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Honors for inspiring high school teachers

Graduating seniors pay tribute to those who helped them along the way

Five high school teachers who through their professional and personal commitment inspired graduating Northwestern University seniors they once taught will join their former students and each receive a special award during an honors ceremony June 15 and commencement June 16 at Northwestern.

The educators are the recipients of the seventh annual Northwestern University Distinguished Secondary Teacher Awards (DSTA). The awards 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, co-chaired the 2017 selection committee, along with Christina Cilento, president of Associated Student Government. The committee reviews student nominations and teacher portfolios to select a group of finalists, who are then interviewed with the assistance of NUIT Academic and Research Technologies.

“We’re honored to recognize these outstanding high school teachers who went above and beyond their roles as educators and were nominated by members of our senior class,” President Schapiro said. “All of these teachers took an interest in our students both inside and outside of the classroom, and many still serve as mentors to our students today.”

In selecting the winners, the selection committee considered essays from seniors about their former high school teachers. Committee members 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 2018 will open this summer, following commencement.

The 2017 recipients teach in high schools across the country, including public schools in Chicago; Oak Park, Illinois; Skokie, Illinois; and private schools in Honolulu, Hawaii, and Milton, Massachusetts.

“The award encourages students to nominate educators who lit a spark within them,” Lowe said. “The recognition of these extraordinary educators in the commencement ceremony is now a valued Northwestern tradition.”

Northwestern University Secondary School Teaching Award recipients:

Dana DesJardins

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.” 

Andrea Geyling-Moore

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.’”

Patrick Pearson

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.

Raymond Salazar

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.