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Extraordinary high school teachers receive distinguished awards

Graduating Northwestern seniors pay tribute to educators who left a lasting impact

From making students feel safe and accepted to encouraging them to dream big and think outside the box, this year’s Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Awardees (DSSTA) have shaped their students’ lives in various, meaningful ways.
Given annually to five teachers from amongst nominations submitted by graduating seniors, the Northwestern University Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award honors excellent high school teachers from around the world for their professional and personal commitment to students. The awards carry a stipend of $5,000 for each teacher and $5,000 for each of their schools.
The 2022 DSSTA recipients are Chris Buckner, Lidia Ortiz, Shanté Reed, David Ross and Nilda Villalta. They will be honored during Northwestern’s 164th Commencement Ceremony on Monday, June 13.
Sponsored by the Office of the President with cooperation from the School of Education and Social Policy and supported by the Associated Student Government, the awards recognize the transformational power of teachers in our lives and communities. To choose winners, a selection committee comprising Northwestern faculty, staff and students considers essays from graduating seniors about their former high school teachers. Nominated teachers also submit letters of recommendation and teaching portfolios, which explain their philosophies on education.
“This year’s winning teachers are an inspiring group that truly captures the spirit of the awards,” said Northwestern President Morton Schapiro. “Their imagination, empathy, dedication and passion for serving have left a lasting impression on their students and made Northwestern a better place.”
“These awards, now in their 12th year, are a storied Northwestern tradition,” said Eugene Lowe, assistant to Schapiro and senior lecturer in religious studies, who chaired the selection committee. “The winning teachers not only support their students in the classroom but at after-school events as well. Some even continue to mentor our students today. We are glad to show our appreciation for this exceptional group.”

Chris Buckner

Oley Valley High School, Oley, Pennsylvania

Without technology teacher Chris Buckner, Shannon Lackey might never have pursued a degree in engineering. But Buckner’s ability to explain engineering principles in bold, hands-on ways instilled a passion for engineering in many of his students — including Lackey.

Chris Buckner
Chris Buckner

“Chris Buckner is single-handedly the reason I am the engineer I am today,” said Lackey, a senior in the McCormick School of Engineering. “His encouragement of dreaming big and thinking outside the box has shaped how I approach every engineering problem today.”
By challenging his students to learn “through their fingertips,” Buckner found students best learn about engineering and manufacturing through hands-on building. His classroom is filled with drafting tables and traditional woodshop equipment, so students can design and build their own projects.

“When we created the engineering program, we designed it around project-based learning concepts,” Buckner said. “I would teach a concept, then students would have a project that they would have to build to explore that concept.”
In Buckner’s class, for example, students built a marble sorter in order to learn about simple machines, electrical circuits and computer programming. Students used these concepts to design a machine capable of sorting 27 marbles of various colors and sizes. The assignment was difficult, causing many students to struggle. But, to Buckner, that was part of the lesson.
“No design ever worked the first time,” he said. “Students had to modify and/or redesign their machine multiple times. It took me time to learn that I had to let them struggle and have aspects of their designs fail without giving them a solution to their problem. They had to find the solution on their own.”
Learning how to iterate to solve complex problems made Lackey better equipped to tackle design and coding challenges. After being inspired by Buckner, she entered several Technology Student Association competitions — and won. When her project advanced to nationals, Buckner raised money and organized the trip, even using his vacation days to attend the competition with his students.
“He knew just how important qualifying for nationals was, and he wanted us to experience our accomplishments to their fullest,” Lackey said. “He made me a dreamer and an engineer, and I am so thankful for the trajectory he helped me realize.”

Lidia Ortiz

Northside College Prep High School, Chicago

Even though Xanh Quang met biology teacher Lidia Ortiz five years ago, he still remembers it like it was yesterday. When Quang’s original biology teacher abruptly departed in the middle of the school year, Ortiz took over teaching for the rest of the term.

Lidia Ortiz
Lidia Ortiz

“When she walked in through that door frame, we knew she meant business,” said Quang, a senior in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “The air in that third-floor classroom completely changed. Ms. Lidia Ortiz appeared — and I loved it.”
Students, including Quang, immediately felt Ortiz’s passion for biology and for teaching. Instead of making science feel like a difficult topic reserved only for the most studious students, Ortiz adjusted her lessons to meet students where they are. She also opened students’ eyes, making them abandon assumptions about science and realize it exists everywhere and is embodied in all aspects of life.

“Science is a human endeavor, where we all search to better understand the world around us,” Ortiz said. “Therefore, ‘no one is bad at science.’”
Completely immersed by Ortiz’s lively and accessible approach, Quang was in awe.
“Ms. Ortiz lit a flame in life,” he said. “She never wasted a single word, not even a single breath, as she taught us about life itself … Ms. Ortiz’s passionate teaching helped revive my natural curiosity for the world.”
By making science accessible, Ortiz empowers students to speak up and join the conversation. She believes teaching is a two-way street that embraces student feedback and encourages group participation.
“The collective nature of the experience necessitates that student voice be invited, encouraged and fostered as it is essential to democratic and engaged classrooms,” she said. “When my students are empowered to use their voices, the learning is more meaningful and authentic for the entire community.”
In addition to rigorous scientific concepts, Ortiz includes popular topics — strategy games, global health topics and Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter — to keep students engaged.
“[I want] to help my students understand that scientific reasoning is a way of approaching life, rather than simply a process to be adhered to in the four walls of a science classroom,” Ortiz said. “I can best guide my students toward meaningful understanding by allowing them repeated exposure to the same knowledge in new contexts.” 

Shanté Reed

DeLaSalle High School, Minneapolis, Minnesota

As an English language and literature teacher, Shanté Reed does not focus exclusively on reading and writing. Instead, she uses literature as a vehicle to help students learn more about the world and their place in it. This includes leading complex conversations about race, gender and class.

Shante Reed
Shanté Reed

Reed’s approach made an indelible mark on Karina Karbo-Wright, who took Reed’s AP English course during their junior year. Karbo-Wright appreciated being introduced to Black author Zora Neale Hurston and films like “13th,” which explores the U.S. prison-industrial complex.
“As a poor Black student, this was invaluable to my critical lens development and comfort at our school,” said Karbo-Wright, a student in Weinberg. “Black adults in leadership positions with students have a ‘double job’ to do their actual job as a teacher but also the labor of being a Black person and supporting Black students in these spaces. Ms. Reed was willing to sacrifice job security and personal safety within the classroom to help us develop our critical lens and provide invaluable support and validation to Black students.”

Reed understands the importance of making these personal connections with her students — and acknowledging their humanity. Like many of the students who attend the private Catholic school in the Lasallian tradition, Reed’s family struggled financially.
“For students who come from a similar economic background as my own, I understand the complexities of their lives in a way that most of my colleagues do not,” Reed said. “I know that growing up in poverty isn’t all bad, and I know what it means for school to not just be the place you are required to go, but a place that you believe holds the key to a better life for you and the people you care most about. Sharing who I am and where I come from with my students — and showing a sincere desire to learn about their lives — is an integral part of developing a relationship built on trust and respect.”
This connection with Reed inspired Karbo-Wright to change their focus from pre-med to African American studies.
“Now that I am at Northwestern, I believe Ms. Reed played a big part in that,” Karbo-Wright said. “She was the first person I wanted to tell when I decided to choose a career path in African American studies.”

David Ross

Madison West High School, Madison, Wisconsin

Aurora Greane’s fondest memory of David Ross is walking into his philosophy class and hearing “jovial beatboxing.”

David Ross
David Ross

“The door creaked shut and the 30 or so seniors, bundled in coats and slouching in chairs from typical teenage sleep deprivation all raised eyes from phones and textbooks to gape as our philosophy teacher busted out some surprisingly great beatboxing beats,” said Greane, a dual-degree student in the Bienen School of Music and McCormick.
By using spontaneity and playfulness, Ross imbues his class with “magic.” It is this balance between a comforting, steady rhythm and spontaneity that keeps students interested, active and engaged.

“There’s something about teaching that feels more like an art than a craft,” he said. “Something less tangible, a bit romanticized and yet indispensable. The classroom can be a place of magic.”
Aside from memorable moments like beatboxing, Ross quickly demonstrated talent for engaging all students — not just the overachievers. Greane noticed Ross’ patience and dedication to students who often missed class or did not fully complete assignments. During a conversation about the philosophy of art, for example, Ross asked students share personal examples of art with the class. Greane performed part of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 which led to a passionate discussion about classical music as art.
“Teaching involves a struggle and challenge to reach all students as best you can, cutting through indifference or resistance,” Ross said.
“I leave the door open and try to bring students back through it,” Ross said. “When they do come back to class or turn in that essay, this is magic.”
Ross continues to maintain relationships with his students even after they graduate. He attended Greane’s solo violin recital at Bienen. She also remembers reaching out to him requesting a reproductive justice article they had studied in his Social Issues class, and Ross “replied within hours.”
“I know of multiple students who return to West to visit him or meet him for coffee and some good old philosophical banter,” Greane said.
At the heart of discussion, in or out of class, is Ross’ commitment to democratic deliberation - truly engaging with ideas that differ from your own in respectful and productive ways. This belief informs all his classes and he believes it is necessary now more than ever.

Nilda Villalta

National Cathedral School, Washington, D.C.

According to Emmeline Leggett, Nilda Villalta is often described as one of the most supportive mentors at National Cathedral School. In addition to being a challenging teacher, Villalta is a caring and empathetic presence, who students rely on for support.

Nilda Villalta
Nilda Villalta

“She was known for being the teacher that you could go to for advice and help for issues outside the scope of her class,” said Leggett, a student in Weinberg. “Students who never even enrolled in her class would come to her, and she would never turn them away.”

Leggett experienced this support firsthand. When she needed help “navigating life’s challenges outside of the classroom, typical high school drama” and the pressures of applying to college, Leggett leaned on Villalta, who remained a steadfast source of encouragement and strength. Four years after graduating from high school, Leggett still texts Villalta every time she returns to D.C.
“She never shied away from the tough conversations, relating her own experience as an immigrant from El Salvador to what we were learning in class,” Leggett said. “These conversations stay with me always, giving me necessary perspective as I advance through college and pursue medicine.”
When developing her identity as an educator, Villalta embraced her caring and compassionate impulses. By deeply investing in relationships with students in her Spanish language and literature classes, Villalta nurtures learning, promotes growth and development and celebrates students’ individuality. Instead of seeing her class as merely students, she sees them as full, multi-faceted human beings with struggles, joys, aspirations and fears. In and out of the classroom, Villalta leads by example to make room for the growth of all students, to confront difficult conversations and to welcome other perspectives.
“Doctora Villalta not only challenged you as a student, but as a holistic person, to think critically and ethically,” Leggett said. “She made her students feel valued, giving special attention to those she noticed needed it most.”
“Teaching, for me, is more than just the practical ideas that make someone a ‘good’ teacher,” Villalta said. “Teaching is understanding the influence life experiences have on the way people think and absorb information…In addition to empathizing with students, it is crucial to assure them that life will go on even after their most challenging moments.”

The Potocsnak family has made a new gift to Northwestern in honor of President Morton Schapiro, who concludes his tenure in August after 13 years at the University. In tribute to Schapiro, the gift endows the Northwestern Academy for Chicago Public Schools as well as the Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award.