Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award Recipients
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.”
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 School 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, 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 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 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 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.
Winners of the 2012 Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award with President Schapiro, Special Assistant to the President Eugene Lowe, and Commencement Speaker Paul Farmer.
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.”
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 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 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.”
Winners of the 2011 Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award with President Schapiro, Special Assistant to the President Eugene Lowe, and Commencement Speaker Stephen Colbert.
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 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.”
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.)
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.