Olmsted Awards 2014

Olmsted Prize for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching Recipients 2014

Williams College will award the annual George Olmsted Jr. Class of 1924 Prize for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching to four outstanding high school teachers on Saturday, June 7, at Ivy Exercises.

The recipients are: Sara Barber-Just, an English teacher at Amherst Regional High School in Amherst, Mass.; Seth Hersch, a history teacher at Gwinnet School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology in Lawrenceville, Ga.; Brian McDonald, a history teacher at Charles E. Jordan High School in Durham, N.C.; and Robert H. Shurtz, a physics and mathematics teacher at the Hawken School in Gates Mills, Ohio.

Each year, Williams seniors nominate high school teachers who played influential roles in their lives and learning. A committee of faculty, staff, and students chooses winners from among the nominees. Recipients of the award receive $3,000, and an additional $2,500 is given to each recipient’s school. The Olmsted Prize was established in 1976 with an endowment from the estates of George Olmsted Jr. and his wife, Frances.

Sara Barber-Just, Amherst Regional High School, Amherst, Massachusetts

Williams senior Daniel Lee says Sara Barber-Just “changed my life and made me a better man and student.” Barber-Just has taught at Amherst Regional High School (ARHS) since 1998. In 2002, she developed the first gay and lesbian literature class in an American public high school, a course that is now the most highly enrolled literature elective at ARHS.

“Mrs. Barber-Just challenged us to discuss and analyze complex and uncomfortable themes throughout the course,” Lee says. “Her deft skill in navigating the hiccoughs and road bumps that a group of high school students would naturally encounter was remarkable.”

Barber-Just continues to teach the course in gay and lesbian literature, as well as Literature as Social Criticism and Oral Communication, Journalistic Writing, American Literature and Nature, African American Literature, and individualized reading for English language learners mainstreaming into sophomore English courses. She earned a master’s degree in social justice education from Goddard College in 2002, won the Western Massachusetts Teachers as Writers Award in 2006, and received the Yale Educator Award in 2011.

“In the early years of my career, I realized the magic happens not only when students master a difficult concept,” Barber-Just says, “but also when they feel alive in the classroom—heard, respected, and empowered to move beyond any barriers to their learning.” Her work across boundaries and curricula has been highlighted in Sonia Nieto’s book Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education and in Goddard’s Clockworks Magazine with the Fall 2007 story “Pioneers of the Future.”

ARHS’s assistant principal Miki Gromacki applauds Barber-Just’s ability to “truly connect with all students, from the highly passionate, motivated students, to students who feel marginalized and who struggle in school.”

Barber-Just explains: “When parents send their children off to school, they do not simply want them to emerge as exemplary writers and thinkers, but also to feel safe and supported. I have spent the last 15 years making sure that is a not a dream, but a reality.”

Seth Hersch, Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology, Lawrenceville, Georgia (formerly at Peachtree Ridge High School, Suwanee, Georgia)

“Mr. Hersch pushes his students to look beyond the textbook and tests,” says Williams senior Sara Kang. “He provided me with the basic set of analytic skills I needed to attend a liberal arts college.” An Advanced Placement U.S. History and Government teacher, Seth Hersch has spent more than two decades teaching in facilities as diverse as a juvenile detention center, and suburban, urban, and rural schools.

“I have taught in nearly every type of public school configuration,” Hersch says. “I have learned that student intelligence is distributed equally across racial, ethnic, and social class lines. [Yet] student academic achievement varies widely and is largely social class based.” That’s why Hersch devotes much of his teaching energy to, as he says, “assisting physically, emotionally, and financially disabled students.”

Gwinnett School’s principal, IV Bray, explains that “regardless of the ability level of his students, Mr. Hersch seeks to help them master the curriculum and progress towards mastering their understanding of themselves, their learning, and the world around them.”

Hersch serves as a deputy voter registrar, helping students register to vote every spring. He coordinates an oral recitation contest during Black History Month, and he serves as the social studies department chair. He received a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant in the summers of 2011 and 2012, was named the Atlanta Toyota Inspirational Teacher of the Year in 2009 and 2010, and won the 2011 and 2012 STAR Teacher Award from the Gwinnett School. “Mr. Hersch encouraged me to keep my head clear and stay optimistic,” Kang says, adding that his encouragement is what brought her to Williams.

Brian McDonald, Charles E. Jordan High School, Durham, North Carolina

Lilliana Morris ‘14 credits Brian McDonald with her own interest in becoming a teacher, saying that if she can touch a fraction of the students he has, she will be a success. A history teacher, McDonald has developed courses such as Poverty in America and Minority Studies, bringing together students from across common groupings for what he calls “lecture-based discussions.”

“My teaching philosophy can be summarized in three concepts: rigor, engagement, and service,” McDonald says. Named the Claes Nobel Educator of the Year in 2013, voted by students the Most Inspirational Teacher in 2007, 2011, and 2012, and a fellow at the University of North Carolina’s Center for Poverty, Work, and Opportunity (2010-2011), McDonald sets high standards—and students jump at the chance to meet them.

“Mr. McDonald establishes a safe space where anyone can feel comfortable asking questions,” Morris says of the class’s frequent conversations about poverty and wealth, race and discrimination. “His ability to casually engage students in cross cultural dialogue leads to friendship and understanding.”

Says principal Jerome Leathers, “Brian McDonald’s love for history is one that is revealed through his students long after they have left the classroom. The experience leaves them changed.” McDonald is the author of Not the End, but the Beginning: The Impact of Race and Class on the History of Jordan High School (Patterson & Quinn Press, 2013) and “‘Tell me, I’ll Forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand’: Bridging Instruction with Prior and Existing Knowledge” (NC Social Studies Newsletter). He is an on-site coordinator and an adjunct lecturing fellow at Duke University and an AP Liaison for the Durham Public Schools.

Robert H. Shurtz, Hawken School, Gates Mills, Ohio

“Mr. Shurtz organized his syllabus so that our physics unit on the concept of torque came right before Thanksgiving, just so he could wish us a ‘Happy Torque-y Day,’” says Williams senior Charles Hermann. “His constant jokes and enthusiasm in the classroom kept everyone engaged and laughing even as we maintained a rigorous pace.”

Robert Shurtz has taught computer programming, chemistry, physics, calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra at the Hawken School for nearly three decades. He is the founding director of STEMM Pathways, a three-semester class involving close work with research mentors from NASA, Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Clinic, and other such institutions. He coached the U.S. Physics Team for eight years and serves as the Hawken School Debate Coach. A winner of the Yale Teaching Award, the MIT Distinguished Teaching Award, and a Tandy Teaching Scholarship, Shurtz was inducted into the Ohio High School Speech League Coaching Hall of Fame.

Shurtz credits his teaching success with his infectious enthusiasm for physics and calculus, as well as for his students, adding, “My penchant for acting out phenomena such as molecules moving in a gas or pretending to be a wave propagating across the room and my love of physics and math puns” keeps things interesting in the classroom. Shurtz developed a course he calls “AP Fizzcalc” that fully integrates the calculus and physics curricula.

Hermann—a physics major who credits his success at Williams to that AP Fizzcalc class, says, “Mr. Shurtz has the incredible ability to not only teach well, but to motivate students to want to do well for themselves.”

Jon Asbornsen, chairman of the science department at Hawken, agrees: “The impact Bob has had through his efforts as a teacher and mentor have helped to shape a generation of passionate professionals driven to understand the physical world.”