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Honoring High School Educators Who Make a Difference

Teachers will be recognized at Northwestern honors ceremony and commencement

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Five high school teachers who had “transformative effects” on the lives of graduating Northwestern University seniors they once taught will join their former students and each receive a special award during an honors ceremony (June 18) and commencement (June 19) at Northwestern.

The educators are the recipients of the fifth annual Northwestern University Distinguished Secondary Teacher Awards. They honor high school teachers who have touched the lives of Northwestern students and carry an award of $2,500 for each teacher and $2,500 for each of their schools.

The awards are co-sponsored by the Associated Student Government and the Office of the PresidentEugene Lowe, assistant to Northwestern President Morton Schapiro and senior lecturer in religious studies, chaired the 2015 selection committee. The committee reviews student nominations and teacher portfolios to select a group of finalists. Finalists are interviewed with the assistance of NUIT Academic and Research Technologies.

“Honoring these high school teachers who have played such an important role in our students’ journeys to Northwestern is one of my favorite parts of commencement,” President Schapiro said.

In selecting the winners, the selection committee considered essays from seniors about their former high school teachers. They also considered portfolios submitted by the nominated teachers that included an explanation of their teaching philosophy and letters of recommendation. The nomination period for the Class of 2016 will open this summer, following commencement.

The 2015 recipients teach in high schools across the country, including public schools in Buffalo Grove, Illinois; Brooklyn, New York; Lawrence, Kansas; Plano, Texas; and Stockton, California.

“This is always a thrill, reading the essays from our students about the high school teachers who touched their lives with so much wisdom and humility,” Lowe said. “And their participation in the commencement ceremony is now a tradition that we all revere.”  

Northwestern University Secondary School Teaching Award 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.