Northwestern celebrates teachers who helped students ‘find their own success’
Graduating seniors pay tribute to educators whose dedication and mentorship continues to encourage
One student credits her teacher for bringing discussions of race and identity into her life for the first time, another student said his teacher prompted his interest in electrical engineering by exposing him to the world of research and real-world problem solving. While these Northwestern University seniors had distinct educational experiences, they each had a high school teacher who played an influential role in their lives.
Five graduating seniors pay tribute to their exceptional high school teachers through the 2019 Northwestern University Distinguished Secondary School 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 20. They also will be recognized at the University’s commencement ceremony June 21.
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 Jeff Berger-White; Sherry Brooks; Ruth Moonesinghe; Robert Shurtz; and Matthew Whipple. The recipients teach in high schools across the country, including public schools in California, Illinois and Iowa, and an Ohio independent school.
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 2019 selection committee, which works with the cooperation of the School of Education and Social Policy.
The committee, which includes undergraduates, reviews nominations and teacher portfolios to select a group of finalists, who are then interviewed with the assistance of NUIT Academic and Research Technologies.
“The Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Awards recognize an amazing group of individuals who inspired and educated our students before they came to Evanston,” President Schapiro said. “Northwestern is a better university because of these extraordinary teachers’ dedication to our students.”
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 2020 will open in October 2019.
“Our graduating seniors remember those unforgettable teachers who influenced them both academically and personally,” Lowe said. “Now in its ninth year, the recognition of these extraordinary educators in the commencement ceremony is now a valued Northwestern tradition.”
Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Awards
Deerfield High School, Deerfield, Illinois
Emma Meyerhoff engaged in conversations about inequality for the first time in her high school English class and credits her teacher for bringing discussions of race and identity into her life.
“My high school was extremely homogenous, and I had very little interaction with people of color in my town,” said Meyerhoff, a senior in Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy. “Mr. Berger-White introduced poems and novels into our curriculum so that we could read works by authors of color. He did not shy away from the hard conversations but showed me that it is okay to lean into my discomfort and have conversations that challenge me.”
English teacher Jeff Berger-White said that teaching writers like James Baldwin, Danez Smith, Eula Biss and Claudia Rankine has been essential in opening up these conversations. He believes that learning is often a messy, complicated human process that depends on a lot more than metrics.
“The long-lasting impacts of a course matter as much as anything, and is something that cannot be easily measured,” he said. “I want my students’ minds to be alive with the language of literature and ideas. They must see themselves as engines that power the classroom.”
Every day he reads a poem to all his classes, not for analysis, but for enjoyment and consideration.
“His poem choices helped guide me through our course and many of them stuck with me beyond high school,” Meyerhoff said. “I will forever be grateful for his dedication to helping shape the minds of young adults.”
Central Academy, Des Moines, Iowa
Ariana Moore recalls being very shy growing up and being terrified to share her observations and analyses in school -- until she entered Sherry Brooks’ high school English class.
“She forced people to collaborate and interact with the text,” said Moore, a senior in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “She fostered a great love of literature even in the student who much preferred to be in chem lab.”
Moore said Brooks pushed students to their intellectual limits.
“I had just started to break out of my shell. I was raising my hand in class to share critical analysis, even if I hadn’t rehearsed the exact words I was going to say 10 times over in my head,” she said.
Brooks often wondered whether she was going about teaching the right way and acknowledges that her teaching approach over the years has evolved because of her own life experiences. She said she now feels the need to be very open with her students.
“Once they see me as a person who struggles and questions and doesn’t know everything, they are willing to work with me to find their own answers and learn it is okay to struggle and question and not know everything,” Brooks said. “I think the best way to be a good teacher is to struggle along with your students, whether with the curriculum or with yourself.”
South Pasadena High School, South Pasadena, California
Ruth Moonesinghe’s teaching record: More than 95 percent of her students get a 5 on the AP Calculus AB and BC exams.
“She is constantly challenging her students to excel,” said Joanna Wan, a Weinberg senior. “Her teaching record exemplifies her effort.”
“Mathematics is only a vehicle that mirrors the challenges of life,” Moonesinghe said. “By beginning with a set of constraints, one must use the principles that are proven to be true, to make something make sense to find an answer. We go to class every day, the kids and I, and we work on solving problems. Metaphorically, this is what makes the numbers come to life.”
Moonesinghe’s students have nicknames for her — "Ruthless" for her high expectations and "Mamasinghe" for her caring devotion.
In addition to being an excellent educator, Wan said Moonesinghe engages in charity efforts and is devoted to alumni engagement — organizing an event that provides an opportunity for recent alumni and high school graduates to meet current high school students.
Moonesinghe’s goal is to have her students develop a mindset that will push them every day — especially after they leave her class.
“I think of my students as young workers, five years down the road, working on a project at their workplace,” she said. “When they are given certain constraints, they must analyze the situation, use all the resources that are available to them, work with their team, and then use their knowledge to complete the project in the most efficient way. This is who they will become.”
Hawken School, Gates Mills, Ohio
For Robert Gray, the Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) program at his high school prompted his interest in electrical engineering — a path he’s now pursuing at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. The teacher who led that program — and taught him in math and physics — Robert Shurtz, influenced him greatly.
“He has a clear mastery of the material he teaches, which allows him to give students an intuitive understanding of the problems they are solving,” Gray said. “Beyond that, he has many great quirky sayings and lab demonstrations, which he utilizes to make learning the fundamentals much easier. This gave me a strong baseline understanding of physics and math, which I have built upon in college.”
Shurtz, who also has been coaching the debate team at Hawken for 34 years, said one of the most important things his students have taught him is that they love being challenged.
“My demanding style is accompanied by a high level of support,” Shurtz said. “Students can reach me with questions via phone, text or email virtually any time any day. I encourage students when they are struggling a bit, and I cajole them when they are slacking.”
Gray said Shurtz’s support extended outside the classroom as well, attending many students’ extracurricular events to cheer them on.
“Mr. Shurtz helped to expose me to the world of research and real-world problem solving for the first time,” Gray said. “I can say with certainty that I would not be the student or person that I am today without the influence of Mr. Shurtz.”
Matthew Whipple ’88
Glenbrook South High School, Glenview, Illinois
Weinberg senior Avi Dravid recognizes his social studies teacher Matthew Whipple for pushing him and his fellow classmates to think outside their “parochial worldviews and adopt a more global perspective.”
“Mr. Whipple encouraged students to learn all they could about the world and become educated global citizens with a strong sense of empathy and keen analytical skills,” Dravid said.
Dravid describes a class assignment in which students were assigned a country and tasked with writing related weekly reports.
“This gave me a much greater awareness of what was happening in the world and the role the United States plays in shaping world events,” he said.
Whipple said he approaches education with two goals in mind — helping students self-actualize and globalize.
“My purpose in the classroom is to syncretize these two goals and find ways to share the power of this thinking with all students,” he said. “It is my responsibility to prepare students to enter the world with the tools they need to find their own success.”
Dravid said Whipple, also a Northwestern alumnus, has continued to be a valuable mentor to him, putting him in touch with Northwestern professors who shared his same academic interests.
As for Whipple, he said it’s been his great fortune to be a teacher.
“While much has changed in my field, at the core remain the relationships I have established and the goals I have shared with students.”