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Northwestern honors teachers who pushed students 'to go beyond the coursework'

Graduating seniors pay tribute to educators whose lasting impact continues to inspire them

EVANSTON - From a student who plans to pursue a career in research to another who vows to keep music a part of his life forever, a group of Northwestern University seniors reflect on and pay tribute to the exceptional high school teachers who have had a lasting impact on their lives through the 2018 Northwestern University Distinguished Secondary Teacher Awards (DSTA).

Five high school teachers who through their professional and personal commitment inspired graduating Northwestern seniors will join their former students and each receive their award during an honors ceremony June 21. They also will be recognized at the University’s commencement ceremony June 22.

The awards honor high school teachers who have touched the lives of Northwestern students and carry an award of $5,000 for each teacher and $5,000 for each of their schools.

The DSTA recipients are Katherine Konyar; John Kretsos; Mark Liu; Natalie Sekicky; and Esther Wu. The recipients teach in high schools across the country, including public schools in California, Illinois and Ohio.

The awards are sponsored by the Office of the President. Eugene Lowe, assistant to Northwestern President Morton Schapiro and senior lecturer in religious studies, chaired the 2018 selection committee, which works closely with the School of Education and Social Policy.

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 continue to be inspired every year by the teachers our students nominate for this award,” President Schapiro said. “Their unwavering support of students, their dedication to teaching and their unyielding faith in every student’s potential have left an indelible mark on our students and also on Northwestern.”

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 2019 will open in October 2018.

Kevin Corkran, the student co-chair, has been a member of the selection committee for the past three years and said the most rewarding part of the DSTA selection process is hearing the multitude of stories of impactful teachers.

“Every student deserves a teacher in their corner, who has their back,” said Corkran, who will be graduating in June from Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy with degrees in social policy and economics. “This inspired me to become a teacher. I will teach chemistry next year back home in Florida.” 

“The award encourages students to nominate educators who not only challenged them academically, but encouraged their growth outside the classroom as well,” Lowe said. “Now in its eighth year, the recognition of these extraordinary educators in the commencement ceremony is now a valued Northwestern tradition.”

Distinguished Secondary Teacher Awards

Katherine Konyar
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.

Katherine Konyar
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.”

John Kretsos
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.

John Kretsos
John Kretsos

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.”

Mark Liu ’06
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.

Mark Liu
Mark Liu

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.”

Natalie Sekicky
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.”

Natalie Sekicky
Natalie Sekicky

“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.”

Esther Wu
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.

Esther Wu
Esther Wu

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.