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Northwestern honors teachers who helped students become ‘academically curious’

Graduating seniors pay tribute to extraordinary educators whose dedication and compassion continues to inspire

One was a “personal hero.” Another “pushed us as human beings.” A third made students “academically curious.” These are just a few of the lasting impressions Northwestern University seniors wrote about when paying tribute to their exceptional high school teachers.

Five high school teachers from across the country are being recognized with the 2020 Northwestern University Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award (DSTA) for their professional and personal commitment to graduating Northwestern seniors. The awards carry a stipend of $5,000 for each teacher and $5,000 for each of their schools.

The DSTA recipients are Joseph Brysiewicz, John DeRose, Maria Hiaasen, Kristen Kirschner and Diana Niemann. The recipients teach in public schools in Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina and Wisconsin and a private school in Louisiana. The teachers will be recognized during Northwestern’s virtual commencement ceremony on June 19.

The awards are sponsored by the Office of the PresidentEugene Lowe, assistant to Northwestern President Morton Schapiro and senior lecturer in religious studies, chaired the 2020 selection committee, which works with the School of Education and Social Policy.

The committee, which includes undergraduate students, reviews nominations and teacher portfolios to select a group of finalists, who are then interviewed with the assistance of NUIT Academic and Research Technologies.

“We never cease to be amazed and inspired by the stories our graduating seniors share with us about their high school teachers in the nomination process,” President Schapiro said. “As they prepare to graduate from Northwestern, the fact that these students remember their teachers’ words of wisdom, innovative teaching, faith and compassion is a testament to these extraordinary educators’ dedication to their students.”

In selecting the winners, the 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 philosophies and letters of recommendation. The nomination period for the Class of 2021 will open in October. 

“This award is now in its 10th year and a celebrated Northwestern tradition,” Lowe said. “So many of our students have benefitted from having truly exceptional high school teachers whose commitment to their academic and personal growth has left a lasting impression.”

Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Awards

Joseph Brysiewicz

Highland Park High School, Highland Park, Illinois

School of Education and Social Policy senior Jack Benjamin calls his high school teacher Joseph Brysiewicz a “personal hero.” Drawn to his lively and fast-paced European history lectures, Benjamin said “Bryz,” as he’s affectionally called by students, “has an encyclopedic knowledge of world history and current events alike.”

“He always had an answer for every question,” Benjamin said, “and his passion for history, art and culture was contagious.” 

Brysiewicz says developing students’ gifts and nurturing their passion for learning require a teacher to move beyond favorite theories and instructional strategies. 

“I still believe that making mistakes and taking risks are the hallmark of a joyful classroom and lay the foundation of culturally responsive instruction,” he said. 

For Benjamin, Brysiewicz left him academically curious along with some parting words he’d never forget. 

“On the final day of my senior year, he imparted his sagest wisdom,” Benjamin recalled. 

“‘Your life doesn’t begin after high school, or after college, or after you get a job. It began as soon as you were born, and every day counts, so make the most of it.’” 

John DeRose

Whitefish Bay High School, Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin

Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences senior Carter Rothman credits his high school AP history teacher for teaching him the critical thinking skills he’d need to succeed at Northwestern.

“As a political science major, developing theses, defending them and making connections across sources of information and time periods are skills that I use every time I take a midterm or final,” Rothman said. “Whenever I complete one, I think of Dr. DeRose and the experience that I gained from being in his classroom.” 

DeRose realizes that while few of his students may go on to major in history, he understands how critical it is to train students to think like historians. 

“Having students who have had a wide range of interests in studying history when they first entered my classroom tell me how much their time spent with me improved their critical thinking, writing and decision-making skills, particularly at the university level, has been gratifying,” DeRose said.

For Rothman, DeRose’s personal and professional excellence both stand out. 

“While I am always appreciative of excellent educators, Dr. DeRose is truly distinguishable because of the compassion and friendliness that he conveys to his students,” Rothman said. 

Maria Hiaasen

Dulaney High School, Timonium, Maryland

Sumin Woo described herself as a quiet 15-year-old who loved writing but didn’t know what to do with that interest — until she had Maria Hiaasen as a high school English teacher and student newspaper advisor.

“Mrs. Hiaasen cultivated my love of the English language both as an art and a medium to share news,” said Woo, a senior at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. “She pushed us as writers, but also as human beings, because she knew we could work harder, write better and create something we could truly be proud of.”

Hiaasen acknowledges her AP English course workload is rigorous and strives to be aware of the stressors students face today.

“I do believe that responding with empathy to students is fundamental to teaching — especially in this age when teenagers report higher levels of anxiety than ever,” Hiaasen said.  

Looking back, Woo appreciates that Hiaasen stood up for her reporters when administrators complained about stories students were writing or questions they were asking.

“She was the one who taught us how to dig,” Woo said. “To me, Mrs. Hiaasen exemplifies persistence and the value of developing a strong work ethic.”

Kristen Kirschner

Episcopal School of Baton Rouge, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Medill senior Gabrielle Bienasz remembers English teacher Kristen Kirschner as an incredible teacher and mentor who inspired a lifelong love for American literature. When they weren’t discussing “The Great Gatsby” or “Raisin in the Sun,” Bienasz and her friends often still gathered in Kirschner’s classroom for extracurricular activities.

Kirschner’s classroom has become known as a “safe space” for students to gather during their free periods. She says her classroom is a space where everyone belongs.

“Each year, I am amazed by the great fortune I have of only knowing about 20 percent of what my job will be,” Kirschner said. “In my 12 years as a secondary educator, my students have led me to coach debate, host poetry slams, sponsor improv comedy shows and more. The only certainty is that the unknown variables will be more thrilling than I could ever plan for.”

Bienasz said Kirschner helped shape her as a writer.

“I asked Mrs. Kirschner to look over one of my pieces,” Bienasz recalled. “She handed back this page full of red ink, and after taking her suggestions, I thought, ‘Wait, there’s a real poem in there.’ Subsequently, I found there was a poet in me, too.”  

Diana Niemann

South Mecklenburg High School, Charlotte, North Carolina

As a high school junior interested in STEM, Kristen Barnes learned the value of a mentor. As a racial and gender minority, Barnes said having a mentor — and someone she could relate to — was a defining factor in her decision to pursue engineering.

For the McCormick School of Engineering senior, AP science teacher Diana Niemann was that person.  

“Mrs. Niemann recognized the potential in my quiet and shy junior-year personality,” Barnes said. “She saw my interest in STEM and introduced me to relevant classes, science and math summer programs, and engineering scholarships.”

Even today Barnes finds comfort in Niemann’s words and past lessons to get her through challenging times.

Niemann can relate. Growing up, she herself was one of those students labeled “at risk,” but a teacher saw her academic potential.

“I believe we are all born with a talent, but we aren’t all presented with opportunities to help us reach our potential,” Niemann said. “The No. 1 factor that drives my teaching is ensuring my students have every opportunity to be successful, no matter what they determine ‘success’ to be.”