”
McKeon appreciates Natalie Sekicky’s dedication to teaching and remembers how she, along with the principal’s help, would scrape money together to send the “Shakerite” high school newspaper staff to journalism conventions where, over the years, they came back with many awards.
It’s important for Sekicky to instill in her journalism students that they must use their great powers for good. One has already gone on to win two Pulitzer Prizes for reporting.
“They must be challenged to take strong stances when others would prefer they stop paying attention,” Sekicky said. “And they must trust that their teacher will stand up for them when they do so.”
McKeon, who calls Sekicky the “finest high school journalism teacher in the country,” said she taught him to not only write clearly, but to think clearly.
“She was the rare adult in my life who never bought the fiction that righteous anger is a sign of immaturity,” McKeon said. “Natalie Sekicky never asked for thanks or recognition, but now, I’m going to insist upon it.”
Mountain View High School, Mountain View, California
Whether reading Shakespeare’s “King Lear” or Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” Allison Mark said her AP literature teacher pushed her to think deeper, teaching her skills to engage with and analyze literature.
Mark, a senior in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, said her teacher Esther Wu possessed “a boundless reserve of energy and passion that instilled as much dread and anxiety as it did admiration and inspiration.”
“Papers were handed back just days later, inked over with insights and constructive criticism, and college application essay readings outside of class were scheduled every week in the fall semester,” Mark said. Furthermore, she remembers Wu returning soon after the birth of her second child for some last-minute AP exam coaching and preparation.
Wu said it’s her job to create the conditions necessary for all students to learn to the best of their ability every day.
“Whenever I find myself buried beneath piles of papers to grade or stuck on how to improve a lesson, I stop and remember my students,” Wu said. “They inspire me to continually refine curriculum, instruction and assessments. They remind me that teaching is a craft rooted in relationships, which brings great joy.”
Wu’s high standards and unshakeable faith in her students taught them to only expect the best in themselves, Mark said.
“Ms. Wu, the superwoman that she is, truly cared for us and found time to knit us closer together as a class,” Mark said.
Niles West High School, Skokie, Illinois
Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences senior Barbara Gawin said English teacher Dana DesJardins goes above and beyond in her role as an educator.
“Throughout the year, she frequently met with all her students to check in with them,” Gawin said. “On the last day of class, she handed out poems that she had found and specifically chosen for each of us. Mine was so beautiful and such an accurate description of me that I almost cried."
DesJardins has been a public school teacher for 26 years. She said even after interacting with thousands of students over the years, they still surprise her.
“They still remind me it is imperative to be open and flexible, to read the emotional weather in the room and adapt accordingly,” she said.
DesJardins said an effective teacher “has a deep knowledge of the subject area, an abiding optimism and immense patience.”
Sanlida Cheng, director of humanities at Niles West, would also add thoughtful and considerate to that list of qualities — particularly as it pertains to DesJardins.
Cheng said DesJardins recently offered to teach a section of junior English as a favor to a colleague.
“Going into her final year before retirement, Dana could have asked to teach whatever she wanted, but she decided to help her colleague instead,” Cheng said. “Dana now teaches this course, differentiating the curriculum to meet the needs of very needy students and making systemic recommendations. I would give anything for a department full of Dana DesJardins, but I know there is only one.”
Milton Academy, Milton, Massachusetts
Arielle Ticho said history teacher Andrea Geyling-Moore taught her to look at the world through a critical social justice-oriented lens, inspiring the School of Education and Social Policy senior to commit to a career in urban teaching.
[She] “made sure to make the topics we read about and discussed in class come alive through inviting speakers to class and having us interact with the world beyond the classroom walls,” Ticho said.
When Geyling-Moore first started teaching, she began with an international focus. However, she said teaching and living have taught her the importance of also focusing locally.
“Indeed, investing oneself locally can have significant connections with national and global issues, as I try to help my students realize, and as my students’ own stories often exemplify,” Geyling-Moore said.
Geyling-Moore, who has taught at Milton Academy since 1992, has developed a social justice course in which students explore issues of human rights, living wage, environmental justice, food insecurity and more. She requires students to make a weekly commitment to a service site off campus.
“I remain steadfast in my professional goal and personal hope: to prepare my students to be engaged in a world — locally and globally — that needs, more than ever, caring, motivated, skilled, knowledgeable citizens.”
Vivian Wu Wong, chair of the history and social sciences department at Milton Academy, said Geyling-Moore’s class indeed has had an impact on her former students.
“As we continue to hear from our alumni, these experiences were incredibly meaningful and continue to shape their outlook on the world today,” Wong said.
David Masunaga ’79
‘Iolani School, Honolulu, Hawaii
Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences senior Nicholas Yim was inspired by his high school math teacher to apply to Northwestern — a somewhat difficult decision, particularly when moving, as Yim described, from “a place full of gleaming white sand and turquoise waters.”
But Yim’s math teacher David Masunaga, a 1979 graduate of Northwestern, inspired Yim and his two brothers, now also Northwestern graduates, to pursue diverse educational learning experiences far from Hawaii.
“Mr. Masunaga cared more about his students’ learning than about their grades,” Yim said. “His classes allowed students to visualize different mathematical concepts with demonstrations and to directly experiment with mathematical theories.”
Furthermore, Yim said Masunaga believed students should show concern and do for others. Paying it forward, Yim has tutored students in several science courses at Northwestern and has served as a basketball coach for fourth-graders at an Evanston community center.
Masunaga said he has a “dogged and undying belief in the potential of young people.”
“Some subjects are inherently challenging, and no gimmicks can make them easy,” Masunaga said. “However, anything is possible when deeply committed teachers believe in their students and help them engage with the material.”
Aster Chin, the upper school dean at ‘Iolani School, said Masunaga is one of the most revered members of their faculty.
“At every alumni event, I always hear stories of how much they learned from ‘Mr. Mas’ and when asked which teacher has impacted them most, the answer is most often a resounding ‘Mr. Mas.’”
Oak Park and River Forest High School, Oak Park, Illinois
Ben Weiss, a senior at the School of Education and Social Policy, said he likely would have quit high school orchestra after his freshman year if it hadn’t been for his music teacher, Patrick Pearson.
“With Mr. Pearson at the helm of my high school orchestra class, I came ready and excited to practice and play every day,” Weiss said. “You worked hard in class because you truly didn’t want to disappoint him or let him down. He always carried a huge smile on his face, regardless of circumstance.”
Pearson, who has been teaching for more than 25 years, said teaching is part of his fiber. As a result, he said, “I rarely have to psych myself up for teaching or become nervous for teaching.”
One piece of advice Pearson offers to other teachers is, “Be yourself.”
“I think this trait is what sets me apart from many of my colleagues,” he said. “Because I am a music ensemble teacher/conductor/director, I have the unique luxury of having my students for four years. During those four years, I have the opportunity to really get to know the students, and they really get to know me.”
Allan Dennis, founder and president of the Midwest Young Artists Conservatory, said it’s hard to think of anyone more deserving than Pearson for this honor.
“His commitment to his students, as a role model and because of his commitment to youth, especially to providing opportunities for youth who might not have the support system that other students might, make him a most logical choice for this wonderful award,” he said.
John Hancock College Prep High School, Chicago
To Osbeyda Navarrete there is one high school teacher in particular who stands out and remains a constant source of support and motivation.
English teacher Raymond Salazar challenged and pushed his students to continue to do their best, Navarrete said.
“One of the things that I really appreciated about him was that he didn’t accept our excuses when trying to turn in late or incomplete assignments,” said Navarrete, a senior in the School of Education and Social Policy. “This really helped me be prepared for college and work hard on every single assignment.”
Since graduating from high school, Navarette has from time to time consulted with his former mentor to discuss matters such as career options.
“Mr. Salazar is the type of teacher that doesn’t forget about students once they are no longer in his class…he is the type of teacher that becomes a mentor afterwards.”
Salazar said so much of his work is helping students realize the strength they already possess, but he also recognizes they are not invincible.
“The election results make us see a new vicious reality that many of students will have to confront,” Salazar said. “This is why part of my work — besides teaching writing — also has to include helping students prepare to confront — but not tolerate — the ugly realities of trying to lead a better life.”
Karen Boran, principal of John Hancock College Prep High School, said all of Salazar’s achievements in the classroom still do not cover his impact.
“He pushes kids to think deeper, to work harder and to become their best possible selves,” she said.
Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences senior Ryan Kenney said English teacher Daniel Conti tirelessly guides and supports his students until they have the confidence and capability to meet his expectations.
“By prioritizing learning over achievement and by imparting his passion for learning and teaching at every opportunity, Mr. Conti demonstrates his exceptional ability to foster a love of learning among all of his students,” Kenney said.
Conti, who has taught English at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Sudbury, Massachusetts, since 1994, said early on in his teaching career he learned that teaching wasn’t about him, it was about the students -- after which he said many more lessons have followed.
“First: teaching is an act of faith,” Conti said. “We spend an incalculable amount of time and energy on our students, and, yet, we may never see the fruits of our labors. We trust that our students will be better students, better citizens, better people for having been in our classrooms.”
Conti is “a true servant leader to his students,” Kenney said.
“I had many friends in Mr. Conti’s classes who weren’t exceptionally drawn to English as a subject, but who nonetheless matured as students and gained remarkable confidence in themselves and their abilities by simply being a student in Mr. Conti’s class,” he said.
Eleanor Burke, housemaster at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, has supervised Conti’s teaching for seven years and said he is a teacher who literally opens students’ worldview.
“Every time I watch Dan’s class, I see small miracles,” Burke said. “We all leave the room feeling something is right with the world."
Chemistry teacher Linda Ford said the greatest compliment to her teaching is the overheard remark as the bell rings, “What? Class is over already!”
“It tells me that I have orchestrated a communal learning experience that caused time to fly by,” said Ford who teaches chemistry and AP chemistry, as well as an elective environmental science class for juniors and seniors, at The Seven Hills School in Cincinnati.
Ford’s passion for teaching and joy for learning is contagious and evident to her students, said McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science senior Katherine Cirulli, citing how Ford has transformed the way she thinks about and solves problems, both inside and outside of the classroom.
“Her curriculum and teaching style well prepared me for the exams and problem sets I have completed throughout my time at Northwestern,” Cirulli said. “These critical thinking skills have been the backbone of the way I learn and study at Northwestern.”
Ford would demonstrate a new chemistry experiment using music and costumes to enhance teaching about chemical concepts they were learning in class, which was especially helpful to Cirulli, who calls herself a “visual learner.”
Ford said that’s by design.
“I use music, special lighting, costumes, props and poetry to connect all of their senses to chemistry,” she said.
But props aside, her courses are known to be so challenging that students adjust their course loads around them, said Susan S. Marrs, assistant head of school at Seven Hills.
“Linda gives only her best every single day, and that’s what she expects -- and gets -- from her students as well,” Marrs said. “Linda is a teacher kids remember and appreciate all their lives.”
Weinberg senior Emma Feder fondly recalls Ben Hartnell, her history teacher at Westerville North High School running through the hallway screaming, “Freedom!” at the top of his lungs while wielding a fake sword and dressed in William Wallace attire a la “Braveheart.”
“Dr. Hartnell’s uniforms are a staple of his classroom experience,” Feder said. “He frequently teaches in full costume to help bring history to life for his students.”
Hartnell, who has been teaching for 15 years, said students need to “buy in” to what you’re essentially “selling” them.
“Everything I do, create and wear, I do for my students in my never-ending pursuit of making history feel real,” he said. “I literally try to bring history to life on a daily basis!”
Hartnell also is known for his blue book exams.
“Although daunting at first, Dr. Hartnell’s blue book whipped my writing and study skills into shape at a time in my life when I was determining what type of student I wished to become,” Feder said.
“His course shaped me not only as a student but also as a person, and I do not believe that I would have developed the same skills and self-motivation had I not spent that time in his classroom,” she said.
Students should always be the focus of teaching, Hartnell stressed. His hands-on approach to teaching -- using costumes, reenactments or protests -- benefits all types of students regardless of their unique abilities, he said.
“This produces students that are excited about education and creates a wonderful atmosphere not only in Room #135, but around the high school and community,” Hartnell said.
McCormick senior Rene Romo said his high school calculus teacher Barbara Kane managed to get an entire class excited about a subject and to strive for the same goal.
Kane’s ability to motivate her students led to a high of more than 75 percent of AP Calculus students at Morton East High School in Cicero, Illinois, passing the AP exam in 2013, which is 15 percent higher than the national average. That is especially noteworthy considering the school regularly falls below state standards in math.
Romo said what differentiates Kane from other teachers is the amount of work she’s willing to put in to ensure her students have all the resources they need. She provides tutoring and homework help every day before and after school and even comes in on Saturday in order to have students complete AP practice exams.
“Many students come into the classroom disinterested or thinking they have no chance of passing the exam, and before long they are doing everything they can to pass it,” Romo said. “And they enjoy doing it.”
A math teacher at Morton East since 1998, Kane said along the way she has developed techniques to demonstrate multiple ways to solve a problem and to identify the better or easier approaches. She’s also come to realize that the goal of teaching is not entirely about math.
“It’s truly about empowering the person,” Kane said. “Teaching is about getting each individual student to develop their own goals in the classroom that translate into goals in life, while getting the entire class to work together as a unit to achieve them.”
For most of her life, Weinberg senior Thelma Godslaw grew up within a three-block radius of Lawndale, Hawthorne and Inglewood, California. She was content with the parameters of her immediate neighborhood -- that is until she set foot in Jose Romo’s Spanish class.
“I had never seen the beach, until I ran there with my two feet on our training routes,” recalls Godslaw, referring to her experience with “Students Run L.A.,” an organization that gives at-risk students the opportunity to prepare for running a marathon, which was coached by Romo.
Romo, who teaches Spanish and AP Spanish literature at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, went above and beyond to expose his students to the Latin culture through books, dance, music, art, plays and much more.
In addition to coaching “Students Run L.A., he organized the annual Cinco de Mayo celebration and advised the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan chapter at Leuzinger, showing Godslaw and other students how to stand up to injustice.
Inside Romo’s classroom, Godslaw not only learned to speak, read and write Spanish, she also fell in love with the culture of her Latina and Latino peers.
“This was no small feat,” Godslaw said. “My high school was not well funded, so the measures he took to expose us were personally funded, and his hours extended well into the weekend and weekday nights.”
Romo strongly believes the true test of his teaching is not when students do well on an assessment, but when they go out into the real world and put into practice what is most appropriate.
“Students sharing their life experiences, showing compassion for others, standing up for what they believe, these are the joys of teaching,” Romo said. “An invitation from a former student who is graduating from a university, even if it’s on the East Coast, brings me more joy than all my students passing a state mandated exam.”
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.
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.
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.”